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How The West Was Won

I.

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.

Caplan writes:

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.

II.

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”.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

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935 Responses to How The West Was Won

  1. mywinningsmile says:

    Seems like you might want to read http://paulkingsnorth.net/books/real-england/

  2. Lucie says:

    Your universal culture is actually capitalist culture. It is a culture of poverty creating. Violently kicking people out onto the street because they can not get enough money…. Money by the way is a social construct and so just a part of a culture.

    Many of the assertions in this article are simply ill informed. For example the claim that the medical system we have is just what we have because it works best. Medicine is approved because the corrupt FDA approves it. It is a system of you can sell any snake oil so long as you have the money to pay for a study to be made to give the results you want to show.
    [ Source http://feministecovillage.tumblr.com/post/141897204500/who-pays-for-science-corruption-in-short ]

    Also Coke is loved by the culture we live in because it is a drug, and drugs on the whole make you feel good in the short term, and because of advertising.

  3. Sarah says:

    I’ve thought of something recently, of a contradictory belief within my sphere. This essay wonderfully explains it. The same people who praise diversity are also in favour of immigration. The problem is that immigration reduces diversity, not increases it. Sure, it increases diversity within a nation, but if every country were perfectly diverse, the Earth would be homogeneous. Its diversity between societies that matter, not within. I’ve never heard this argument, and “immigration reduces diversity” into googled (with quotations) gets only 3 results- yet it is the best anti- immigration argument I can think of. Learning this, it is rather selfish to desire your country to become diverse- you’re hurting diversity for your own sake! Of course the answer it that those who are anti immigration don’t really care about diversity in any measure.

    I’m not anti-immigration- here in Canada immigrants have accustomed well. Maybe because Canada, unlike European countries or even the US, we don’t have a very unique culture (It mostly is a mix between the UK and US).

    (Fellow) liberals say the only reason to support Brexit or limit immigration is racism and the only cause of desiring to preserve western culture is nationalism. Culturally preservation I think is very legitimate (though futile) considering how irreplaceable culture is. I’d really hate to see Iceland go. Also, while I’m all in favour of criticizing western societies for their past crimes against humanity, it should be separate from our modern policies. Like, Germany shouldn’t shoot itself in the foot for world war two. That’d be bad for everyone.

    I don’t want to sound like an alarmist right-winger, but if wealthy European countries let in so many highly fertile immigrants, it will change the country. Not necessarily badly, but permanently, and to make the world less diverse (not more!). And then there’s a concern I only trust myself and SSC with- that many of the populations migrating will, say, be less advantageous than the natives in terms of heritable traits, such as: IQ, clannishness, paternal investment, crime. I do not believe in racial superiority/inferiority and I promise I’m not racist. I’ve read a lot about race and (theorized) gene culture co-evolution, and I can’t see any alternative to what must be that traits crucial to success of individuals and societies in the modern world are at least strongly heritable by race due to recent evolution.

    I don’t think anyone is properly grasping how permanent large scale immigration is (save for mass deportation and ethnic cleansing which is both immoral and impracticable). Let’s say for a moment that all human population are probably equal in heritability of all significant traits. Are we really going to bet so, so much on a “probably?” While I hear it is despicable for racial differences to exist but few scientific explanations as to why they’re incorrect that survive under scrutiny. I must sound like an extremist relying on stereotypes, but I swear I’m not. Heritable ability seems so tied worth that its so taboo I’d be pitchforked before being able to explain that nothing, no population differences justify any of the cruelty that filled colonialism or any racism. Refutes absolutely welcomed.

    tl;dr I think its great we’re accepting of people and generous to non kin, but I just wish people would realize how permanent (and thus risky) demographic change is, how they’re betting massively on the assumption there are no significant racial differences, and that large scale immigration hurts diversity where it matters.

    • Aapje says:

      There is a certain irony that multi-culturalists seem very willing to give up parts of their own culture.

    • Dahlen says:

      I get what you’re saying. Travelling is much less of an experience now than it used to be, since from Buenos Aires to Shanghai a lot of local specificities that made you go “whoa, this is a weird and wondrous place”, particularly when they’re all together in the same place and there’s aesthetic coherence (!), have given way more and more to the same landscape of modern globalised culture — franchises of multinational corporations everywhere from the airport Starbucks onwards, American movies on TV, Western-style clothing, etc. And, in the other direction of the influences, you no longer need to go to Japan to eat some sushi, now it’s sold in the restaurant from across the street, etc.

      It’s worth remarking that Western vs. non-Western cultures have not been, in recent history, on a level playing field when it comes to the strength of their respective influence. This process of cultural homogenisation has its roots in colonialism, where the direction of influence was different — Europeans “immigrated” into various places and pushed their cultural forms in there. Before various places in the UK turned culturally Pakistani, various places in India turned British. It still amazes me when I google various far-away lands and see pictures of buildings from there that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, Philadelphia. Now there’s basically globalised mostly-modern mostly-Western culture that gets pushed everywhere, and then there’s the rest of the cultural products of the world, which, to a great extent, are being relegated to the status of museum wares.

      The point being, for a culture that gets exported aplenty by a great power to not reach hegemonic status, it would have to encounter a credible opposition or competition from a source of comparable power. From early modernity onwards, less powerful nations either self-Westernised or were kindly aided to do so. So I’m not very sure the problem of loss of cultural diversity should be put mostly in terms of the Western culture getting overwhelmed by non-Euroatlantic/nonwhite cultures, given that mass Westernisation happened first, on the largest scale in space as well as in time, and most aggressively. The direction of exchange has only just begun to be reciprocal.

      One must also consider why migration is happening. Everything changed when the world made the switch into normalising and integrating economic migration into the global economy. The migrants desire it because they receive better pay (and maybe conditions) than they could hope for in their native country, and the elites seem to be okay with it because they’re cheap. Cultural considerations (unless truly egregious and impossible to handle by the law enforcement system) pale in comparison. Undoing economic arrangements, trade agreements, border policies, and ultimately people’s lives and families, because of what essentially are (so far along into the conversation) aesthetic reasons just isn’t worth it. Just like in a bag of mixed seeds, it’s easy to throw them together and stir them into a mixture, but to separate them back again, you need to hand-pick them. (Never mind that the agent/object metaphor here is also a bit fucked up.)

      As for the race stuff, I don’t trust myself to say anything non-stupid about race, but as for this:

      many of the populations migrating will, say, be less advantageous than the natives in terms of heritable traits, such as: IQ, clannishness, paternal investment, crime. I do not believe in racial superiority/inferiority and I promise I’m not racist.

      Some people, and certainly the racists themselves, would argue that IQ, clannishness, paternal investment, crime etc. = grounds for superiority/inferiority, and that most people are afraid of making that inferential step because e.g. progressive orthodoxy, fear of backlash, or that most splendid explanation, cuckservatism. I say that the world has seen better axiology than that, but never mind me.

    • Jugemu Chousuke says:

      >that many of the populations migrating will, say, be less advantageous than the natives in terms of heritable traits, such as: IQ, clannishness, paternal investment, crime

      Not sure if you’ll check this thread again, but it’s a little funny to me that you feel the need to approach this so gingerly since around here these beliefs are completely normal and indeed common (even our host has strongly implied he believes them). However I can understand your concern since no matter how true these things are (and they certainly seem so to me based on the evidence I’ve seen), expressing them out loud in the “real world” strongly risks you kicked out of polite society including your job. But it’s generally fine to discuss such things around here without quite so many disclaimers, as long as you’re polite.

  4. Massimo Heitor says:

    There is a major difference between the trade of goods such as food like Coke-a-Cola or Sushi versus immigration of people. With goods there must be a willing buyer and seller, products people love spread and products people don’t like diminish. The system pushes towards what people want. Similarly with ideas like science and medicine. The good spreads the bad does not.

    The current model immigration denies the host culture a choice of whether to accept or reject incoming populations. There is no selection mechanism to grow the best and eliminate the worst.

    Consider the underclass immigrant banlieues of France that are hot spots of crime and drugs and poverty and government dependence. Many would consider the previous culture of ethnic French better and the banlieues a large regression and drop in quality.

    Universal culture is whatever is left over after mixing. With goods and ideas competing on merit, the best rises to the top, and you could say that quality is a hardy weed. With migration of people, there is no selection for quality.

    This post is awesome, btw. It is far, far more wise than anything Caplan has written.

  5. Auros Harman says:

    Just to critique on metaphor — the level of anti-drug “censorship” (i.e. violent suppression of the drug trade) has does not appear to have much to do with the prevalence of drug use. People become addicted to drugs when, essentially, they have nothing better to do — no source of meaning and connection in their lives.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html

  6. Sichu Lu says:

    What you are really saying is this: “I do not like how the meta rules of universal culture wins when it encounters a non universalized culture in certain ways because I can imagine how a nonhuman sapient being might thinks my “universal culture” is really nonsense; such as art, music, sunsets and etc in favor of preference for hydrogen.” On one hand, that proves you really believe in whatever values you have, on the other it just means you don’t really get what it means for culture to be “superior” and more adaptive. In trying to understand why people might resist universal culture, you are saying I understand the principle but it isn’t really the principle I’m attached to but my instance of the principle.

  7. Thanks nice article. I agree people really miss the point when it comes to Western culture, though I suspect there are certain aspects of Western culture that have made it more prone to a move in the universal direction. I think actual western culture is less about Coke and more about Socrates, Cincinnatus, JS Mill, Greek democracies, Roman institutions etc etc. Maybe you can even draw parallels back to Minoan culture (first Western civilization). Not all it’s traits are unique, but there seems to be a stronger than normal theme on trade, individuality, reason, citizenship, subtle tendencies towards a degree of egalitarianism (true, even most western societies weren’t very egalitarian in pre-modern eras), smaller than usual gender differences, combined with systems of government that were quite broad at the top and didn’t micromanage people too much. Not all traits at all times (eg. Greeks were quite heavily gendered, medieval times weren’t very egalitarian), but there’s definitely enough of a common theme to point out a culture. And I think it’s reasonable to want to defend most of these things. Universal culture doesn’t really need a defense, as it’s big enough and ugly enough (and Molochian) enough to look out for itself, just as Caplan points out.

    Rather than just saying western (or universal culture) is always good or bad, I prefer just examining all parts of all cultures for what is good or bad from a philosophical point of view. Reason isn’t exclusively western, so I don’t think that’s begging the question/circular. And it escapes both the hollowness of cultural relativism and hubris of colonialism. Support what is good, oppose what is bad. No culture is so simple as to be purely one or the other.

    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.”
    Does anyone want to become a papercl… ahem… hydrogen maximizer? This seems less a transhumanist joke and more an anti-transhumanist joke, or am I missing something?

  8. Timepioneer says:

    Sure, we all know coca-cola tastes good, but is it actually progress?
    Yes it’s fine if it’s coupled with technogically enhanced denistry
    And you have the bucks or the social umbrella to pay for it, but what happens
    When coke meets the tribal elders? A dialysis machine that’s what.
    A sophisticated tertiary health apparatus that requires the most senior
    Members of the tribe to travel 500km in a light aircraft to be hooked to a machine
    For a few hours every few weeks. Isnt this the universal culture
    In operation, declaring slow eradication by stealth.
    So by correlation, rid the planet of its archaic logic and
    The logic of late -capitalism and the transhuman future takes centre stage.
    And where does That leave Australia?
    Selling our coal to china, our uranium to India
    While solar technologies languish in the dust. I can’t help thinking
    This universal culture has very particular clients, and pretty specific,
    If overarching aims.

    • Massimo Heitor says:

      Coke-a-cola probably has peaked. Let people choose what is best. I personally like diet coke, but I imagine that like most products its popularity has a finite life span and eventually new products will gain mass popularity.

      Solar technology has been getting much better over the past decades.

  9. Chris says:

    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.

    You should take out “large” and “smaller”: have you seen the difference in size between England and India?!

  10. 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.

    Perhaps somewhat ironically, given your staunch utilitarian position, this makes me think both of natural law and (more strongly) deontological ethics. 🙂

    Also, I skimmed a bit, so I may be guilty of missing it (and apologise if so! and hope I can be forgiven for reading an article and writing a comment while half-asleep, even though that’s entirely on me), but I’m wondering where you/we draw the line between “a thing that just works and is independent of culture” and “a thing that is part of culture”. As in, I’m concerned that if we define all things that ‘just work’ as “not part of a specific culture” exactly because they happen to work everywhere, then the notion that the universal culture is winning is less exciting, since it’s just what the definitions already told us a priori.

    That said, formal (potential) nitpick aside, I think this thought has a lot of merit. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

  11. vV_Vv says:

    Dubai is further gone than Alabama.

    You sure? Try to buy alcohol in Dubai while being a Muslim.

    Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products.

    This is questionable. Some items of this so-called universal culture, such as evidence-based medicine spread because they are just objectively better, but arguably other items spread in large part because they are popular and/or perceived as higher status than the local subsitutes.

    I don’t know if Coca-Cola objectively tastes better than yak’s milk, maybe it does, or maybe if you are a Tibetan who wants to appear “modern”, “educated” or “cosmopolitan” rather than some sort of backward eye-gouging serfdom enthusiast, it’s just more socially convenient for you to drink Coca-Cola rather than yak’s milk.

    Similarly, it’s hard for me to believe that a Big Mac objectively tastes better than other kinds of fast foods. But there are social and financial pressures to conformity.

    And finally your own example:

    It could be the Académie Française removing English words from the language.

    Is English, with its idiosyncratic spelling rules, an objectively better language than French? Or is its spread just a consequence of the British and then American political, financial and military dominance?

    • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

      Is English, with its idiosyncratic spelling rules, an objectively better language than French?

      Anything is better than French, but the main point stands.

  12. BDub says:

    This was an enjoyable read. I find the central thesis of “Universal Culture”, as opposed to “Western Culture” to be solid and appealing.

    I did find one speed-bump suprising in your thought-process – the disconnect between the “best car pollutes” metaphor and the defence of non-optimal individual choices, 4 paragraphs later. That you declared a “best car”, and insisting that a “good coordination mechanism” would be required to keep everyone from choosing this oddly objective definition of best car, rather than individually defining “best” to be that which satisfies their own individual values, presumably for many, that it not pollute, seems at complete odds with the later assertion, “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.”

    It would seem you inner central-planner is at odds with your inner libertarian.

    But again, this was a very convincing and enjoyable read. I will likely find myself referring to “Universal Culture” in future conversations, and I forsee rediricting people here for a much better explanation than I will be able to give personaly.

  13. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    Regarding the Bhutan documentary I was discussing in the last post. There was this young kid who recently started rapping. He said Eminem inspired him stylistically. Before the advent of modern media in Bhutan, he simply hadn’t been exposed to anything like rap.

    Afaik, biologists refer to this as an increase in alpha diversity and a decrease in gamma diversity. This is probs a better way to frame your thesis than “my culture is the ultimate culture”.

    * * *

    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.”

    The amount of hydrogen in the universe is always decreasing. Instead, I’ve reprogrammed myself to like leptons. They’re everywhere and they come in 6 different flavors.

  14. Troy says:

    Scott, you’re great at big picture thinking and drawing connections, but this post simplifies the processes of globalization and cultural change to the point of being significantly misleading.

    (1) Your analysis treats different human groups as blank slates onto which the same universal culture can be equally well grafted. It ignores genetic, geographic, and historical differences which might lead to different groups not being equally amenable to cultural norms, even after a long time.

    (2) If we actually look a globalization/modernization/Westernization, we find it takes different forms in different places. For example, you discuss religious practices that appeal to spiritual explanations as being replaced by science. The thesis that the world was becoming progressively more secular was popular back in the 50s; since then sociologists have recognized that that’s not a very stable trend. Some places are still becoming more secular (or have started to secularize again in the last 20 years), especially in the west, but other places are not. Many non-Western countries with little ethnic diversity, e.g., in sub-Saharan Africa, associate modernization and Westernization with Christianization. The form of Christianity they adopt is also not a “moral therapeutic deism”; it is usually a form very focused on the action of spiritual beings in the world. Christianity is also on the rise in parts of east Asia, where the conflict narrative between science and Christianity so popular in Western pop-history is largely absent. And Christianity is obviously not something that some other culture would have invented if it hadn’t arisen in the Middle East in the first century: historical contingencies matter.

    (3) Likewise, increasing levels of immigration in the West seem to lead to greater religious observance (see, e.g., Philip Jenkins on this), perhaps because different groups living together in a multicultural society turn to traditional practices to find something to identify with. This may partly explain why immigration sometimes does not threaten a group’s culture — some aspects of that culture are actually strengthened by people trying to differentiate themselves from their neighbors.

  15. Nick Danger says:

    The idea that YOUR culture is “universal culture” is the stupidest idea I have met this century.

    • hlynkacg says:

      You must not get out much 😛

      In all seriousness though, you should probably look over the founding principals and maybe look up In Favor of Niceness Community and Civilization before proceeding further.

  16. During the Age of Transformation (Karen Armstrong, Marijia Gimbutas) the military strategy the group used to resist or conquer out-groups determined, and set in mental stone: in myth, tradition, law, literature, norm and value, the consequential metaphysics (assumptions and values) of each civilization. And they survive to this day. In no small part because we have exercised the eugenic or dysgenic values in each of those eras, and to no small degree bred for adaptation to those strategies.

    Iranian, Egyptian, Chinese Armies in the river plains
    European warrior aristocracy and its militias.
    Steppe tribal raiders.
    Diasporic traders and wandering herdsmen, gypsies, and pirates.

    What we are apparently afraid to face, is that the long term de-civilizing consequences that have led to India and the muslim world, and africa, and now to south america can also be brought here to the upper lattitudes because of our use of fossil fuel heating and air conditioning. Demographic distributions matter more than excellences. No genius can reorganize a society of these imbalances without a return to either working class command economies, or it’s predecessor slavery. It’s simple math. They are too relatively unproductive to generate a concentration of wealth necessary for a voluntary organization of production (capitalism) to create marginal (decidable and influential) differences in reward necessary to form the various networks of hierarchies that as a collective can survive competition.

    Man was not oppressed by aristocracy. Man and Woman were domesticated, like every other feral animal, through a continuous process of eugenics that suppressed the lower class reproduction and redistributed reproduction upward, while at the same time increasing the scope of parasitic prohibitions that we call laws, and incrementally forcing everyone into productive activities in order to survive. We sent to war, hung, or starved the rest.

  17. CAPLAN ALWAYS REQUIRES A TABLESPOON OF SALT

    Caplan’s opinion, like most of his opinions, is not about western civilization in the same sense as westerners use the term in the Greco/Roman, Germanic, or Anglo, American, French, and German enlightenment thinkers: as the struggle for rule of law and truth, goodness and beauty.

    Instead, Caplan’s misattribution of ‘western civilization’ is the Cosmopolitan (Ashkenazi) enlightenment vision of a universal market of high consumption combined with the British Imperial Marketplace that transformed British civilization from a germanic Hanseatic one prior to 1830’s expansion of the industrial revolution, to a purely commercial international one after 1830, under Disraeli and Gladstone.

    Once you understand that he is not talking about western civilization at all, but cosmopolitan, his arguments are a little more transparent – and always consistent.

    The west didn’t develop first, it developed fastest. Why? It’s counter-intuitive: martial epistemology and the oath of the intitatic brotherhood of soldiers, the economics of concentrating family wealth into technology (bronze, horses, chariots and their descendants) for use by professional warriors, and the voluntary construction of armies from these voluntary associations. The reward for which was enfranchisement in freedom: the reciprocal insurance of one’s property from theft and conquest. Conversely given the wetness of our terrain, and its oceans, seas, and rivers, we never had to create a monopoly organization to control irrigation that caused the centralization of authority and capital in the flood-river civilizations. Instead, we constructed manorialism, which was the control of territory and its allocation to those best able to use it.

    Out of these conditions we developed argument, reason, common law, natural law, jury, senate, independent judiciary, private property, contract.

    And these processes from ideas, to organizations, to production to institutions, to armies can adapt faster as a group than any other known human social order.

    So the west defeated the rest not because it was first, because it was fastest. And it was fastest for the simple reason that we discovered ‘truth’ in the objective sense, and it was more valuable to us than the propaganda and deception necessary for central governments to organize multitudes for alternative, more communal, means of production.

    We discovered truth. Truth gave us trust. Trust gave us velocity. And we were (and are) faster than the rest because of it.

    Truth is the secret of the west.

    (That and that we’re the most eugenic civilization aside from the Ashkenazim).

    Curt Doolittle
    The Philosophy of Aristocracy
    The Propertarian Institute
    Kiev, Ukraine.

  18. Marcus Gibson says:

    Would have been cool if you’d talked about capitalism rather than just industrialization and ‘universal culture’.

  19. Peter Donis says:

    Your definition of “universal culture” appears to be basically Darwinian–“universal culture” is just the set of memes that out-compete all other memes. This, of course, does not necessarily mean these memes are good for us humans, or that they are the memes we would choose to have out-compete all others, all things considered. (For example, they are not necessarily the memes we would want a Friendly AI to enforce if one ever came into existence.) I think your apparent ambivalence about “universal culture” might be because of this potential disconnect between “what works” in Darwinian terms and what is “good for humans”.

    This potential disconnect also makes me strongly dispute your contention that “universal culture” is “objectively better” and “what everybody would select if given a free choice”. After all, you wrote a whole long post (the Moloch post) basically describing how the memes that out-compete others are *not* always the ones we really want.

  20. Mark Plus says:

    I wouldn’t say that “egalitarian gender norms” work for a lot of men. In practice that just means a minority of men monopolizes more and more women, while the rest of the men are sexually evicted. We’re seeing this in the “polyamory” scam popular with LessWrong types.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Sucks to be them. It’s the demon Society that decides what works and what doesn’t, the desires of undesirable men aren’t super persuasive to him.

    • vV_Vv says:

      It may “work” in the same sense that slavery or serfdom “worked” in certain places and times.

      Or capitalism, if you prefer. If there can be massive inequality of wealth, why can’t there it be massive inequality of sexual satisfaction?

  21. Anon256 says:

    I think when someone talks about the need to “protect Western culture”, they are trying to appeal to me via the positive feelings I have about what you call “universal culture” (since I couldn’t care less about protecting maypoles and Thor and whatever). How persuasive I find this depends largely on how fragile I think this “universal culture” is, and Caplan’s post seems an extremely appropriate reply. (Though I’m still less confident than he is; partly I worry that changes that make people feel less safe and push them towards the “survive” rather than “thrive” end of the spectrum could have detrimental effects on the equilibrium culture.)

    This post seems to cause a lot of confusion by using the term “Western culture” in an entirely nonstandard way based on taking its etymology too seriously. In everybody else’s usage, what Scott calls “universal culture” is called “Western culture”, and what Scott calls “Western culture” is called “traditional [English|French|German|…] culture”.

  22. Captain Ford says:

    > 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.

    Counterargument: The natives were probably better adapted to the land than the colonists. In this land, the colonists were foreigners, and the natives had the more universal culture that worked in this environment. Just think about all the colonies that were lost to starvation, etc.

  23. Jason Bayz says:

    “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?”

    Well, because we have countless examples of people who didn’t hold onto their cultures. European immigrants, Italians, Poles, ect, mostly did not hold onto their cultures when they came to America. The San Fransisco gays are more of a subculture than a culture, like nerds or black metal fans. As for Blacks or Hasidim, they don’t “hold onto their cultures just fine.” Most of the American Jewish population descends from Hasidim. Most of the American Jewish population is not Hasidim. The Hasidim today lose people to secular culture, something like 15% of Hasidim eventually leave the religion. They may take parts of their culture with them, but these parts won’t be passed down to their children.

    Cultures preserve themselves in conditions where they are in the majority, either of the nation or a specific part of the nation, a ghetto. Hasidim consciously wall themselves off from society. And those Blacks who come from mostly White areas are often accused of being “oreos.”(Black on the outside, White on the inside) If Hasidim were the majority of society, cultural preservation would be much simpler, but they aren’t and won’t be no matter what immigration is, so it doesn’t concern them. It is entirely to be expected that, if Hasidim were the majority or a plurality of a nation those of them concerned with cultural preservation would be opposed to immigration.

    Hasidim and Blacks are special cases in that they can preserve their culture more easily because they are unappealing to outsiders. Few want to assimilate to the Black ghetto or follow the strict religious rules of the Hasidim. Recent immigrants who have the financial means to do so avoid living among concentrations of Blacks and Hasidim.

  24. Tcaalaw says:

    Sorry, but this is killing me: the source of caffeine in Coca-cola is kola nuts, not coffee beans, which is what you appear to be suggesting when you say “Ethiopian bean.” Kola nuts do not grow in Ethiopia; they originated in western/central Africa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kola_nut#History

  25. Mariani says:

    Never though I’d see Scott construct his own motte-and-bailey argument.

    Is the West maypoles and Latin manuscripts? Because that’s not how most people define it, and it’s also a relatively indefensible definition.

    The West is “real”as people behave as though it is. That’s how such abstracts work. We can look at people’s revealed preferences for an accurate look into their heads. People in Europe are increasing anxiety over “non-Western” immigrants, and they aren’t referring to Canadians or Australians or even Ukrainians. If people from these three parts of the world live as though they have something in common, then they do.

    • gbdub says:

      He’s not arguing against the popular concept of “Western Culture”, he’s arguing that the popular label for the concept is a poor one that encourages some apparent inconsistencies. That’s not motte-and-bailey.

      I think he’s well aware of what most people are saying when they say “Western Culture”. He’s arguing they are wrong to call it Western. Lots of people behaving as though they believe an incorrect thing does not make them correct.

    • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

      gbdub says:  “I think he’s [Scott Alexander is] well aware of what most people are saying when they say “Western Culture”. He’s arguing they are wrong to call it Western.”

      This conclusion (whether it reflects Scotts views or note) receives strong scholarly support from Jonathan Israel’s thoroughly referenced, well-reviewed, and much-cited multivolume history of enlightened modernity:

      The essence of ‘philosophical modernity’ … cannot be usefully linked to any one ‘national,’ linguistic, religious, or subcultural context.

      On the contrary, it seems rather important in terms of both moral and cultural integrity, and historical accuracy, emphatically to reject the notion that one particular nation, religion, or cultural tradition played a hegemonic role in forging ‘modernity’ conceived as an interlocking system of values.

      SSC readers who are unenthusiastic about 3000-page scholarly histories may prefer Professor Israel’s lucid and highly rated on-line video lectures.

  26. Adam says:

    Rod Dreher wrote a blog post about this and Peter Thiel’s speech at the RNC.

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/peter-thiel-was-wrong-culture-wars/

    Rod Dreher isn’t that familiar with this blog so he makes a few assumptions that are off, but it is still a delight to have my favorite bloggers responding to each other’s work.

    This post made me think a lot, so much that I’m not sure how to respond first. I really like the acknowledgement of the difference between Western Culture and universal culture. But I think this post also seems to assume too much about the goodness of both universal culture now and universal culture in the future. Authoritarianism could become much more common; free speech is not guaranteed without effort. This sounds a lot like capital-P Progress, that goes ever onward and upward. The world could get worse too.

    • Nick Danger says:

      The Javanese in 500 BC, the Greeks in 400 BC, the English in 1600 AD: they all thought their culture was “universal” as well. Completely idiotic idea.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        @Nick Danger – “The Javanese in 500 BC, the Greeks in 400 BC, the English in 1600 AD: they all thought their culture was “universal” as well. Completely idiotic idea.”

        …The Javanese presumably were unaware of the existence of the majority of other human cultures, so their position is not analogous. The Greeks and the English were both correct; both made massive contributions to what Scott is calling Universal Culture.

  27. eyeballfrog says:

    Is it just me, or does American culture identify with universal culture a lot more than other cultures? I don’t mean that in the sense of “‘universal culture’ is just a code word for American imperialism”. I mean that it seems like many things that we see as American values seem to be taken from universal culture. For example, freedom of speech seems to be a universal culture construct, but supporting freedom of speech is also considered central to American culture. From what you said about Leibnitz, it sounds like universal culture got its start among the European elite, which makes me think this may have been caused by the Founding Fathers likely being influenced by universal culture.

    Although, if this is true, then maybe that thing I said before is backwards. If American culture and universal culture are very similar, then perhaps ‘American imperialism’ is just the natural pervasion of universal culture into the world. It only looks like American imperialism because of the high degree to which America embraced universal culture.

    • Civilis says:

      The US is big and prosperous, so we generate a lot of culture. We’re also very outward facing, involved in trade and wars throughout the world, which means Americans end up everywhere to spread their culture. We (assuming you are American) produce a lot of culture and spread that around wherever we go. We also bring back a lot of things, some of which gets incorporated into our culture.

      The same things apply to a lot of other nations which have had a profound impact on culture. Take a look at the number of countries that have cricket as their national favorite sport. The British were both powerful and almost everywhere. (Imperial China is an example of a nation which was powerful but not outwardly focused. They could have gone everywhere, but didn’t.)

      It’s a matter of opinion how much American culture looks like universal culture because we put a lot out and spread it around, and how much it looks like universal culture because we bring in a lot from outside and add it to our own.

    • Nick Danger says:

      “Is it just me, or does American culture identify with universal culture a lot more than other cultures? ”

      Right: isn’t it just a wonderful coincidence that this nitwits culture happens to be the “universal” one!

  28. Bettega says:

    It’s easier to see the censorship when it comes from the other side. A traditionalist could consider laws prohibiting marital rape or domestic violence as censorship of non-egalitarian gender norms, for example.

    • Snodgrass says:

      “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs. ”

      In universal culture, you can retain your traditions and your gender norms up to the point at which you attempt to harm people who go against them, at which stage you will be punished as if you were harming someone out of pure irrationality.

      I do anticipate the future of universal culture widening the definition of harm – there are already a fair number of countries where an attempt to write your reprobate daughter out of your will simply means that the will is deleted and replaced with one distributing the estate equally.

      I would not be utterly surprised by a course of legislative changes over the next fifty years to provide a legal right to uniform support among family members (if you wish to pay for son Jim’s holiday, that’s fine, but you must pay the same amount to daughter Anna who married unsuitably and whose husband you never want to see)

      • Lumifer says:

        In universal culture, you can retain your traditions and your gender norms up to the point at which you attempt to harm people who go against them

        That’s one way of interpreting your example. Another, a more straightforward way, would be to say that in universal culture, you can retain your traditions and your gender norms up to the point at which they conflict with traditions and gender norms of the universal culture.

        • Snodgrass says:

          The universal culture has few traditions and no gender norms; what it has is human rights and inescapable conventions.

          The universal culture requires that your kid study the national curriculum; if you also want to teach her to recite the Koran, go for it. If you want her to pray the five daily prayers, you need to negotiate with the school and the school will not refuse.

          The universal culture requires that your kid go to school; if you also want to teach him how to make brinjal bhaji, go for it; if you want him to help out in the restaurant and he doesn’t mind, go for it; if you want him to help out in the restaurant and he says no and you beat him, you’re going to jail.

          You’re allowed to tell your teenage daughter not to go to the dance; you’re allowed to shut her in her room; if she climbs out of the window and you wait for her with a bat, you’re going to jail.

          If you’re in France, the universal culture requires your kid to at least take and not eat the provided school meal and instead eat the food you make him; in England you can probably save the food waste with a limited and not-terribly-complicated negotiation with the school; if a teacher notices the kid is obviously malnourished because you have never put anything but brinjal bhaji in his lunchbox, you’re going to have an awful lot of awkward conversations with CPS.

          • Lumifer says:

            That all looks very spherical-cowish. You’re painting a great picture of an utopia, but where exactly can I find it in reality? For example, the US schools are nowhere as tolerant as you describe and in France it’s actually illegal to wear a hijab in public.

      • Anonymous says:

        This sounds like a dystopia.

  29. asdf says:

    On the one hand, universal culture is objectively better.

    The reason given seems to be “it’s better because it won.” Reminds me of a passage from That Hideous Strength:

    The Professor came to ask if he had thought over their recent conversation. Mark, who judged that some decent show of reluctances would make his final surrender more convincing, replied that only one thing was still troubling him. He did not quite understand what he in particular or humanity in gen- eral stood to gain by co-operation with the Macrobes. He saw clearly that the motives on which most men act, and which they dignify by the names of patriotism or duty to humanity, were mere products of the animal organism, varying according to the behaviour pattern of different communities. But he did not yet see what was to be sub- stituted for these irrational motives. On what ground henceforward were actions to be justified or condemned?

    “If one insists on putting the question in those terms,” said Frost, “I think Waddington has given the best answer. Existence is its own justification.The tendency to developmental change which we call Evolution is justified by the fact that it is a general characteristic of biological entities.The present establishment of contact between the highest biological entities and the Macrobes is justified by the fact that it is occurring, and it ought to be increased because an in- crease is taking place.”

    “You think, then,” said Mark,“that there would be no sense in ask- ing whether the general tendency of the universe might be in the direction we should call Bad?”

    “There could be no sense at all,” said Frost.“The judgment you are trying to make turns out on inspection to be simply an expression of emotion. Huxley himself, could only express it by using emotive terms such as“gladiatonal”or“ruthless.”I am referring to the famous Romanes lecture.When the so-called struggle for existence is seen simply as an actuarial theorem, we have, in Waddington’s words,“a concept as unemotional as a definite integral” and the emotion disappears. With it disappears that preposterous idea of an external standard — of value which the emotion produced.”

    “And the actual tendency of events,” said Mark,“would still be self- justified and in that sense ‘good’ when it was working for the extinc- tion of all organic life, as it presently will?”

    “Of course,” replied Frost,“if you insist on formulating the prob- lem in those terms. In reality the question is meaningless. It presup- poses a means — and — end pattern of thought which descends from Aristotle, who in his turn was merely hypostatising elements in the experience of an iron-age agricultural community. Motives are not the causes of action but its by-products.You are merely wasting your time by considering them.When you have attained real objec- tivity you will recognize, not some motives, but all motives as merely animal, subjective epiphenomena. You will then have no motives and you will find that you do not need them.Their place will be supplied — by something else which you will presently understand better than you do now. So far from being impoverished your action will become much more efficient.”

    “I see,” said Mark. The philosophy which Frost was expounding was by no means unfamiliar to him. He recognised it at once as the logical conclusion of thoughts which he had always hitherto accepted and which at this moment he found himself irrevocably rejecting.The knowledge that his own assumptions led to Frost’s position combined with what he saw in Frost’s face and what he had experienced in this very cell, effected a complete conversion. All the philosophers and evangelists in the world might not have done the job so neatly.

    “And that,” continued Frost, “is why a systematic training in ob- jectivity must be given to you. Its purpose is to eliminate from your mind one by one the things you have hitherto regarded as grounds for action. It is like killing a nerve. That whole system of instinctive preferences, whatever ethical, æsthetic, or logical disguise they wear, is to be simply destroyed.”

    • Anonymous says:

      The reason given seems to be “it’s better because it won.”

      I think the reason given is “it’s better because it won by people voluntarily choosing it over their previous cultures.”

  30. Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

    It seems to me that that Western culture and Universal culture are two circles in a Venn diagram with lots of overlap. But something like Pokémon or Cosplay I would see more Universal culture than Western culture. If anything, they’re Eastern culture/Universal culture; when niche subgroups in the West adopt them, they become more… syncretic.

    A better term for Universal culture might be something like Syncretic culture.

  31. the archipelago is the answer mostly because, since universal culture is bred from experiments, a whole hell lot of them (failed as well as successful ones) would be the best way to sift through cultures and select for the best traits, all the while avoiding colonization.

    you don’t need to hunt down stupidity.

  32. “On the one hand, universal culture is objectively better. … its soft drinks are more refreshing… On the other hand… Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity…. [So] 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.”

    And pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig would say that Coca Cola, among other foods and beverages, has properties similar to heroin.

  33. Phil says:

    I’m going to steal this from a comment I read on Caplan’s blog, because I found it to be an interesting analogy:

    Dan Hess writes:

    I wanted to post a comment on your 5/13 blog post on open borders, but I see that comments are closed.

    Therefore, I’ll post it in this thread, instead of that one.

    There is a non-selfish case for strong borders, which is the argument from ecology. I have never heard this argument made, but consider ocean ecology.

    The open ocean is, relatively speaking, uniform, bland and mostly barren. If you take a square km of open ocean, there will be some life but it will not be very pretty or diverse.

    Contrast this with a reef (whether natural or man-made). It is teeming with colorful life of all kinds, with incredible variety and beauty. One square km of reef contains orders of magnitude more life and much more diversity than the open ocean ever could. This is naturally achieved with coral but you can achieve the same effect by sinking a ship or even dropping a rusty city bus in the ocean.

    What achieves this? Simply, borders, walls, barriers. If you suddenly made all the walls vanish in a reef ecosystem, surely 99% of all its life would be dead within a week, even though the climate would be the same in all other respects.

    Barriers are the stuff that ecosystems are made of, and this is just as true of humans as it is of marine life. Globalists who seek a borderless ‘open ocean’ are dissolving cultures and reducing human thriving (for most) and actually reducing diversity, quite the opposite of what the globalists claim is their objective.

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2016/07/the_signs_of_si.html#359208

    ———————–

    I’m also reminded of this Steve Sailer comment from Marginal Revolution http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/03/what-ive-been-reading-68.html#comment-158994598

    • Murphy says:

      ….. reefs don’t have walls.

      Their inhabitants don’t rely on brick walls and border guards to keep the octopuses out. They just tend to be better adapted to the local environment than the outsiders.

      It isn’t immigrant great whites destroying reefs.

      Also buses and ships tend to become major habitats because most of the ocean is starved of iron. Drop a pile of iron in and you get lots of life. Much of the ocean is boring because it’s a desert short of oxygen or iron.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Well, a lot of those “better adaptations” involve venom and big pointy teeth, which are basically the guns of the animal kingdom. Check out this bristle worm, which isn’t even the worst nightmare creature that lives down there.

        Not that I think the original analogy works great, either. It’s not walls that make underwater ecosystems thrive, it’s surface area.

        If we want to build some kind of ocean-based immigration analogy, I’d recommend looking at invasive species such as the sea lion.

    • Hector_St_Clare says:

      This is sort of true about oceans. (It’s much more true as a metaphor about human societies).

      Reefs are more diverse than open ocean because of the ‘borders’, but that isn’t why they are more productive. The open ocean is unproductive because most of it is quite nutrient-poor. Diversity and productivity don’t always go hand in hand: you can have an ecosystem that is ‘teeming with life’ but also has low diversity, or vice versa.

      It’s true a lot of species would go extinct if you got rid of ecological ‘borders’, but that isn’t the same thing as most of the life vanishing.

  34. Murphy says:

    Another aspect that should be mentioned. From the inside it can be equally horrible when someone outside tries to prevent you (or empower members of your society who want to prevent you) from joining universal culture.

    I remember a talk by someone from Africa talking about loss of culture. When someone asked her if she thought it was terrible that her peoples traditions were being lost and they weren’t living in the traditional ways her response was [to paraphrase] “Would you prefer to live in a peat hut with no electricity or toothpaste like your great grandmother?”

    We look at tribes in the amazon and people say “isn’t it terrible that their culture is being destroyed” and meanwhile their kids are saying things like “I want running hot water, a roof that doesn’t leak and nice shoes”

    To the people inside a culture being “preserved” your elders or well meaning American and European activists taking measures to “keep your culture alive” is roughly equivalent to being a trans/gay teen in a southern baptist family who wants to get to San Fransisco and finding out that activists there have set up systems to “preserve your peoples culture” that make it extra hard for you to escape from the people who are trying to beat the homo out of you.

    Someone in DC trying to help make sure that a Masai tribe continues to teach traditional songs ,dances and beliefs to all their kids, from the kids point of view can be as fucked up as someone in New York making sure that an atheist teen in the deep south is forced to keep going to their parents church every week and sing songs about how they, personally, are going to hell for not believing.

    It’s easy to say “leave people to their traditional ways” when talking about weird tattoos, it’s much more problematic “leaving people to their traditional ways” if you know that that has an unfortunate tendency to include a lot of pedophilic rape and lynching gays.

    Universal culture will tend to win wherever it goes but ethically I think the only safe way to do it without being evil is to simply not put up any barriers to people trying to adopt universal culture. There’s a big difference between forcing native children to adopt your culture and simply making sure your cities are open to anyone who wants to move there from those cultures without artificial barriers designed to “protect culture”.

    One leaves it up to individual choice, the other imposes choices on others.

    Sometimes giving people the option sort of indirectly imposes the choice on the remaining ones because they end up without enough slaves or without enough critical mass. But if that happens perhaps they should have put more effort into making sure their culture treated their junior members better.

    Most cultures are abandoned because they treat their junior members like shit or require people to live crappy lives. If they’re so non-crappy that people don’t want to leave them when given the choice then I’m perfectly happy with that.

    • dndnrsn says:

      @Murphy:

      To the people inside a culture being “preserved” your elders or well meaning American and European activists taking measures to “keep your culture alive” is roughly equivalent to being a trans/gay teen in a southern baptist family who wants to get to San Fransisco and finding out that activists there have set up systems to “preserve your peoples culture” that make it extra hard for you to escape from the people who are trying to beat the homo out of you.

      This is actually pretty close to reality: I recall, some years ago, an LGBT activist on the campus of the university I was attending, took the position in a panel discussion that LGBT activists in the West shouldn’t be trying to do anything to help LGBT people in Uganda – because that would be imperialism and colonialism. (Meanwhile, American Protestant fundamentalists were assisting the anti-gay side there).

    • Randy M says:

      It’s easy to say “leave people to their traditional ways” when talking about weird tattoos, it’s much more problematic “leaving people to their traditional ways” if you know that that has an unfortunate tendency to include a lot of pedophilic rape

      I take it you homeschool too?

      • Murphy says:

        No? I’m unsure of the link with the quoted section.

        • Randy M says:

          Comparing the rates of pedophilic rape between Catholic Priests and Public school teachers. I believe they are similar.

          • Anonymous says:

            IIRC, the Catholic priests do pedophilia about the same rate as the general population – whereas schoolteachers do it greatly more.

            It makes sense if you think about it: If you were a pedophile, what kind of career would you choose? One where you’re mostly surrounded by adult men who vowed chastity and you aren’t permitted to engage in any sexual intercourse, regardless whether it’s the deviation you favor or plain vanilla? Or – a job where you regularly interact with the objects of your obsession, and have plenty of opportunity to attempt to scratch that itch? Pedophilia is illegal in both cases, but the latter obviously gives better opportunities.

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            the Catholic priests do pedophilia about the same rate as the general population

            [citation needed]

          • Anonymous says:

            Here you go:

            http://www.newsweek.com/priests-commit-no-more-abuse-other-males-70625

            http://atlanticcanada.legalexaminer.com/miscellaneous/myths-and-facts-about-the-catholic-sexual-abuse-crisis/

            You could try googling for more. I used DDG, but DDG has the typical trade-off of poorer search results in exchange for better privacy.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            Those links are about Catholics bragging that they don’t rape that many more children than other religious denominations, not school teachers.

            The second article even points out that women are less likely to abuse children, and most primary school teachers are female (compare with all Catholic priests being men).

          • The original Mr. X says:

            bragging that they don’t rape that many more children than other religious denominations,

            An rather tendentious way of putting it. “Defending themselves from false accusations” might be less misleading.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Plus, if we’re going to go down the “celibacy causes paedophilia” line, are we also going to argue that the government ought have a system of subsidised prostitution for people who can’t get laid? After all, if the alternative is that a non-trivial number are going to suddenly start finding prepubescent children attractive…

          • John Schilling says:

            Plus, if we’re going to go down the “celibacy causes paedophilia” line

            I think the argument is more that celibacy created an environment where people who are already pedophiles(*) could comfortably congregate, first by filtering out the vast majority of people who insist on a traditional sexual lifestyle and second by creating a strong cultural “No sex of any kind going on here, nothing to see, move along” perceptual distortion field to hide behind. Possibly also by advertising itself as a place where one can go to be “cured” of such urges, but in fact offering no such cure.

            So you get a whole bunch of people whose locker-room conversations lead to the gradual understanding that, yep, a whole lot of us like having sex with boys and/or men, and there’s a lot of men who share that taste here and a lot of boys who look up to us as revered authority figures and nobody is going to suspect a thing even if we do slip up now and then…

            This is the argument. Needs facts to back it up, preferably untainted by witch-hunting or wagon-circling.

            * and non-pedophile male homosexuals, when that was something that needed to be kept hidden

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I think the argument is more that celibacy created an environment where people who are already pedophiles(*) could comfortably congregate,

            I’ve seen some people explicitly say that celibacy –> paedophilia, usually by invoking some pseudo-Freudian ideas about repression.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Saint Fiasco

            Those links are about Catholics bragging that they don’t rape that many more children than other religious denominations, not school teachers.

            Good Burning Plastic asked for citations about “Catholic priests [doing] pedophilia about the same rate as the general population”. These links are topical.

  35. I think you are conflating the universalizability (Kantian term) of Western technological achievements and pop culture with what I would term, provisionally, “Deep Western Culture”. In other words, what is universalizable are the effects of that the “Deep Western Culture”, or DWC, produces, but not the culture itself. Also to suggest that, “The West has no culture” is simply patently absurd, and only useful as a provocative assertion. Only a “rootless Cosmopolitan”, with no visceral connection to anything Western except it’s superficial emanations, could purport that unironically.

    Making the, as Moldbug demonstrated, ridiculous claim that “gender egalitarianism” and other such pet projects of progressivism, which is certainly a branch of DWC, are synonymous with technical/functional achievements of DWC is erroneous. The fact that much force, or the threat of force, had to be used for these to be ostensibly accepted by non-Western countries should be evidence enough. Also not to mention the inordinate amounts of ideological enforcement and pseudo-disciplines needed to actively reinforce the malignant chimera of “Western progressive values”, should show amply that it is not universally preferable.

  36. Franz_Panzer says:

    600 posts and am I really the only one who thinks what Scott describes is exactly how Banks’ “Culture” works?

    • gbdub says:

      It’s a good reference.

      Especially since the Culture is in theory opposed to imperialism and imposing their values by force, but in practice Contact and SC frequently meddle in the affairs of other, usually more primitive, cultures they find abhorrent. If this goes wrong, they feel bad about it (Look to Windward) but don’t actually modify this behavior.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’m not sure if it was deliberately written this way, but it’s easy to read the Culture as an allegory for liberal cosmopolitanism in general and the West’s (particularly the post-Cold War West’s, although Banks liked his Space Nazis too) role in spreading it in particular.

  37. Fred says:

    I think to a large extent this is just playing semantics.

    Let’s try a different definition, eh?

    We often define our identity by the things about us that are imperfect, or abnormal, or irrational in some way. I drink tea, even though coffee is more readily available, can be made to taste better, is more caffeinated, etc, because I am a goddam tea drinker. This probably is non-optimal for me in some ways, but it’s just one of those things I do as much to spite the cold march of rationality as much as for any real reason. But I also drink water because it is important for me to stay hydrated. But water is not part of my identity. It’s just this thing I have to drink because everyone has to, because it is objectively the best beverage to stay hydrated.

    But since it is drunk for objective reasons, it is moved out of the realm of culture. I think it’s fair to say that most of the things I do for objective reasons are just stuff I have to do and the things I do because Fuck you, it’s my life are the things that make up my identity.

    And it’s easy to extrapolate this out to group identity, which is a lot of what we call culture. Television shows are entirely counter-productive, and they are thus discussed in the “Life & Culture” section of the newspaper. The economy, politics, the things of mattering get front page treatment – they are beyond culture, in some sense.

    I think this helps resolve some of the inconsistencies in the examples you give of “universal culture.” To the extent that Western medicine is objectively superior, it just stops being culture and starts being science. It is removed from the entire plane where this is discussed. But if I cure my ailments by lying in a steamy log cabin and having someone whip me with a branch from a fir tree, that’s just my culture, dude.

    It’s less that things get absorbed into “universal culture” and more that they get promoted (or demoted, perhaps) to be handled by better writers.

  38. antimule says:

    This will probably get burred but I think that the Achilles heel of universal culture is that it requires economic growth to stay viable. And nothing can grow forever in finite universe, especially if (as it seems) space travel is not tenable. If you can’t make pie bigger any longer the only remaining way for an individual to increase his personal power is to steal a pie from someone else. And suddenly universal freedom doesn’t sound so appealing any more and subjugation gets back in fashion again among elites.

    The non-elites then group with people who look most like them – look at how impoverished whites rallied around Trump. Then border walls get built everywhere and nationalism returns. I think the only reason why Blue Tribe is now more tolerant than the Red is because their pie is still growing or at least not shrinking yet. It is easy to like immigrants when your job is gated by credentialism and when there’s enough growth to accommodate everyone.

    The whole housing crisis can be seen as an attempt to maintain illusion of growth in times when the real growth was stagnant. I am honestly not sure how much of a stock market is similarly faked today. The only hope I see is to give everyone unlimited VR (with hookers and blackjack in it), as it is much easier to maintain fake growth in virtual reality.

    • Techno-Satanist says:

      The only hope I see is to give everyone unlimited VR (with hookers and blackjack in it), as it is much easier to maintain fake growth in virtual reality.

      But if a perfect VR world is indistinguishable from the real world, then is the economic growth really fake?

  39. Brian says:

    Jack Donovan touched on many of these issues. Google Jack Donovan and “great nothing”.

  40. Rick Derris says:

    >>>>it will have appropriated the best features of Islamic culture

    So it won’t take anything?

    That would be akin to the Borg of “Star Trek” encountering the Pakleds. They’d just laugh and walk away. No need for assimilating something that would DETRACT from the whole.

    • >>>>it will have appropriated the best features of Islamic culture

      >>So it won’t take anything?

      It has already taken many things, including a numeration system, many associated mathematical concepts, many words for scientific vocabulary, numerous artistic influences, elements of cuisine, a living language used by the members of some Christian denominations and by the inhabitants of Malta, a whole corpus of tales and fables, at least one of which went on to become a major Disney film, the game of chess (and several other board games), the recreative drug known as “coffee”, etc

  41. Dan King says:

    I think the “entropy” analogy is misleading. In physics it describes the single macroscopic state with the highest probability of occurring. But that concept doesn’t work very well for cultures–the terrain is too complicated, there are multiple peaks, and there are different standards of judgement.

    For example, Japan has a marvelous culture, very different from the USA. It is not at all obvious that Japan’s culture is worse than American culture, or vice versa. While we Americans may adopt some aspects of Japanese culture (e.g., eat something that sort of resembles sushi), we are a long, long way from becoming Japanese.

    One major ingredient to Japanese culture is the circle of social trust is very, very large. People park their bicycles on the street without locking them. This is possible only because Japan is ethnically homogeneous, i.e., they’re all kin. So a high level of immigration will destroy Japanese culture in a way that it wouldn’t in America.

    The Japanese are sufficiently civilized that their culture can withstand the onslaught of “universal culture.” Assuming they can figure out how to make enough babies, they’ll be around for a long, long while.

    So I don’t think there is such a thing as “universal culture.” There are civilized places and then there are uncivilized places. The latter will eventually succumb to something else. The former not so much.

    For all I know, Bhutan is a civilized place. I’m not so sure that’s true of all American outgroups.

  42. Desertopa says:

    At the risk of restating a point I’m not prepared to trawl over 500 comments to look for…

    I think there’s a substantial sense you’re missing in which some of the norms which have proliferated are the result of actual colonialism rather than unimpeded memetic propagation. Coca Cola, to use an example which you refer to repeatedly, hasn’t spread because it’s simply tastier than other drinks. New Coke was preferred on average to the old formula in blind taste tests- that’s why Coke put it to market. Merely being tastier than Coke to the average unbiased drinker did not suffice to let New Coke outcompete Coke, because New Coke didn’t have the vast pressure of the decades of cultural conditioning the Coca Cola corporation had funded behind it telling people it was what they were supposed to like.

    Even if some Mexican or Polish company discovered a much tastier soda formula than Coke (Mexico actually does have some great sodas which have barely penetrated the American market outside the Hispanic population,) they would be extremely unlikely ever to achieve the sort of international success that Coke has, because Coke has used its first mover advantage to finance what essentially amounts to global psychological warfare (sometimes verging on literal warfare, to recall your own point in the Non-Libertarian FAQ re: Coca Cola and Columbian death squads.) Coca Cola’s marketing expenditures are currently over half a dollar per year per person on the planet. It’s not an example of universal culture which survives without censorship, it’s an example of a piece of culture which reinvests its accumulated power in order to gain more and fight off all challengers.

    There are other ways aside from deliberate marketing campaigns that cultural elements can propagate despite a lack of objective advantage. Consider how men’s business attire has more or less standardized around the world. Business suits are not an objectively spectacular type of clothing. Their form originates in a time when the gentry class who wore them weren’t expected to dress themselves; they were difficult by intention as a symbol of status. They didn’t take the world by storm because people everywhere liked how they looked and/or felt and wanted to wear them, they took over the world because the cultures where people wore them became so much more powerful than everyone else that people from the rest of the world started to imitate them for fear of not being taken seriously otherwise.

    Powerful nations can propagate their culture without resorting to active censorship, but this doesn’t mean that the culture which propagates is that which is composed of the best elements which can survive in an unbiased environment, any more than the fact that other kids at a school emulate them proves that the popular kids have the best judgment.

    • Marvy says:

      Random tidbit: I’m pretty sure that New Coke is like Pepsi: they do better in sip tests, but worse when you drink an entire bottle. Don’t remember where I read this.

      • Desertopa says:

        I haven’t heard that before, but it might be true. Then again, Pepsi made huge gains on Coke with its Joy of Pepsi advertising campaign in the late 90’s, and that did nothing to change the relative taste profiles, and everyone had already heard of Pepsi, so the marketing work is clearly carrying a lot of the weight.

  43. Drinniol says:

    I was a bit disappointed that you seem to have completely avoided what seems to me a real huge and obvious objection to your entire argument:

    first mover / dominance effects

    Why is English the “lingua franca” of the world now, instead of the actual lingua that is franca?

    Is English just the universal language, the language of Babel maybe, that all cultures would always have settled on? Hardly.

    But this isn’t even the best example, because even if English isn’t better than other languages, it doesn’t seem to be worse either. It seems like almost any language would be good enough, and it’s just convenient to have one dominant trade/global standard language.

    OK. But how about QWERTY keyboards? We know QWERTY is worse than DVORAK. Hell, it’s probably worse than MOST keyboard layouts you could pick, given that the way it was constructed was to AVOID putting common letter pairs in proximity in order to avoid jamming typewriters. Yet, everyone uses QWERTY keyboards. Even people who accept that DVORAK is better usually still use QWERTY keyboards. Because everyone else uses QWERTY keyboards.

    It seems completely plausible to me that there can be parts of a dominant culture that are truly, really inferior to alternatives and the alternatives nonetheless fail to take hold.

    Another thing. Since you brought up prisoner’s dilemma and other game theory games – consider countercultures, in the sense of game theory. That is, cultures that counter the current dominant culture, but maybe aren’t very good in a general case. Imagine a totally awful, terrible culture that nonetheless due to very specific traits just so happens to win against the dominant, less terrible culture in a straight fight. Imagine a parasitic culture. imagine a predator culture. Imagine a culture that eats the dominant culture from the inside out, only to starve and collapse on itself when it becomes the dominant culture. Imagine a cancer culture.

    Certain native American cultures used to sacrifice children to the gods to ensure good harvest. The tears on the faces of the children as they were led off to be slaughtered were a particularly good omen for rains. The Romans were rather fond of reenacting certain religious mythologies by having women be raped by animals in front of a crowd. Some aspects of some cultures deserve to be eradicated. If enough aspects of a culture are terrible, sometimes the entire thing deserves to be burned to the ground.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The whole Dvorak is better than QWERTY thing is questioned by “The Fable of the Keys”.

      https://www.utdallas.edu/~liebowit/keys1.html

      • Drinniol says:

        Regardless of the example used, do you disagree with the statement that a suboptimal state of affairs can be retained if it is entrenched?

        Numerous examples might be taken from evolution, where historical factors have led to demonstrable inefficiencies in anatomy or structure. For instance, the human eye puts blood vessels in front of its receptors instead of behind.

        As a purely mathematical example, consider a ball on a 2-dimensional hill with valleys on either side, and suppose the goal is getting the ball to the lowest elevation. The ball may fall equally easily to either side, regardless if one side is deeper or not. If it falls on the less deep side, it is stuck in a suboptimal state of affairs by chance.

  44. Turd Burglar says:

    This post rests on the assumption that large groups of humans have very similar utility functions underlying their existing culture.

    A cultural practice that’s good for China may not be good for Brazil, even after you control for the effects of existing cultural norms.

    This post also suggests, to me at least, that racism is basically a universal human value. With the exception of some autists of all races, & hajnal whites, my experience is that basically everyone in-groups/out-groups racially. There’s a reason the Democratic Party’s multicultural alliance is glued together with strong out-grouping of white males.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Since we engage in censorship of racism and racist ideas, does that mean that racism is in fact the universalist culture?

      • onyomi says:

        I think there are two different phenomena at play: regression to mean human tendencies and liberal modernist individualism/what Scott is here calling “universal culture.”

        Regression to mean human tendencies include: tribalism, economic protectionism, cultural conservatism, rich guys gets tons of women while poor guy gets none and/or women run most households and have children by many fathers, most of whom are bums-type family dynamics… (I think the latter, especially, is probably more “natural” to humans, while patriarchy is actually the exception–there’s probably a big overlap here with Robin Hanson’s hunter-gatherer vs farmer values).

        Liberal modernist individualism is frequently at odds with human’s natural tendencies in obvious ways. But the former has the advantage of being the most appealing to any given individual, and also producing the most wealth.

        Robin Hanson’s theory explains it pretty well, though I’m not sure whether to ascribe “racism” to hunter-gatherer or farmer civilization–really it seems to be a tendency either way, though maybe more of the former since the latter have more need for peaceful trade. Probably hunter-gatherer values are closer to the human regression to mean, while farmer values are closer to the “universal” individualist, modern, capitalist culture Scott’s talking about.

    • NN says:

      This post also suggests, to me at least, that racism is basically a universal human value. With the exception of some autists of all races, & hajnal whites, my experience is that basically everyone in-groups/out-groups racially.

      This is true (though I have very serious doubts about the whole hajnal thing; the most obvious objection is that Germany is within the hajnal line and look at what they up to 75 years ago; see also the serious racial issues in modern France), with the qualification that the criteria for “race” varies significantly from place to place. Everyone who lived in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s would be considered white in the US and everyone who lived in Rwanda during 1994 would be considered black in the US.

      There’s a reason the Democratic Party’s multicultural alliance is glued together with strong out-grouping of white males.

      This is, in fact, also an example, because it is clear that in this context “while male” is actually a code word for “Red Tribe people.”

  45. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Wow, Scott.

    I don’t comment here that often but this reminds me of exactly why it’s worthwhile to read this blog. This is one of the best essays I’ve read in a while.

    I’d raise issues with a few points. I don’t think you can argue that egalitarian gender norms, Coca-Cola, democracy, capitalism etc. are ‘better’ in the same sense that modern scientific medicine is better than traditional medicine. We can prove very easily that modern scientific medicine works better at its goals than traditional medicine. Whether Coca-Cola is better than yak milk is a more difficult question. From a nutritional standpoint, probably not, which raises the question- what are we trying to optimize? Likewise, communism historically underperformed capitalism in some ways, but performed quite well in others- lower inequality for one, and arguably better prospects of employment for low-education people. Modern gender/sexual norms work great for some women (ones who like the sexual, professional and personal opportunities that it allows), but likewise makes things more difficult for women who actually liked the traditional norms (of which there are a surprising amount). There is more subjectivity and more tradeoffs between competing goods than I think you allow. Of course there is one way in which feminist norms do objectively outperform Abrahamic-patriarchal ones, which is that they allow us to achieve lower fertility rates and escape the Malthusian trap, and that’s a big part of the reason I think if you have to go full feminist or full patriarchal (which is a deeply unpleasant choice) the feminist world is probably a better one.

    In general, though I agree with your basic theme: there is such a thing as ‘universal’ culture (though I don’t really like that term- maybe ‘liberal’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘capitalist’, as you suggest, would do better). That culture isn’t really ‘western’, and in fact is as much of a threat to traditional European cultures. (Likewise, I’m not sure I would call people who dissent from ‘universalist’ culture to be ‘traditionalists’, because some of them aren’t that traditional at all. People who dislike western liberalism in the former Soviet Union often gravitate to neo-communism rather than to Russian Orthodoxy or traditionalist conservatism (and in their day, the communists quite rightly saw Western popular culture as a threat to them as much as it was a threat to Hindu or Muslim culture). The antinomy to universal culture is probably ‘antiliberal’, more than ‘traditional’.

    I really like your ‘Archipelago’ solution, which reminds me somewhat of the settlement between Catholics and Protestants that emerged out of the Thirty Years War. Something close to that is probably fairly similar to the model for international relations I’d like to see: a sort of hyper-Westphalian ‘archipelago’ of small, independent, ideologically and culturally cohesive tribes (which in the industrial age would probably take the form of nation states), in which people are able to migrate to the country that best suits them, and in which countries can exclude whoever they feel like. In my modification of the Archipelago situation, you’d also need massive foreign aid flows from richer to poorer countries, to limit the desire of people to emigrate for economic reasons.

    But yea, anyway: this is great. In general I agree with the idea of allowing and encouraging ‘antiliberal’ cultures, communities, and nations to preserve their identity. (And yes, at the cost of being called racist, I’ll bite the bullet and say that includes preserving one’s ethnic identity. If a majority of, say, Tibetan people want to preserve the Tibetan ethnic group for the ages, and if they decide it really means a lot to them that hundreds of years in the future there should be people that look like them and share a lot of their genetic heritage, then I’d say they should be able to limit immigration in the service of pursuing that goal. And the same goes for ‘white’ groups like, say, Estonians or Slovaks, both of whom are having major national debates about immigration right now).

  46. Immanentizing Eschatons says:

    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.

    Steel Progressivism and Steel Librtarianism alike have a very simple and consistent response to this: individualist social liberalism. The issue is two very different things being conflated- on one hand you have people being forced into abandoning aspects of their culture that do not involve hurting others, on the other hand you have people voluntarily leaving, or people being forced not to hurt others/enforce their culture by force. (force force force)

    So, fantasy example, lets say the some Americans are being assimilated by the “universal culture” of the New World Order

    Some Americans decide to keep the English language alive and learn it. This is fine.

    Some continue gather together to speak English with each other and play traditional “baseball” games, observe the fourth of July holy day, and eat traditional barbecue cuisine, and use that strange system of measurement they like so much. Also totally fine. Some even refuse to learn Esperanto, which is probably inconvenient for them but still fine.

    Many young Americans decide English isn’t worth their time and like NWO universal culture more than American traditional, and abandon the practices of their ancestors. This is totally fine. Some American Traditionalists try to suppress these “unAmerican traitors” with violence and terrorism, this is not OK and should be dealt with as any other crime.

    Historically there have been attempts by the NWO to suppress American culture and English by force. This was not OK and WorldGov has since issued a formal apology.

    The NWO continues to provide access to the global Internet that largely follows non-American culture through America despite protests that this is destroying the local culture. This is fine- there is no inherent value in a culture existing, and people have a right to access the global Internet.

    However there are English speaking American communities on the web, this is fine too.

    Some Americans force their children to practice traditional American culture when they don’t want to. This is not OK.

    Their are dark aspects of traditional American culture- Vigilante violence and even murder of criminals, and often mere accused criminals whose guilt did not have sufficient evidence, is a sadly common occurence. Hardliner traditional Americans hate recreational drug use (except for, oddly, alcohol and tobacco), and those caught doing drugs are occasionally beaten by bigoted reactionary thugs. Parents who catch their children engaging in such activities sometimes punish them severely. Public nudity and sex can also be punished with abuse or violence, and incestuous relationships no mater how consensual are seen as a grave abomination. Traditional American parents in often have a frightening and abhorrent amount of control over their children’s lives and children are soemtimes prevented from recieving life-saving or de-debilitating cybernetics and gene therapy, the treatment of neurodiveregnece and mental disability is often shocking, etc, etc. All of that stuff is not OK, and should be punished by the state when it occurs, using force to stop oppression is totally justified, “tradition” and “culture” be damned.

    Whether American culture ultimately survives or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is the freedom of all people.

  47. The Nybbler says:

    Or perhaps it’s the same old cycle. One culture becomes dominant because it’s truly better given the conditions at the time…. and in doing so changes the conditions in such a way that another culture is more fit. Of course I mean fundamentalist Islam, which current Western culture appears helpless against. Rather than co-opting Islam as “universal” western has done with so many other cultures, Islam has been co-opting the West through (current) Western dedication to multiculturalism, equality, religious tolerance, etc.

    If it does defeat the West, would Islam become a new universal culture? Or would the world splinter and enter a dark age, at the end of which some other culture would arise as dominant? I don’t know and I’d rather not find out.

    • Jill says:

      Interesting. That’s the trouble with defining the winner culture as the best one. Something like radical Islam could be the next “winner”– although I really don’t think so. I would be surprised if it were. If terrorism committed by people from the Middle East who claim Islam as their faith continues the way it’s going, there are going to be more and more people who vote to “Brexit” from it, in one way or another.– in Europe, the U.S. and other places.

      Multiculturalism, equality and religious tolerance are good things generally. But people certainly become less tolerant when their friends, relatives and neighbors are getting blown up by members of a particular religion. And we are seeing that happening in many countries now. Theoretically, many people have no limits to such principles. But practically, everyone does have limits.

      • The Nybbler says:

        If terrorism committed by people from the Middle East who claim Islam as their faith continues the way it’s going, there are going to be more and more people who vote to “Brexit” from it, in one way or another.– in Europe, the U.S. and other places.

        This is certainly my hope, that there’s a reaction which ends up changing the current Western universal culture to something which actually can defeat radical Islam. Without transforming itself into Nazism or something similar.

        Multiculturalism, equality and religious tolerance are good things generally.

        A universal culture cannot abide multiculturalism, not really. It will take from other cultures those things which are useful (what is now called “cultural appropriation”), but the main issue is that it will also instill its own useful values into the natives of those other cultures, leaving them with the universal culture only with a slight flavoring of the original.

        • Snodgrass says:

          The current Western culture as-is is happily defeating fundamentalist Islam by mostly doing nothing. A few hundred people at the sharp end, backed by part of the time of a few thousand people in agencies with acronyms for names, are helping the Libyan and Nigerian and Nigerien militaries hold off the desert barbarians; a few hundred million people are paying a trivial amount in tax to support a few million people who have fled, and a few tens of thousands of people are devoting a few years of their lives to helping those people.

    • But radical Islam is not in a winning position. ISIS and Al Qaeda are almost universally reviled and fought against, not only outside of Islam, but within as well. If anything, radical Islam is driving away people from Islam and making them actively hostile to anything associated with islam.

      • John Schilling says:

        If anything, radical Islam is driving away people from Islam

        Who is actually leaving Islam because of Radical Islam?

        Radical Islam is to Islam, it seems to me, rather like Donald Trump is to the Republican Party. Lots of people within the broader institution are embarrassed by it, would rather anything or anyone else be seen as their standardbearer, but push come to shove almost all of them will, if not actually defend Our Bastard against the Dreaded Outgroup, defend the institution against the outgroup hostility that is directed against it on account of the bastard. A small percentage will leave, but most of the “I will have nothing to do with Islam/the GOP on account of this” crowd are people who wouldn’t have had anything to do with them in any event.

        In the case of Islam, the small percentage who will leave the faith, or attempt to reform it by way of heresy, will be disproportionately Moslems who live in Western nations and write in Western languages. Be careful in extrapolating from that sample.

        • I remember an inquirry in Saudi Arabia that revealed that, in private, 19% of Saudi consider themself non-religious, and 5% atheist.

          As for the analogy with Trump and the GOP, it doesn’t hold very well: the vast majority of the people fighting against radical islamists are themself muslims; the Kurds, the regular Iraqi Army, the Syrian rebels, the Syrian government, the Egyptian army, the elements of the Saudi army that are actually taking a stance against ISIS and sacrifying soldiers on this front are all muslims.

          ISIS’ brand of Islam is condemned virtually by all muslim clerics outside of the sunni hanbali school of thought, and even within it, many wahhabis rigorist denounce ISIS for violating important hadith (such as the necessity to not cause division within Islam, and the need for muslims to respect the laws of the country they live in, even when it’s not a muslim majority country). And of course wahhabism itself is seen rather negatively by many muslims outside of it.

          ISIS seems to be losing on every front and its actions in the west are now largely limited to lone wolves who literally go from irreligion to radical islam and allegiance to ISIS over the course of a week before improvising an attack with whatever they can find. Whereas, with every attack, the westerners’ view of Islam becomes more negative and hostile.

          If Islam is supposed to take over, it’s doing a really bad job of it.

          • Jiro says:

            As for the analogy with Trump and the GOP, it doesn’t hold very well: the vast majority of the people fighting against radical islamists are themself muslims

            And the vast majority of the people fighting against Trump are themselves (insert name of category that includes Trump). Be careful about forcing a conclusion by choosing your reference class–who’s to say that the proper comparison is “other Republicans” and not “other politically loud people” or even “other Westerners”?

            The fact that Muslims oppose ISIS doesn’t mean that they don’t have things in common with ISIS that make it easier for ISIS to spread. It’s like the parable of reformed-Nazis and full strength Nazis.

          • But then that’s unsalfiable. No matter how strongly Muslims oppose ISIS and no matter what sacrifices they make to contain, it’ll always be possible to argue that ISIS spreads better within Islam — well yeah, it’s an Islamic movement; it would be weird if it spread better within Jainism.

            White people are more susceptible to be receptive to white power rhetorics; and yet they’re also the one doing the most efforts to fight it off. The correct interpretation isn’t that white people aren’t more susceptible to hateful ideologies than other ethnicities, but just that white power is a hateful ideology tailored for (but mostly failling to convince) white people.

          • Jiro says:

            well yeah, it’s an Islamic movement; it would be weird if it spread better within Jainism.

            But it would not spread as well if Muslims didn’t have ideas about Sharia law becoming the law of the land (91% in Iraq), apostasy being punishable by death (56% of Sharia supporters in the Middle East), cutting off hands of criminals (57% of Sharia supporters in the Middle East), thinking a wife must obey her husband (87%), etc. ISIS is a lot closer to the Overton window under those circumstances.

          • John Schilling says:

            As for the analogy with Trump and the GOP, it doesn’t hold very well: the vast majority of the people fighting against radical islamists are themself muslims;

            And six months ago, the vast majority of the people fighting against Trump were themselves Republicans. Six months ago, the idea that Trump would pose a serious threat to anyone but the GOP was considered mostly ludicrous.

            Me-six-months-from-now really hopes you’re right about this analogy not holding up. But the existence of a stage where the radical usurper is opposed mostly by tribal insiders, is part of the analogy rather than evidence against the analogy.

          • I still don’t see much evidence of radical islamism being on its way to victory.

            Where are hundred of thousands of westerners converting to Islam? Where are the millions of westerners suddenly expressing an interest in Islamic culture?

            Where are the blasphemy laws in western countries kneeling to muslim pressure (reminder that in France, Charlie Hebdo is still legal, while wearing a full covering veil is still illegal)?

            Where are the millions of Muslim leaving their traditional school of Islam in favor of wahhabism?

            Where are muslims becoming a dominating majority within western media, western banks, western film industries, western boards of directors, western justice systems, western political institutions, etc?

            Where are the muslim-lead, anti-jewish and anti-christian pogroms happening in broad day-light in western countries, under the indifferent or even complicit eye of the police?

            Where are the western christian churches confiscated and turned into mosques?

            Where are the bans on alcohol, tobacco and pork in the west?

            Where are the numerous world states officially recognizing ISIS as a sovereign country and declaring their explicit support for it?

            Where are the awe-inspiring military gains that ISIS was supposed to have achieved by now?

            Where’s the iranian nuclear bomb the hawks predicted would be acquired as soon as international sanctions were softened?

            Where are the islamic nuclear bombs exploding in the heart of major European cities [a prediction for this year that was actually endorsed by commenters on this blog, last year]?

            There are many things not to like about Islam, but thinking that Islam is, today, in any shape or form, in a state of seriously threatening the west, seems to be falling for a huge misdirection. The serious competition for the west is in Russia and China, not in the Middle-East.

          • Jiro says:

            The answer to many of those is “there are signs that we are going in that direction, even though we haven’t reached it yet”.

          • NN says:

            But it would not spread as well if Muslims didn’t have ideas about Sharia law becoming the law of the land (91% in Iraq), apostasy being punishable by death (56% of Sharia supporters in the Middle East), cutting off hands of criminals (57% of Sharia supporters in the Middle East), thinking a wife must obey her husband (87%), etc. ISIS is a lot closer to the Overton window under those circumstances.

            Surveys have actually found zero correlation between support for Sharia law and/or political Islam and support for terrorism. Furthermore, research has generally found that terrorists themselves do not tend to come from especially conservative and/or devout backgrounds. Al-Zarqawi, who founded the organization that was then known as Al Qaeda in Iraq but is now popularly called ISIS, was a violent criminal and a pimp before he went to Iraq to fight jihad. He wasn’t an exception: Western ISIS recruits are disproportionately likely to have a criminal record, and a surprising number of them are converts.

            The answer to many of those is “there are signs that we are going in that direction, even though we haven’t reached it yet”.

            Care to give a few examples? The only thing listed by Machine Interface that has any remote resemblance to anything in reality is “hundreds of thousands of Westerners converting to Islam,” because large numbers of black Americans have converted to Islam. But even in the US, converts to Islam are only barely numerous enough to cancel out the number of apostates from Islam. In other Western countries like France apostates outnumber converts by a factor of 10 to 1 or more.

          • Jiro says:

            Surveys have actually found zero correlation between support for Sharia law and/or political Islam and support for terrorism.

            Having large numbers of people support death for apostasy, cutting off criminals’ hands, etc. moves the Overton Window. The effect is that terrorists seem more reasonable. We think of beheading enemies as something done by a cartoonish supervillain. But if half your countrymen think people should be executed for apostasy, the fact that ISIS beheads enemies isn’t going to seem all that extreme.

            The Overton Window affects the whole society, so this need not result in any correlation between acceptance of Sharia and support for terrorists on a scale smaller than per-society.

          • NN says:

            The Overton Window affects the whole society, so this need not result in any correlation between acceptance of Sharia and support for terrorists on a scale smaller than per-society.

            This argument is so epicycle-heavy that it’s Not Even Wrong.

            Oh, and while I haven’t researched the issue in depth, I’m not sure that there even is a correlation on the per-society scale. Malaysia, for example, has high levels of support for versions of Sharia Law that involve things like cutting off the hands of thieves, but doesn’t have a lot of terrorism.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The other answer is that you sure had to be careful in adding qualifiers to some of those. Why do you only care about “muslim-lead, anti-jewish and anti-christian pogroms happening in broad day-light” if they’re in Western countries? Wouldn’t we expect a rising Islam to do those in Muslim countries first? Because they are doing that.

            Also, gonna need link evidence for this:

            Where are the islamic nuclear bombs exploding in the heart of major European cities [a prediction for this year that was actually endorsed by commenters on this blog, last year]?

          • Jiro says:

            Oh, and while I haven’t researched the issue in depth, I’m not sure that there even is a correlation on the per-society scale.

            The Pew poll shows that support for such things is generally higher in the Middle East and South Asia (Afghanistan/Pakistan). It is true that the figures are high for Malaysia, but it seems to be an outlier.

          • @ Jaskologist

            >>> Also, gonna need link evidence for this

            https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/01/10/slow-but-steady/#comment-302793 and ensuing discussion

            (turns out it wasn’t quite last year and the prediction was for the next 10 years)

          • John Schilling says:

            @Machine: I just looked through that thread. One poster, alphaceph, suggested Islamic immigrants/terrorists setting off a nuclear device in a European city, as a hypothetical, and immediately noted that this was less probable than simply an increase in the frequency of small-scale terrorist attacks. He did, in a few subsequent posts, defend the nuke scenario as plausible.

            Everyone else in the subthread either dismissed and ridiculed the comment, or got into a side discussion of whether the Iranian government might develop nuclear weapons.

            So, neither an actual prediction, and not endorsed by commenters here.

          • By “Everyone else in the subthread” you mean “mostly Machine Interface”; otherwise, point granted.

      • The Nybbler says:

        ISIS is driving Islam before it into the heart of Western civilization, as the Huns did the Goths into Rome.

        • Actually, ISIS is mostly driving Islam into other Middle-eastern Muslim countries, where 80% of the refugees are (and Europe made a deal with Turkey to keep it that way).

          • The Nybbler says:

            And the other 20%?

          • Germany has accepted 600,000 syrian refugees, but it’s more the exception than the rule among major western countries: Austria and the Netherlands have taken less than 40,000 each, Belgium less than 20,000, Switzerland less than 13,000, France less than 12,000, the UK less than 10,000, Spain less than 9,000, the US less than 8,000, Italy less than 3,000. (and note that while 600,000 in Germany is the number of registered refugees, in the other countries listed it’s merely the number of *applicants*).

            We’re still pretty far in scale from the refugee situations that Europe was confronted to during and after the two world wars.

          • NN says:

            Also, a majority of Syrian refugees are actually fleeing the forces of Bashir Al-Assad, not ISIS. The Assad regime and its allies have killed something like 8 times as many people as ISIS has.

        • ChetC3 says:

          Islam was already there; the Huns were a major military power in their era, while ISIS’s greatest feat was besting the gutted carcass of what had been a sixth-rate military; in marked contrast with Rome, the Goths and their culture were wiped from the face of the earth within a couple centuries

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            Isn’t Spanish culture descended from the Visigoths?

          • ChetC3 says:

            Yeah, I overdid the hyperbole a bit there. The influence of the Visigoths on Spanish culture is much weaker than the influence from culture of the late Roman empire, but there are still some traces. Their language went extinct without leaving much behind in Spanish or Portuguese, and the Visigoths had abandoned paganism and Arian Christianity for the Nicaean Christianity of their subjects before that. But apparently the Visigothic code was the source of some later Spanish laws, which is something. A more blatant counterexample would be the Crimean Goths, who were still around and speaking Gothic into the 18th century.

      • Snodgrass says:

        I don’t think anyone is stopping going to mosque on Fridays because ISIS took Ramadi; I don’t think a single person in Java will suddenly become more devout as a direct result of coalition forces recapturing Mosul from Daesh.

        A distressing number of fools in the West have become worried about random shopkeepers or software developers who go to mosque on Fridays; this is unfortunate for the Muslims and sad for the fools.

      • Snodgrass says:

        “radical Islam is driving away people from Islam and making them actively hostile to anything associated with Islam”

        The fact that the horrors perpetuated by barbarians who have taken on a mantle labelled ‘radical Islam’ are on the news every night has made people unnecessarily scared; just as, if the news every night focussed on close-up pictures of necrotising black-widow spider bites, there would be an awful lot more unnecessarily squashed aranea diademata.

  48. Jules LT says:

    How about we protect people’s rights to keep their traditions as long as they don’t get in the way of the rest of us keeping progress going? That’s the main difference between current Western populists and quaint tradition-keeping, I think.

    • Snodgrass says:

      How are the rest of us prevented from keeping progress going by being reminded that it’s incivil to wear feather bonnets or Dominican habits or tefillin as fancy-dress? Or by being advised not to have a hog-roast as the only source of protein at your company social event? Or by some of one’s colleagues taking prayer breaks for the same sort of time and frequency that others of one’s colleagues take cigarette breaks?

  49. Is there really something individuals can do about such long term and large scale dynamics though? This seems analogous to individual body cells being concerned about their host’s musical tastes and wondering what strategy they can adopt to prevent him from listening to Just Bieber.

    The point about local governments having to expend extra energy to prevent elements of the universal culture from replacing their does seem to indicate a foretold conclusion: those groups that try to resist universal culture waste energy doing so that other groups that accept universal cultures can invest more wisely, thereby outcompeting the resisting groups. That’s like a species investing energy in trying to lower its rate of mutation; there are very few contexts where this will be a good evolutionary strategy.

    • Jill says:

      In many cases that is so, that individuals can’t do much. But groups can, and individuals decide whether to join a group or not. And individuals decide whether to vote to Brexit or to Bremain. Or whether to join a Christian Right church and to vote how their minister and church members do, in order to try to win the culture wars against the Left Wing that is said to be Lucifer. So individuals, when you add them all up, each have a little bit of a say.

  50. DH says:

    Finding the Slate Star Codex blog was one of the most fortuitous things ever to happen to me. Your posts never fail to blow my mind. Thank you Scott for the great, thought-provoking content!

  51. Obelix says:

    Regarding Caplan’s blogpost (which I haven’t read, but the relevant part is in Scott’s post):

    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.

    It seems that everybody thinks their culture’s main strength is its openness to awesomeness, while “those guys over there” are totally closed to anything new. There seems to be a popular factoid among English speakers that English has a larger vocabulary than most other languages, because it borrows words from all other languages, and that’s why it’s so awesome. In truth, it’s very hard to estimate the size of a language’s lexicon, and all languages borrow words from others.

    One especially funny thing is that while Americans—and I would tend to agree—will tell you that one of the greatest strengths of the United States is that it integrated people from all over the world and built its culture from the best part of its immigrants’, many Canadians will claim that unlike in the United States immigrants to Canada can preserve their own culture rather than having to assimilate into the hegemon, and that the subsequent diversity is what makes Canada so great.

  52. John Schilling says:

    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’m not sure this works as an example of the asymmetrical superiority of Universal Culture. Presumably the UC, being U, also encompasses prostitutes. It would seem almost necessary that the UC also has some method of signaling “I am/am not a prostitute”, on account of pepper-spraying being otherwise intolerably frequent. If the color-coded culture abandons its color codes, would it not then adopt the UC’s code for the same purpose? This seems like a straightforward example of cultural assimilation at the detail level, with the victorious culture being described as “Universal” by virtue of that victory.

    But that victory is entirely path- and context-dependent. You are no doubt imagining the case where members of the Color-Coded Culture (hence CCC) immigrate over time to Modern Western Civilization (hence MWC). Certainly the first members of CCC to arrive will adopt MWC’s practices in this regard, on account of their prostitutes not getting any clients if all they do is walk around dressed in red and their johns getting pepper-sprayed if they proposition red-dressed strangers. By the time the 50/50 balance is even approached, pretty much everyone in the local CCC community will have given in to the inevitability of “we do things the MWC way in this regard”.

    But run the path the opposite direction, and you get the opposite result. If an MWC woman moves to CCC-land, she’s going to stop wearing red (unless she’s a prostitute, in which case she will wear nothing else). And the first MWC man in CCC-land is going to adapt pretty quickly to the fact that yes, women in red will do anything you ask of them, but their pimps will beat you up if you don’t pay up. By the time 50/50 parity is reached, even among the MWC community only prostitutes will be wearing red and everyone else will act accordingly.

    Which is to say, immigrants assimilate or are segregated into ghettos where they can’t cause problems. That you imagine MWC in the role of the stable culture assimilating immigrants rather than the culture whose members migrate and assimilate elsewhere is I think an example of the strength of Modern Western Civilization, but not a manifestation of its universality.

  53. Jill says:

    This post makes me think of this book below. I notice that prices range between 88 cents and $190. I guess people are finding out how amazing the book is, and some are charging accordingly for copies. It’s a little known treasure written by a French sociologist in the 1960s. But its depth and breadth on this subject has never yet been surpassed in the decades that followed.

    Much of what Scott refers to as universal culture here is technological culture. Ellul makes the case that technology is irresistible. It seems that economic growth is too. Of course technology and economic growth have their upsides– although Ellul writes mostly of their downsides. He sees them as being pretty much like heroin– irresistible but we’d be better off if we found ways to resist them, at least to some degree and in some cases.

    The Technological Society
    by Jacques Ellul (Author), John Wilkinson (Translator), Robert K. Merton (Introduction)

    https://www.amazon.com/Technological-Society-Jacques-Ellul/dp/0394703901/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1469566846&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Technological+Society

    • hlynkacg says:

      That looks interesting. Consider it added to the read-list, thank you.

      As a side note the $190 price appears to be for a hard-over edition from a printer of college text-books. The mass market paper-back edition is much more reasonable at $10

    • Techno-Satanist says:

      Irresistible but we’d be better off if we found ways to resist them, at least to some degree and in some cases.

      Well Amish did. Why don’t people like Ellul go and join the Amish if technology is so bad?

  54. Rusty says:

    I would like to point out that many Brexiters are not racists and are constantly amazed at how many people claim to be able to see inside our minds to discover what we really, really think. Some of us even live in cities.

    We are also surprised by the reflex assumption that the EU is somehow an engine of liberal loveliness when we see it as the thing that destroyed the employment prospects of millions of young people across southern europe and STILL won’t admit the Euro was really, really stupid idea.

    But possibly I am going a little off topic.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      >I would like to point out that many Brexiters are not racists
      >He thinks he gets to decide that

    • Jill says:

      You are correct, of course. There are a zillion reasons why someone could be a Brexiter that have nothing to do with racism. One could object to any of the policies put forth by the EU, or to the methods by which such policies are being implemented. One could also think that the EU is fantastic for countries whose needs are well served by EU membership– but that Britain is not one of these countries.

      Even if one fears terrorism from immigration, that is not necessarily racist either. There have been numerous terrorist attacks in Europe, some of them related to immigration. So it is a realistic fear.

      There is also the question of whether members of certain cultures can or would assimilate into the host country’s culture. And the question of whether there are sufficient jobs for the large numbers of immigrants that have been pouring into the EU. And whether it is fair to citizens to bring in immigrants who may end up competing with citizens for scarce jobs.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Just because it’s realistic doesn’t mean it’s not racist.

        • meyerkev248 says:

          The flip side of that of course being that if the racists are being realistic, calling them out on the racism is likely to end up counter-productive.

          My father left Detroit in 1968, when the riots came within 2 miles of his house, the National Guard was shooting people in the streets, and after he’d gotten mugged a few times and he couldn’t walk on the sidewalks because of all the German Shepherds.

          Were my grandparents racist when they dragged their 13 children out of that environment into the suburbs? Yes.
          Were my grandparents realistic? Also yes.

          And to deny white flight as pure racism is to deny the very real context and concerns that got Nixon elected and then re-elected, Reagan elected, and in their modern incarnation have Trump on top of the polls however temporarily.

          • Jill says:

            Some people really are racist, such as police who kill unarmed black men who are no threat to them.

            But if someone fears for their life and the lives of their family members, so they leave a high crime area– to me that is not racist. That is practical. It seems that many of the people who consider themselves not racist at all are usually people who live in communities where there is very little mixing of the races. If they ever lived in a high crime inner city neighborhood, they would probably have moved out of there too.

            A lot of political disagreements seem to be between groups who have never walked even one step in each other’s shoes— and can’t imagine doing so. Having no skin in the game at all can really affect your judgment of others a lot.

  55. Bram Cohen says:

    The criticisms of western society seem to mostly boil down to two core issues: A lack of stable social networks and a lack of exercise. The solutions to these problems are Facebook and Pokemon Go, respectively.

    • Jill says:

      LOL, are you serious? Well, at least those are beginnings. You have to start somewhere. But eventually it would be good if Americans would get a little more exercise than is required to play Pokemon Go.

      And it would be good if Americans would learn to speak and make eye contact and maybe even– I know it’s hard to imagine– learn social skills of the type that are needed for off line in-person communication.

      • Techno-Satanist says:

        And it would be good if Americans would learn to speak and make eye contact and maybe even– I know it’s hard to imagine– learn social skills of the type that are needed for off line in-person communication.

        Well, as a person with autism, I am quite glad to live in this society as it is much, much easier to have autism here than what I’ve seen and experienced from more traditional societies. So, I don’t think this is a problem, and I think it is really bad that people would think that it is a problem.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Maybe a traditional society would force you to develop better social skills instead of your own non-social interests. My hypothesis is that sociality is like working out. Some people are inherently better than others but some societies push it to where almost everyone has a certain minimum level. Is there any known cases of autism in hunter-gatherer societies?

          • Nornagest says:

            You might have to distinguish between “autists” and “autists that survived to adulthood”, here. Infanticide is common in a lot of hunter-gatherer societies (as well as a lot of historical agricultural societies), and poor or delayed language development strikes me as the kind of thing that might trigger it.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Not hunter-gatherer societies, but I know it’s been bandied about that myths of fairies or whatever that steal and take the form of/leave an impostor of healthy babies were a way of explaining autism and other such things, which often have an onset.

            The methods of getting rid of changelings were often pretty brutal, as I understand it.

          • Lumifer says:

            Classical autism can be diagnosed at the age of 2-3 years. That’s a bit too early to not develop social skills because of lack of practice.

      • Snodgrass says:

        That’s what the Pokestops are for; you go to one with a lure, and there is a circle of people speaking and making eye contact during the substantial periods when no pokemon has been synthesised by the algorithm. The first few weeks they’re all talking about Pokemon, because that’s the obvious shared topic, but I suspect (because Pokemon is substantially an interest of children-who-need-to-be-accompanied-by-a-parent) they’ll be talking about child-raising within a few months.

    • Nornagest says:

      I don’t think social networks have gotten more stable in the presence of Facebook.

  56. Kyrus says:

    “I am mostly just on the side of consistency. After that I have no idea what to do.”

    There probably aren’t many sentences that I can identify myself with more than this one. Solving problems and doing utility maximization is actually pretty hard. But the least we can do is to be honest and consistent about our preferences.

    The problem is of corse that both sides of any argument will be mad at me.

  57. Arbitrary_greay says:

    I’m not sure what there is to be torn over, especially since the Archipelago already deals with the thing to be torn over: easy exit conditions and low moving barriers between societies.

    The problem with any culture, the Universal one or not, is when it is imposed upon people, rather than letting each make the choice. People willing to be eye-gouged can stay in Tibet. Tibet eye-gouging people who don’t wanna get eye-gouged is bad. Tibet stopping people from leaving is bad. A Tibet that lets people run away, shrivelling away because it wouldn’t let go of eye-gouging as a core practice, is simply one that got fairly out-competed. There’s probably a non-eye-gouging variant of the culture set up somewhere that hasn’t shrivelled away yet.

    The Amish still exist, despite having such an easy exit.

    Similarly, the issue with Brexit, or the EU, is that the decision to stay/leave is imposed upon populations who don’t wanna stay/leave. So, as is happening in some cases, some parts that wanna stay in the EU are considering secession from the UK. In Archipelago-land, that’s should be allowed with minimal fuss.

    Taking this to America, people should stop taking everything to the Federal level, and start better supporting internal movement within the country so that anyone who feels oppressed under the local Tribe can get out.

    The practical issue with this, of course, is that not all locations are equal. People who feel oppressed under the local Tribe don’t want to get out, for other reasons. They’re sentimentally attached, or the weather is really nice, it’s resource-rich, it has the types of jobs they want to do, etc. So the Archipelago quickly discards its no-coercion clause, devolves into Warring States, borders quickly become incomprehensible.

    But at the level of the OP post, I don’t see an idealistic dilemma.

    (The fear of immigration is two-pronged. There are various consequences to the dilution of ideals. Some long for the days of centralized talk on LW. Some think that the diaspora to Tumblr is what has driven some evaporative cooling here on SSC. The gay culture of SF has summoned some demons of its own, with the slow death of gay bars, gentrification of its traditional neighborhoods by startup employees with non-straight sexualities but nonetheless opposing politics, and the ever-growing alphabet soup of the LGBTIAQNB acronym, with all of the internal strife that entails. Not so nice for anyone who thought the culture was at its ideal peak at any past snapshot of time.
    The other prong is less about culture and more about personal financial situations.)

  58. Vasily says:

    “colonists captured by the natives almost always wanted to stay and live with the natives;” I read a book of John Elliott “Empires of the Atlantic World”, where is stating that spanish colonies didn’t have this problem, but englishmen had indeed

    • gbdub says:

      To the extent it’s true, I’m not sure whether it even matters. We’re talking about people who were abducted, for the most part. There’s probably some survivor bias in both directions. It seems like the natives who were taken were treated basically as zoo exhibits, whereas the colonists who got captured and wanted to stay were treated more like a new tribe member (then again, maybe all the ones who were unable or unwilling to “go native” were abandoned or killed).

      In the long run, there are many more Native Americans attempting to mostly join modern American culture than there are modern Anglo-Americans hopping on horses and becoming nomadic hunter-gatherers.

      • John Schilling says:

        In the long run, there are many more Native Americans attempting to mostly join modern American culture than there are modern Anglo-Americans hopping on horses and becoming nomadic hunter-gatherers.

        Do modern Anglo-Americans have the option of joining an existing horse nomad culture, as opposed to just riding into the wilderness alone?

  59. Aiyen says:

    Very interesting post. I have a number of questions.

    First, if the hypothesis is true-optimized Universal Culture will spread and improve lives around the world in the absence of communication barriers or deliberate censorship, and we now have excellent communication in the modern world, what’s the best way to eliminate censorship? Part of this is realpolitik balance of power games, keeping high-censorship countries from gaining too much influence. But how do we reduce censorship within a nation suffering from it? Short of invasion (which presents significant ethical and tactical difficulties), what are the tools available for the job?

    Also, there are significant censorship problems that have nothing to do with government action. Consider a child growing up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses family, cut off from knowledge of the outside world, taught to view any doubt of the teachings that ruin her life as blasphemous “lack of faith”, so that it is very easy for her to waste her whole life without ever realizing that there might be a better way. Even if all governments were to abandon censorship forever (good luck with that one!), there would be large segments of society practicing self-censorship with horrific consequences. And do not try to excuse the crippling fear and guilt and self-abasement that such circumstances produce with some platitude about “it’s okay for people to follow their consciences on matters of faith” or “they’re seeking spiritual fulfillment”. People trapped in cults aren’t doing what they do because they want to; they’re doing so because they feel obligated to. If a cult’s assumptions about God are wrong, the entire culture thereof is an atrocity. Completely optimizing the world with Universal Culture requires a way to deal with malcontents and holdouts, not to mention purveyors and victims of insanity. Again, what’s the best tool for the job?

    Scott then starts discussing cultures as though they had value in and of themselves, as if Ones Own Culture was a terminal value. This makes no sense. Why value doing things the way historical chance and accidents of birth dictate over doing them in ways that allow for higher quality of life? Human nature seems to have a soft spot for tradition and nostalgia. If I grow up celebrating Thanksgiving, I might have a preference to continue doing so instead of switching to Chinese New Year, even if there isn’t an objective, universal reason to prefer one over the other if I were equally familiar with both. That suggests that there will be a significant amount of cultural diversity for a while, and that’s fine. But Scott writes as though the death of cultures is something to be mourned, even if that death is voluntary. If people abandon ways that weren’t fulfilling them in favor of ways that give them better lives, shouldn’t we be celebrating better lives instead of mourning a culture as though it were a sentient being?

    Scott makes two attempts to explain this puzzling sentiment-associating it with anti-colonialism, and the “why not value hydrogen” argument. The thing is, though, defending valuing cultures independently from the well-being of their members by association with anti-colonialism is what Scott would call the Worst Argument in the World. The problem with colonialism is that it tended to involve practices that harmed natives for the benefit of the colonizers, sometimes to the point of literal slavery. Now, harming people is bad (citation needed). But the lesson we should draw from this is not to harm people, and perhaps to be wary of colonial situations since they have historically often involved harm. That doesn’t mean that anything that reminds us of colonialism (such as the spread of Universal Culture) is automatically bad! Anything “colonial” that does not produce harm a la Belgians in the Congo should not be viewed as bad just because the Belgians don’t have the best track record in Africa.

    The “why not value hydrogen” argument is much more interesting, and I had to consider for a while whether it might be valid. However, I’m fairly certain that it isn’t. Given that we don’t currently value hydrogen (at least not terminally), and the only reason why we might want to rewire ourselves to do so is the possibility of increased happiness, “hydrogen values” are simply another form of wireheading. Now, wireheading is generally considered to be the wrong path by transhumanists who are concerned that it will neglect all their values besides personal happiness (love, friendship, exploration, understanding, skill, reproduction). Some even question whether it would be that effective at producing happiness!

    Now, the value of wireheading is a separate debate. Personally, I’d like to wirehead if I can keep love, friendship and exploration too, otherwise it doesn’t sound worth it. But whether or not we decide that wireheading is worthwhile, that’s a very different question than the superiority of Universal Culture. I suspect that Universal Culture is much more like Coherent Extrapolated Volition, the idea that we should pursue that which we would want, in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s words, “if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished we were, had grown up farther together.”

    People generally don’t hold anti-Universal values as terminal values. People who argue for the suppression of women’s rights, for example, generally don’t say “but this keeps women down! That’s awesome! How can you not see the awesomeness?” They argue that it makes God happy, or that women don’t have the wherewithal to perform well in a particular setting, or that (as happened earlier in this thread!) women’s liberation reduces fertility rates to unsustainable levels. The implication, of course, is that if we can get away with women’s lib without upsetting God, or Damaging the Fabric of Society, or going extinct, that it might not be such a bad idea after all! An awful lot of Universal Culture is knowledge, knowledge that sushi is delicious, or that educating women improves everyone’s quality of life and doesn’t herald the Apocalypse, or that penicillin can save your life. And an awful lot of rival traditional cultures is ignorance or outright disinformation, restricting people for fear of Horrible Consequences that never actually show up. We might never get global agreement on whether Thanksgiving or Chinese New Year is more fun (though we might start celebrating both), but simple increases in knowledge and critical thinking displacing blind faith in tradition would naturally spread Universal Culture in a way that they very much would not spread hydrogen values.

    The final question that occurs to me about Universal Culture is whether its aptitude for spreading comes from improving quality of life, or other factors, possibly ones inimical to human well being. Should we be on the Universal side? As has been mentioned previously in this thread, the clash of cultures between European settlers and Native Americans was decided by European numbers and military technology (and by European diseases all but wiping out some Native tribes), not by everyone noticing that European culture was more fun. Indeed, people with exposure to both cultures almost always preferred to live with the Natives! I think, however, that Universal Culture does have a lot going for it in terms of actual human benefit.

    For one thing, memetic spread is very different from military conquest. Young Iranians are adopting Western ways, not because we’re forcing them to (indeed, the primary military pressure on them is the exact opposite, courtesy of the Iranian government), but because having seen both ways of life, the Western way is more rewarding. One suspects that in the absence of European military superiority, settlers would have eventually adopted many Native ways; indeed this happened to a significant extent regardless. People will naturally adopt memes and ways of life that make them happier; as such one would expect Universal Culture to be mostly beneficial. However, I can see three possible failure modes.

    Some memes are good at spreading by fear, false hope or a twisted sense of duty, rather than anything positive or beneficial. Sometimes these are nationalist, racial or political dogmas, but religion is the archetypal example of this-false religions can spread by hope of heaven or threat of hell/getting a bad reincarnation/Hades/what have you, while having a horrifyingly negative net impact on the world. The possibility of a true religion is a separate question, but we should be able to agree that false ones are problematic.

    Other memes might be like heroin, as mentioned above. What happens if a way of life is very tempting, but its overall effects are bad? Unfortunately, such memes will spread just as easily as genuinely good ones, and do form a part of Universal Culture (many people will cite fast food or TV addiction here; which aspects of the culture fall in this category is debatable, but it is almost certain that we have something along these lines).

    Finally, there’s the possibility of prisoner’s dilemmas entering the mix. Farming seems to have displaced foraging not because it offered a better life (indeed, early farming seems to have offered a much worse one), but because it allowed farmers to gain a decisive military edge over their forager neighbors. Again, consider the European settlers vs the Natives-the Natives had a higher quality of life, but they couldn’t stand up to European guns, germs and steel. As such, some aspects of modernity are likely to be ways to gain military (or other) superiority that potentially don’t help our well being, or even harm it significantly.

    Overall, however, I think we should largely be on Universal Culture’s side. The benefits of optimizing our lives according to what actually works are hard to overstate, and the failure modes are something we’ll have to face either way. We can seek effective medicine, human rights, capitalist prosperity and the like while still confronting false religions (indeed, Universal Culture tends to be hostile to them), trying to avoid TV addiction or getting all our meals from McDonald’s, and trying to limit arms races. And while matters aren’t as simple as “more money, more happiness”, there is definite potential for Universal Culture to build a brighter future. Perhaps one brighter than we can imagine.

  60. Yossarian says:

    >>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.
    >>But another argument is that we should consistently support universal culture’s attempt to impose progress on traditional cultures.

    That should be a rather easy decision at this point. Most of the economics nowadays is still relying on the principles of the whip and the cookie. So, let’s see what they could be to make a good universal culture:
    1) The cookie: If you like the culture, you support it. For example (I am replacing the real cultures here with fictional analogues, say there are two cultures adjacent to your SteelManiacs culture – GlassManiacs and StoneManiacs) the culture of GlassManiacs is awesome, because they make REALLY cool glass jars, and because they dance around their glass-making furnace in really erotically enticing ways, then you support them – buy the glass jars, donate money to them, be friendly to them, help them immigrate and so on (including giving them benefits of your civilization – if you support their craft with your purchases and donations – profitable business for them!). Of course, if you don’t like them – don’t support them, and that’s it, shouldn’t do violence to them just because of that.
    2) The whip: Sooner or later, those cultures are going to clash. For example, the StoneManiacs say that making anything out of glass is sinful and should be made illegal. Then you whack them, and whack them hard, ’cause they actually oppress the other culture. And yeah, it should be legal to leave any culture, so you can win over StoneManiacs in numbers, too, by having them go to your universal culture or the GlassManiacs culture.
    And yeah… that simple algorithm is often considered racist or otherwise discriminatory nowadays, just because it can be easily understood, who would be on the far end of the stick, if it’s implemented.

  61. rossle says:

    There is a valuable distinction between elements of culture that are transmitted 1) mimetically/horizontally, 2) traditionally/vertically, and 3) via continuing institutions.

    “Successful” horizontal memes are merely those which are most viral. Their long term benefits down the generations may be nil or substantially negative (e.g. Bolshevism, Shakers).

    Successful vertically transmitted traditions may outlive their environmental usefulness, but their prevalence or persistence is evidence of multi-generational selective benefit(s). In a post-scarcity, post birth control, and urbanizing world natalism (Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Mormons, Amish) is the killer meme.

    Successful institutions bear within them particular cultural features, the spread of which can be a core (Mormon church) or incidental (neckties) function of the success of the relevant institution(s) and which may or may not be a substantial contributor to that institutional success.

    • Anonymous says:

      In a post-scarcity, post birth control, and urbanizing world natalism (Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Mormons, Amish) is the killer meme.

      So it’s claimed ad nauseum but at this point it is merely speculative as the experiment hasn’t be running for nearly long enough to draw any conclusions.

      • Jill says:

        Well, people who believe in reproducing, and who thus reproduce, do fill up the world and grow as a percentage of the world’s population. But is the world better off for it, is the question.

        • Anonymous says:

          What groups “believed in reproducing” 100 years ago, what percentage were they back then and what percentage are they now? You only get to look at contemporary evidence for “believed in reproducing”.

          Right now you have a convincing sounding story, you don’t have much, if any, evidence. Get back to me in four or five generations.

          • Anonymous says:

            What groups “believed in reproducing” 100 years ago, what percentage were they back then and what percentage are they now?

            There actually ARE numbers for this stuff. Consider the Amish population. A hundred years ago, there were 5,000 of them. Now there are in excess of 300,000. That’s a 60x growth right there.

            Meanwhile, the American population tripled. And that’s not even trying to discount immigration.

            A similar story is with the Puritans, who were also hardcore about making sure their women were pregnant most of their lives. (I can’t find the numbers now, but IIRC, it’s the same general idea – tiny initial population, huge contemporary population of their descendants.)

          • Anonymous says:

            Can’t say I’ve ever met a Puritan. That vertical transmission thing must be faulty.

          • Anonymous says:

            Can’t say I’ve ever met a Puritan. That vertical transmission thing must be faulty.

            It is, in a way.

            Puritanism per se is now about as common as Amishism was in 1920. The biological descendants of Puritans (wouldn’t be surprised if something like half of all Anglo-Americans were directly descended) and the memetic descendant of Puritanism (progressivism) are still around and pretty much ruling the known world.

          • Anonymous says:

            >descendant of Puritanism
            >progressivism

            As a reward for “showing up” people that don’t share any of your values and that you would detest with every fiber of your being will be considered your intellectual descendants.

            I can now see why having lots of kids is seen as the key to cultural dominance.

          • Anonymous says:

            Heresy is its own punishment. 🙂

          • Nornagest says:

            wouldn’t be surprised if something like half of all Anglo-Americans were directly descended [from Puritans]

            Not unlikely, but not very surprising either. Something like 12% of Americans are Mayflower descendants, but given the sheer number of ancestors most of us have that many generations back, it’s almost more surprising that the number isn’t higher.

        • Nornagest says:

          The world doesn’t care; it’s not an agent. Are the people better off for it, and is the meme even sustainable? Those are open questions.

  62. The original Mr. X says:

    A few random thoughts:

    (1) As you point out with your heroin example, something can be (seemingly) good in the short term but do long-term damage to those who take it up. Indeed, I’d suggest that that’s what people who worry about the fragility of Western civilisation are concerned about: sure, “universal” (i.e., secular liberal) gender norms (say) might seem fun and liberating and spread in that way, but it’s possible/likely/certain that there are hidden costs which make them a net negative for societies that adopt them.

    (2) Given that highly religious couples are more likely to report greater relationship satisfaction and less likely to get divorced, it might be that secular liberal norms about gender and sex are worse on the individual as well as societal level, although people don’t realise this because the benefits tend to be more immediately obvious than the costs.

    (3) If these “universal” norms really are the low-entropy state, then why do we see so much effort being put into things like increasing female participation in the workforce, banning speech or actions deemed offensive to women and sexual minorities, and the like?

    • Wrong Species says:

      I think to a certain extent that societal wealth allows us to “buy” more decadence. I can’t imagine that single mothers would be as common if we didn’t have a welfare state that allowed them to be more cavalier when it came to divorce.

    • Jill says:

      Highly religious couples are less likely to get divorced because it’s a sin to get divorced. That doesn’t mean the marriage is happy or that they are better off in any way. Staying in a miserable marriage is not an enviable position.

      And I have also read a study that says that women with abusive partners describe them more positively than women with non-abusive partners– apparently because abused women try to explain to themselves why they stay with their abusive partners. And if there is no good reason, they make one up. So perhaps some of these women claim they are happier than non-abused women say they are, as part of that same self-persuading process.

      • Nornagest says:

        Highly religious people generally self-report higher happiness, too. I don’t know if anyone’s looked specifically at married religious couples, but since religiosity tends to correlate with early marriage, I would be surprised if there was a hidden pit of misery there.

        I guess you don’t have to trust self-reports, but at that point we’re basically assuming our conclusion.

        • Jill says:

          I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a hidden pit of misery in people who have been married since they were children, don’t know any other way of life, and believe that divorce is a sin they will burn in hell for.

          I do have a hard time believing self-reports on the subject of happiness, more than on any other subject. Because the most important aspect of the meaning of language is the aspect of value.

          When someone is asked “Are you ________?” or “How ______ are you?”– the most meaningful part of the question is whether _____ is important or valuable. And whether saying they are _________ is considered good or bad, shameful or virtuous, ungrateful or authentic etc.

          That’s one big difference between social science research and physical science research. You don’t have to think about the values of your atoms and molecules. But the values of people may totally determine their answers to questions you ask them as a researcher.

          I often wonder what you are getting in all this happiness research. I wish there were more of the kind of research that no one does because it takes forever. Like open-ended questions, rather than multiple choice or 1 to 10 rating scales alone. Like, okay, how happy are you on a 1 to 10 scale? And what is it about your life that makes it happy or unhappy? What is your experience like, or your feelings or thoughts like that make you happy, unhappy, or neutral?

          I wouldn’t be surprised if some people described essentially the same experiences, feelings or thoughts– but gave their lives very different happiness ratings.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            I’m a conservative christian. I spent a decade or so as a liberal atheist. I’m divorced. I am definately mentally healthier and considerably happier now than I was before.

            Any specific questions you had in mind?

          • Nornagest says:

            Well, the question I was trying to get at is this: you have this demographic that believes divorce is sinful, and you suspect that this may lead to lots of unhappy marriages. But how do you know? There are more divorces in cultures that don’t think divorce is sinful, so you’ve got a revealed preference argument there, but revealed preference ain’t perfect. It would be nice if there was something concrete we could point to that showed this theoretical misery. After all, it’s a real thing; it should have measurable effects, and the claims being made about it are pretty dramatic. So where’s the beef?

            Self-reports are unreliable, but I’ll take them over armchair reasoning. Especially when politics is involved.

          • Anonymous says:

            don’t know any other way of life

            This would actually suggest they *are* happy. Or do you think a medieval sovereign would be, in fact, miserable because of the lack of golf courses and indoor plumbing in his world?

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a hidden pit of misery in people who have been married since they were children, don’t know any other way of life, and believe that divorce is a sin they will burn in hell for.

            All the people I know who “married young” did so within a year or two of leaving university — so young by modern standards, but not so young as to be little children with no idea of life outside the fundamentalist bubble.

  63. Jacobian says:

    You know, it strikes me that our own loose gray tribe is doing remarkably well indeed. We aren’t held hostage by immigration or even hostile government, our culture can exist with most of its member spread around the world and only a few hotspots. The average adherent of our culture is in the top 1% globally by most measures of success, and we are well positioned for the future through our focus on education, science and technology. Our culture isn’t popular, but it strikes me that it converts a much higher percentage of people than it loses to rival ideologies. As long as the internet is on, we are thriving. If cultures do compete in an econo-Darwinian struggle, how long until we take over the world?

    • Psmith says:

      If cultures do compete in an econo-Darwinian struggle, how long until we take over the world?

      Taking birth rates into account, sometime after artificial wombs and sufficiently advanced AI make human parenting optional.

      • ad says:

        So, an hour before superintelligent AIs take over the world?

      • Jacobian says:

        But we reproduce by memetic infection, not birthrates. Coca Cola didn’t wait for the children of the first Coca Cola consumer focus group to take over the world 🙂

  64. Wrong Species says:

    Instead of separating out “universal” and western culture, I think it makes more sense to understand that western culture is itself diverse. Of course, any categorization is missing something but I think a better map of territory would be a separation of western culture in to three pieces. Traditional, modern and contemporary. Traditional culture would be western culture from pre-modern times. This includes Christianity, Roman history, and things of that nature. Modern culture is from everything before world war two. This includes nationalism and limited government. Contemporary is everything after ww2. This includes social justice and anti-colonialism.(Yes, the dates aren’t perfect but work with me here).

    • Wrong Species says:

      Let’s look at the Spandrellian Trichotomy of the death eaters. The Theonomists are the most traditionalists of them all. They’re motto is basically the Enlightenment was a mistake. They’re idea of Western Culture is basically dead. Even the ideas that have survived are transmuted in to something that no premodern person would like. There is also modern culture. White nationalists would have fit right in the 19th century. Nationalism has been dormant for the last 60 years but it still could conceivably reassert itself in the 21st century. This is why progressives are so terrified of Donald Trump. They fear he will lead to a slide back to those values.

    • Wrong Species says:

      For some reason my comment of what I want to say isn’t going through but it basically said that Western Culture is subjective and everything that you call universal is probably going to be subsumed in to something completely different. I think technocommercialism is possibly the future and many aspects of socialism are the past.

  65. Wrong Species says:

    Instead of separating out “universal” and western culture, I think it makes more sense to understand that western culture is itself diverse. Of course, any categorization is missing something but I think a better map of territory would be a separation of western culture in to three pieces. Traditional, modern and contemporary. Traditional culture would be western culture from pre-modern times. This includes Christianity, Roman history, and things of that nature. Modern culture is from everything before world war two. This includes nationalism and limited government. Contemporary is everything after ww2. This includes social justice and anti-colonialism.(Yes, the dates aren’t perfect but work with me here).

    Lets look at the Spandrellian trichotomy of the “death eaters”(is the word still banned?). The Theonomists are the most traditionalists of them all. They’re motto is basically the Enlightenment was a mistake. They’re idea of western culture is basically dead. Even the ideas that have survived are transmuted in to something that no premodern westerners would like. There is also modern culture. White nationalists would have fit right in the 19th century. Nationalism has been dormant for the last 60 years but it still could conceivably reassert itself in the 21st Century. This is why progressives are so terrified of Donald Trump because they fear he will lead to a slide back to those values. I would also argue that socialism is a modern phenomenon rather than a contemporary one but that’s another discussion. This just leaves the technocommercialists. They don’t fit as neatly within the paradigm as the others do. Their attitude does seem broadly similar to eugenic based ideas of the 19th century but less tribalistic. Their weirdness might be because they are ahead of their time. A future that is more capitalistic and less democratic does not that far fetched. I’ll call this post-contemporary for lack of a better word. If you want to see the future as imagined by techcomms, look at The Age of Em without the emulations. Something like that might be in store for the future.

    Anyway, the point of my rambling rant was that no one owns “Western Culture” and it is incredibly subjective. And many aspects that you identify as “universal culture” are probably going to be subsumed in to something that looks a lot different.

  66. Subbak says:

    It could be the Dalai Lama banning Coca-Cola. It could be the Académie Française removing English words from the language.

    It’s so nice when you try to use as arguments things that are actually counterarguments to your thesis. You may hold the position that Coke is just plain better as a drink as yak milk, because specific fabrication process and everything. But in which way is English a noticeably “better” language than French, other than the fact that the country that won history is English-speaking? English is actually a terrible language for getting other people to understand you, as the pronunciation is horrible (so many vowels, so many ways to write them), and the vocabulary is about double the size of most other languages (that’s what you get from being a bastardized form of French and Saxon). Yes, the grammar is a bit simpler than many other languages due to the relative lack of declensions and the absence of random genders for noun (as in French or German), but it’s far from clear that this compensates. You might only have to learn a noun, and not a noun and the gender, but you have to learn uncorrelated spelling an pronunciation, and you have to learn twice as many anyway. Also, it’s an stressed language, which further complicates things for people who speak unstressed languages (like French).

    I’m not defending the Académie here. It’s an institution of old, disproportionately white, disproportionately male, conservatives, who have by design an extremely prescriptive vision of language. But the fact is that here the “global” culture has taken a characteristic “English speaking” not because it’s objectively better but because it happens to match US culture. Just like so many other things in the global culture. Like Christmas. Or Hollywood. Or US-style politics (I’ve talk to people from different European countries that agree that in the last 10-15 years, politics have become, sadly, more US-like, i.e. more of a giant staged show and close to zero actual policy debate).

    • Civilis says:

      It’s not that English is superior to French, it’s that a language that can adapt its vocabulary by bringing in new words and concepts is one that has an advantage over one that cannot, and even more so than one that actively purges foreign words from its vocabulary. We already have perfectly good words for sushi and escargot, why would we want to purge them from our language because they are foreign?

      And French specifically is notorious for purging its language of foreign words. The same comparison applies when you compare French to other languages. Nobody’s going to rename Beisbol / Besuboru any time soon. Interestingly, the French word for Baseball is Baseball, though that may have to do with Canada.

      Also, consider English is also in widespread use because Great Britain controlled or influenced much of the world at one point or another.

      • Subbak says:

        The Académie Française is just French culture though. Other French-speaking countries and regions do very well without it, and Québécois are quite good at neologisms (so much than the Acédémie often steals theirs a few years down the line once they realize that, for example, having a word for “e-mail” might be sort of useful). Incidentally, Québec has the “Office québécois de la langue française”, which has their own (massive) issues, but generally is more friendly to neologism (as long as they are not Anglicisms).

        And even then, you might use this argument to say that French is bad at being a universal language, but that doesn’t mean English is the best. Nevertheless, English is a very important factor of the global culture, so much that if you removed it and replaced it with some other language you would expect lots of changes. For example, memes (in the original sense of the word, not specifically internet memes) coming from English-speaking areas have a much easier time making it to the global culture than others.

        • Civilis says:

          I’m not saying that French is bad at being a universal language. This has nothing to do with the French, specifically, except that they are a ready example of a culture that spends time and effort on stuff like this. I’m not complaining about the French language, but the Académie Française.

          They had a word for email, email. They spent time and money coming up with ‘courriel’ as a French substitute. Fine. What else could have been done with that time and effort?

          We in the US are not free of this. I mean, come on, “Freedom Fries”? And it was worse long ago. “Victory Cabbage” for sauerkraut?

          • Obelix says:

            There’s one thing English speakers never seem to understand about French, which is that (while it’s not completely diglossic) the distance between its informal spoken varieties and its formal written variety (or varieties) is larger than in English. Or at least than in Standard American English.

            French isn’t allergic to loanwords, but they find their way into informal language more easily than into formal, written language. The role of language advisory bodies such as the French Academy or the Office of the French Language (bodies which exist in many other languages, with varying success, but English speakers usually focus on French) isn’t to dictate how people speak, but to establish a standard written language especially for governmental publications. In English, this role is taken by privately-published dictionaries and style guides.

            And indeed, many people question the success of the French Academy at language regulation. I’ve read an article, which I haven’t been able to find after a cursory search, arguing the point that the Spanish Language Academy has been much more successful, since they actually have lexicographers on hand and regularly publish dictionaries. (The French Academy has been working on the latest version of its dictionary since the 1930s; that makes it already obsolete.) The French Academy, for the bugbear that it seems to be in the minds of English speakers, really has very little influence on the French language.

            As for your other points, I like the word courriel and it’s the one I usually use for email in French. Why is it such a concern for English speakers what words I use in French? Best hypothesis I have is that they view my using words like courriel as a form of cultural appropriation.

          • Civilis says:

            As for your other points, I like the word courriel and it’s the one I usually use for email in French. Why is it such a concern for English speakers what words I use in French? Best hypothesis I have is that they view my using words like courriel as a form of cultural appropriation.

            It’s just a ready example. I’d be more annoyed if a part of the US government spent my tax dollars on making sure every US government publication that used the word ‘French Fries’ changed it to ‘Freedom Fries’. All I’m trying to point out by this is that you’re spending time and effort policing the language that could be used for something productive.

            Admittedly, I’m somewhat of a hypocrite on the issue, because one of my complaints above is that the US government is spending my tax dollars to publish everything in Spanish and other languages.

          • Subbak says:

            Obelix: I agree that its recommendations are often ignored, especially for spoken language. But the mere existence of the Académie gives language conservatives an argument they wouldn’t otherwise have. It creates a norm: even if everyone deviates from the norm routinely, in case of conflict it creates a default. See attempts to make gender-neutral sentences, or feminizing titles when they’re held by a woman), the fact that the academy digs its heels on the conservative side is definitely a problem. On the flip side of the coin, if by some miracle it were to become more progressive, it would have the legitimacy to enact much-needed reforms on that front. People don’t NEED reforms to write gender-neutral sentences, just as you could write “ognon” before 1990 if you felt like it, but the reform creates an expectation that you won’t be corrected for your choice, and you don’t have to spend time justifying it.
            And of course there’s the fact that the government can enforce the Académie’s recommendations for school books. Sure, they took 26 years before applying it to the 1990 reform, but this is another situation where the Académie has some amount of influence.

            Also, even though you were talking to Civilis on that last part: I’m French, I don’t care much if you (or anyone) use courriel, I care that the Academy made what I believe is a stupid decision there. No, it’s not the worst decision they made as it doesn’t really have negative consequences, but it’s one that anyone can see is ridiculous given that it came years after e-mails where a thing and everyone was calling them that.

          • Obelix says:

            No, it’s not the worst decision they made as it doesn’t really have negative consequences, but it’s one that anyone can see is ridiculous given that it came years after e-mails where a thing and everyone was calling them that.

            I think that in France you call them mèl or something like that. While in Quebec we tend to call them either courriel or email (pronounced the English way). I don’t see any problem there, because even if you and I were to both use email to call the thing, we’d obviously be pronouncing the word in very different ways.

            See attempts to make gender-neutral sentences, or feminizing titles when they’re held by a woman

            I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying : are you in favour or against feminizing titles? In Quebec there basically was no debate; feminizing titles was accepted as the way it’s done. There was a debate about it in France, but my understanding was that you could find both progressives and conservatives on both sides.

          • Subbak says:

            I’ve only ever seen “mèl” used on forms, next to “tél” for “téléphone”. Sure when French people sail “mail” as short for “e-mail” they might pronounce it “mèl”, but that’s just bad English pronunciation. Just like many people say “Speederman” instead of “Spiderman”.

            (I hope this is comprehensible without using IPA, but I don’t know it and I’m too lazy to look it up).

            re: feminizing titles, I think they should be feminized, I I say progressive/conservative with respect to this issue specifically. If Roselyne Bachelot is in favor of feminizing them, I count her as a progressive in that instance, even if she’s a member of Les Républicains and therefore a conservative in general.

      • Johannes says:

        As probably someone pointed out already French still is a fairly common lingua franca and has been for a longer time than English (from ca. 1700 until the 1920s or so). I’d guess that English beat French as most common second language less than 100 years ago. But French is fairly horrible for that purpose as well. Latin, Italian or Spanish would all be better, mainly because pronunciation is easier and there is an easy correspondence to orthography. But obviously languages are not picked for that; it is just historical contingency.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that language is a definite counterexample to my thesis. Universal culture would probably be much happier with Esperanto or Lojban. But language has unique dynamics in that it’s hard for one person to adapt a better language; you have to have everyone change over at once. In other words, it has much stronger founder effects than most domains.

      • Subbak says:

        I agree that it has an especially strong founder effect. However, given that you included it as an example supporting your thesis in your post, and apparently didn’t realize this until I pointed it out (if you had, by your own rules on writing to convince people you would have mentioned the counterargument), don’t you think it’s likely that many aspects of the global culture also have a somewhat strong founder effect that you didn’t notice, and you just think they’re objectively better because they happen to match your culture?

        • Civilis says:

          Is the founder effect so bad, though? Take a look at the Periodic Table. There’s a sort of race to synthesize the elements at the very bottom of the table because the country that produces the element gets to name it.

          It’s not that the element is better because we got to name it rather than someone else, it’s that there is a little of national prestige in picking the name. Still, its better to get more elements with different nations naming them than fewer elements with all American names.

          Sushi would be no different if an American had named it, or had been the one to come up with it. Many of the most iconic American foods are named after cities in Germany. If you have the next big thing in France, and it’s good, I’ll happily accept calling it by its French name (or as close as I can pronounce) in order to get my hands on it rather than not get it at all.

          • Subbak says:

            Uh… I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing. It’s not “founder gets to name it (and bragging rights)”. What I was talking about is “if you win history at some point in time, you get to found some tenets of global culture”. More precisely, that the country who is politically the most influent in the world, either through conquest, colonialism, imperialism, or what have you, gets to export their culture everywhere.

            I was talking about language because universal language is the place where this effect is the most obvious. In the Middle Ages and through most of the Renaissance, it used to be Latin in Christian Europe and Arabic in the Muslim world, for obvious reasons (the Roman Empire and Ummeyad Caliphates had been very good at exporting their cultures in places they conquered, even after they stopped holding them).
            Then in the 17th to 19th century, while Latin remained a language any educated person in Europe was supposed to speak, the language of diplomacy became French, again because France was the most influential country in the 17th century. However this was a much more minor effect, reflecting the fact that France wasn’t utterly dominating either.
            And after WW2, English became the global language of the West bloc, and the global language of the whole world after the end of the Cold War.
            Unless you think that Latin had special qualities to be the global language, that were later trumped by French and then trumped again by English, or maybe that speaking a certain language enabled certain civilization to rise to the rank of global world power, this indicates that global culture does not always select the best memes.

          • Jill says:

            Some good points there, Subbak. The winners of conflicts write history– and they dominate culture. I have long thought that the nations that dominate culture are those that have the most effective war machines. They are able to defend themselves, and for the most part to keep others from invading them long enough to have long periods of peace.

            They are the successful, the winners– and everyone wants to imitate successful winners– even if their culture is otherwise unremarkable.

            However, what’s hard to see here is that cultures that are superior domestically may end up perishing because they are invaded by cultures with military superiority. And people with military superiority may never learn to function well domestically. E.g. the U.S. domestically is very polarized. Congress does nothing except take donations from rich individuals, groups and corporations, in exchange for doing their will– i.e. legalized bribery. We can’t even get our crumbling infrastructure repaired.

            And yet we, and the rest of the world, think that the U.S. is some great culture– just because we are strong militarily– not actually strong enough to win wars we start (like Vietnam and Afghanistan) but certainly strong enough to defend ourselves against anyone who would invade us, so that no one does invade us.

          • Jill says:

            Certainly we are far from being the worst off country domestically. But we have a lot of problems, and disapproval of government is so high that our next president may be someone with no experience in, knowledge of, or apparent interest in, government. Just because so many people are so mad at our government, that they want to vote a giant Eff You to the current government status quo.

          • Civilis says:

            Uh… I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing. It’s not “founder gets to name it (and bragging rights)”. What I was talking about is “if you win history at some point in time, you get to found some tenets of global culture”. More precisely, that the country who is politically the most influent in the world, either through conquest, colonialism, imperialism, or what have you, gets to export their culture everywhere.

            You’re fixating on the language spoken by the largest segment of the universal culture, when the important value or meme in western / universal culture is the free transmission of ideas among the cultures that make up western civilization or the universal culture. In America, we’re told we should be studying Spanish or Chinese as the language of the future. If and when that happens, the transition will be as natural as the transition from French to English. The language doesn’t matter, the free flow of ideas does. Spending time policing the language both inhibits the free flow of ideas and represents time and effort that could have been spent coming up with new ideas to distribute around.

            The original example given in this thread was ‘the Académie Française removing English words from the language’. Most of those English words being removed came in to use as a result of ideas and concepts popularized in English-speaking regions of the world. England invented and America popularized baseball. Sure, you could come up with another name, but why not stick with beisbol or besuboru? I can stand on the terrace of my chateau and eat a croissant while reading about the coup d’etat in Turkey before heading to the cinema. The French contributed those ideas to the universal culture, and rather than come up with new names, we English speakers just used what the French called them. Right now the new ideas being thrown in to the universal culture come from all over and from speakers of many languages.

            The whole point of this is there is no ‘winner’ dominating culture anymore, unless you count the shared western or universal culture, which is equally open to all the subcultures that make it up, France included. If France doesn’t seem to be represented as much in the universal culture, it’s because it has spent time and effort to hold itself distinctly French, through things like policing the language. If France instead spent the time contributing more to the universal culture as a part of it, the universal culture would be more French.

            Unless you think that Latin had special qualities to be the global language, that were later trumped by French and then trumped again by English, or maybe that speaking a certain language enabled certain civilization to rise to the rank of global world power, this indicates that global culture does not always select the best memes.

            Again, reread this thread with the idea that the meme selected for is not ‘the English language is the best language’ but ‘openness to transmitting new ideas is good’. Then take a look at the regulations put forth by the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée. Could one of the reasons French movies are nowhere near as well represented overseas as those from Hollywood or Bollywood be French protectionism at home?

          • Civilis says:

            Some good points there, Subbak. The winners of conflicts write history– and they dominate culture. I have long thought that the nations that dominate culture are those that have the most effective war machines. They are able to defend themselves, and for the most part to keep others from invading them long enough to have long periods of peace.

            You’re confusing correlation with causation, and this is fairly obviously false. During the 80s, it looked like Japan was going to rule the world, despite having rather dramatically lost the last war. Despite not taking over the world economically, Japan still does have a disproportionate influence on the culture of the world. Germany and Italy are both relatively new as unified states, and since unification neither has been militarily dominant (though, admittedly, they tried). Germany, despite losing the last war, is likely the dominant country in western Europe. Culturally, both are prolific producers.

            Russia, on the other hand… can you name a Russian cultural product? A Russian movie? A musical style? A form of art?

            Now that we have a global communications network, cultural output is a product of size, economic power, prosperity, and freedom. All of which can contribute to military domination as well (which is where correlation comes in), however Japan has all four, yet cannot be described in any way as militarily dominant.

          • Civilis says:

            I think I rambled on a bit too much in those previous two posts, so I’ll summarize.

            1) America is large and prosperous. Being large and prosperous is good for being able to produce cultural and military output. Rome, likewise, was large and prosperous, as were France and Great Britain during their days as empires. These days, however, you can be large and prosperous without being a military power. Being militarily powerful doesn’t make you culturally powerful, being prosperous and big makes you both more culturally and more militarily powerful.

            2) American culture most closely resembles the universal culture because American culture is changing to more strongly resemble universal culture just as much as universal culture is being influenced by American culture. The closer the two come together, the more American cultural products appeal to not just Americans but people influenced by the universal culture, and this feedback loop is enhanced because America is a big cultural producer (see point 1).

          • Leit says:

            Okay, off the top of my head, because it’s fun…

            “Cyka blyat, Rush B”, Adidas tracksuits and squatting
            Wasn’t Night Watch Russian?
            Hardbass
            Not sure what the style is called or even if it boils down to a single style, but they produced some amazing propaganda images that still find their way into pop culture.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Russian cultural product: Matryoshka dolls. And Tetris.

            Russian movie: Battleship Potemkin, The Viking (2016)

            Musical style: Whatever the style the Tetris theme is. (OK, this is cheating)

            Russian form of art: I’m tempted to say ballet, but of course that’s originally French Italian. It seems fair to give them some credit however.

            Also (for instance) the concepts of “General Winter” and “commissar”.

          • Civilis says:

            It’s interesting that we can look at Russia’s contributions to culture as being the part of an evolving country.

            There’s a lot of little pieces, like the Matrioska dolls, the Baba Yaga myth, the Russian Orthodox churches like St. Basils and the Faberge Eggs, that predate the USSR. Again, we’re talking as much about culture commonly associated with Russia rather than Russian culture, so ballet counts (as well as the eggs). Since we’re talking about ideas, the concept of the Potemkin village and General Winter fit here as well, though like a lot of the ideas associated with Russia they carried over into the USSR. Ballet is interesting because it’s a foreign cultural element that was brought in specifically by the Tsars to help adapt Russia to the Universal Culture of the time which they got so good at it became stereotypically Russian in many respects.

            Then there’s the Socialist Realism phase as the USSR tries to put out cultural works sponsored by the government to advertise its status as a great cultural power. The works of Sergei Eisenstein and the propaganda posters and heroic statues fit into this category. That Eisenstein was able to put out a film that still stands as one of the iconic early movies is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. Tetris is an exceptional example, being a cultural product of the USSR that was an accidental creation, not the deliberate product of the government.

            Then there’s the modern era, where a lot of Russia’s cultural output is novelty or niche. Here we get the Russian Mafia, dash-cam car videos, Adidas tracksuits, and stupid AK-47 tricks. Where Russia is still big and still militarily powerful, now that the government isn’t putting out as much cultural product directly, there’s a lot less of it coming from Russia, and what comes out is a hodgepodge of influences.

            For a truly messed up example of what the universal culture really means, check out the Leningrad Cowboys (actually Finnish) covering Sweet Home Alabama with the Red Army Choir (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jrg0X9H6FGU).

            Added:
            The original idea I was replying to was that the great military powers won and therefore dominated culture. An exercise to test whether this is true is to name a type of culture (art, music, food, sport, clothes, etc.), and then go forth with Russia (the winner) and Japan or Germany (the losers) and see whether or not it’s easier to find something in that type of culture from that country. Yeah, it’s possible to find examples of Russian culture, but I’m pretty sure it’s much easier for Japan or Germany.

    • 1) All languages (possibly save a few freakish things spoken by weird semi-uncontacted tribes) can potentially express the entire range of human experience; if they miss a word, they have morphology to create new words, or can simply loan it from another language. In this context, it’s interesting to look at “wanderworts”, words for a newly discovered concepts that propagate almost universally from the one language of the people who happened to have found it first (examples include terms like “tea”, “tomato”, “potato”, “coffee”, “sugar”, “tobacco, words that are not just found in English, but in many, many other languages).

      The large vocabulary of English is not so much the cause, but the product of its historical dominance (also “large vocabulary” is relative, many other languages have massive amounts of loan words from multiple sources and English is neither unique nor exceptional in that regard).

      2) Languages shift happens all the time without any political or military help or pressure. French, English, Italian or German started to propagate and to displace the local languages of their neighbor well before the original speakers achieved political dominance over them (and sometimes indeed, they never did — French and Italian quietly extinguished Franco-Provençal and Lombard in Switzerland without the French or Italian states having anything to do with it). It is estimated that of the world’s current 6,000 languages and dialects, up to 90% could be extinct within a century.

      3) The grammar and pronunciation of a language seem to play little role in its popularity as a language to learn; they’re merely entry obstacles, but in the long run, the real crux is vocabulary. That’s why English and French speakers are much more eager to learn each other language’s than either is to learn German — in spite of German grammar being closer to English than French grammar, in spite of German pronunciation being much easier to French speakers than English pronunciation, and in spite of German orthography being much more regular and straightforward than either French or English, the much lower percentage of immediatly recognizable words between French and German or English and German than between French and English makes all the difference (and this difference is not a historical accident: German too used to have a lot more Latin and French-originated words, until they were deliberatedly replaced by native coinages in the 19th century in an effort by German writers to preserve their language from perceived assimilation).

      5) And finally, the role of the French Académie is purely consultative (they make recomendations, not ordinances), and most frenchmen largely ignore it — the most popular dictionaries in France are the “Larousse” and “Robert” brands, with very few people using the Académie’s dictionary as reference.

  67. Nornagest says:

    Flashing back pretty hard to the end of “In The Beginning Was The Command Line”, here.

  68. Michael Vassar says:

    I think that this is the critical question. ‘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. ‘.

    Not everyone agrees about whether universal culture plays a game theoretically robust long term strategy. It might be expanding by playing an unstable and exploitable strategy, or by preying on other strategies hat it encounters. If Universal Culture had existed on an island somewhere, fairly stably, for centuries, I would trust it more. As it, when I look at Universal Culture, I see it as likely to converge on something that looks like India, the oldest universal culture we are familiar with, and I don’t want to live in India, I prefer Greece. Much better at summoning demons!

  69. orthonormal says:

    How about this as a fair proposal: countries with nukes are required to subscribe to universal culture (with the decline in warmongering that implies). Other countries get more leeway. If you want to preserve your way of life, you can do so, but first you need to get rid of your nukes.

    Obviously unenforceable in the current equilibrium, but seems fair to me. If you want the most destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution, you have to consent to the most pacifying consequences as well.

    • John Schilling says:

      If a country with nukes rejects your proposal, what are you going to do about it? You really up for waging offensive nuclear war in the name of Universal Culture?

      • orthonormal says:

        See where I said “obviously unenforceable in the current equilibrium”. It’s useful to know what the fair thing would be, even if you can’t actually get there.

        • John Schilling says:

          But it’s not an equilibrium, because it is inherently unstable. Any country with nukes can defect from Universal Culture at any time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Which, now that I think about it, is sort of what England just did…

    • Salem says:

      I think it’s the other way around. Countries with nukes can keep their own peculiar institutions, sorry, characteristics. Countries without nukes are required to subscribe to universal culture.

      • Anon says:

        That’s literally the worst kind of imperial assimilation though. “Oh sorry, you’re not smart enough to build nukes? Time to give up all your autonomy!”

        It’s probably a lot more realistic, but a realistic hypothetical defeats the purpose.

        • John Schilling says:

          If North Korea can build nukes and so secure autonomy for its peculiar culture, that’s setting the bar pretty low.

          Particularly if North Korea can build and export nukes, which is sort of a nightmare scenario but sets the bar for nuclear-enforced cultural autonomy even lower – one wouldn’t have to pay for nuclear weapons production infrastructure, just the marginal cost of the weapons.

          • Anonymous says:

            If North Korea had nukes for sale, I would definitely want my country to buy some.

  70. Emgo says:

    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.

    I feel like there’s an element of selfishness in this impulse.

    We like being cosmopolitan and living in a melting pot. We love to see beautiful traditions from other cultures. But as soon as a culture we’ve deemed beautiful starts heating up their own pot, we rush to protect them from becoming… us? Not every culture can be cosmopolitan like the West is. Someone needs to actually revere their own ancient traditions for us to find them beautiful and authentic.

    In fact, our society trying to maintain those small, far-away, or exotic cultures could be seen as a form of maintaining our own culture. So much of our cultural identity involves partaking in, or at least observing, cultural product which we see as authentically alien. We love sushi not only because it’s delicious, but because it’s a totally foreign take on food to us. We like that the Hopi preserve their dances not because they’re aesthetically pleasing dances but because they represent another culture. If the Hopi are drinking coke, wearing our blue jeans, and listening to our rock and roll music, we can’t revere their cultural purity anymore

  71. Tyrrell McAllister says:

    So why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture?

    There is a difference between culture and community.

    Culture includes things like food, clothing, languages, and customs. It’s “the way things are done”.

    Community includes your actual network of connections to those around you, in all its historical specificity. Your communal ties embody the specific obligations and sympathies that you have to other people of your community, the sympathies that they have to you, and the common knowledge shared by you and your neighbors that these sympathies exist. Communal ties include all the historically specific Schelling points that you and your neighbors can use to coordinate and cooperate cheaply.

    Suppose that you had just landed in a random “Western” culture with which you had no communal ties. Maybe you’ve been transported to an alternate Earth timeline. You don’t know any of their history. They know that you’re a foreigner from another “Western” culture, but nothing else.

    You would know that people are probably eating something like McDonald’s and drinking something like Coca Cola. You would know that gender norms are relatively egalitarian. But you wouldn’t know that the members of this culture know that you know that they know that you’re not going to break into their houses at night. There is less trust, not because you dress differently, but because there isn’t as strong a history of trust-building and common knowledge binding you, personally, to them.

    Such a network of trust is built on an actual history of interactions. More generally, the benefits of community rely on everyone sharing a lot of common knowledge about a bunch of specific historical facts. Communities that rely on these benefits fear immigration because they think that immigrants will not share that common knowledge. The fear is that what was known and could be relied upon in your social interactions with your neighbors will become false. This could lead to a breakdown of trust, and a community without trust is dangerous at a basic physical level.

    This is the danger that motivates fear of immigration. It’s not loss of culture as such, but loss of community.

    • The Do-Operator says:

      +1

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m confused. Say somebody lives in a small town and has their friends, their priest, their doctor, their boss, et cetera. Which of these is immigration going to take away?

      On the short term, immigration maintains all of the people you know but just adds more people also. On the long term, maybe your next priest or boss will be a Mexican guy, but why is that less of a community contact than a white priest/boss?

      • Jiro says:

        On the average, the Mexican priest or boss will have fewer values and goals in common with him and will sympathize with him less than a white priest/boss would.

        (If I was posting on any other blog, someone would reply “well, not every Mexican priest/boss would be like that”, missing the point of “on the average”. Mercifully, that doesn’t happen here much.)

        • MC says:

          Also, immigration will cause the community norms to evolve, which will cause all sorts of “externalities” to the natives. This is no different from the “Utopia/America” analogy in this piece:
          https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/03/reactionary-philosophy-in-an-enormous-planet-sized-nutshell/

          “Although other cultures can often contribute to enrich your own, there is no law of nature saying that only the good parts of other cultures will transfer over and that no other culture can be worse than yours in any way. The Americans were clearly worse than the Utopians, and it was dumb of the Utopians to let so many Americans in without any safeguards.”

      • SUT says:

        There’s was this Vice-esque story of some British guys who were doing a sex tour of Appalachia. They found themselves well received by the women there because of the polish of their attire and the way they spoke; something in which the local guys were quite lacking.

        This cooperation among men – nobody cares how fancy your clothes are – has now been defected. It may have been valuable because it allowed boys to be less Mall/Facebook kids, and more involved learning about nature instead of playing status games.

        So it’s not just a demographics issue – a couple extra pale guys with bad teeth sitting in your bar at night – its a new dominant, but zero-sum strategy cascading through the community.

      • meyerkev248 says:

        Scott, you lived and want to live again in the Bay Area. Which means you’ve seen an area with massive in-migration both elite and non-elite.

        1) As a percentage of your interactions, you spend a lot of time dealing with the non-natives who aren’t part of the community.

        Since IIRC, you’re near Detroit right now, you can confirm this.

        In Detroit, drivers are generally fairly good and polite except for 2 things.
        * They go 20 over the speed limit on the highway.
        * Clipping the light is tolerated, and if you take off when the light turns green, you’re going to get in a car crash because someone else mistimed the Yellow.

        And as long as the people driving are 99% community, your odds of getting in a car crash are quite low.

        When it’s 50%… well, I’ve heard this exact factor described as a reason (of many) that DC has such terrible drivers. They’re not BAD, it’s just 100 different definitions of good dropping into the same place.

        So even if your community exists, your bus driver or the guy ringing you up at the grocery store might not speak English. (Actually a thing, though recently they started hiring people from EPA to do the work as well. Which is great because they DO speak English and get your order correct).

        2) At least in the Bay Area, the mass arrival of immigrants has scattered the natives far and wide (whether scattered across the Great Mormon Desert or merely far enough out that, paraphrasing a Megan McArdle article about why she was leaving NYC, “the merely affluent can only have friends along one train line”) and scattered the community. It’s not just adding people, it’s 15% net domestic out-migration every decade. And given the quantity of American in-migration, that’s a severe understatement of the impact.

        When your friends and family are all being driven 2 hours away from you, you lose the community of friends.

        3) Scale in culture matters.

        A lot of cultural institutions depend upon scale. If I like Metal and I live in Nashville, none of the metal bands go touring in Nashville and so if I want to go see them, I’m taking a day or 2 off work and driving to St. Louis. In large part because while Nashville is a nice, mid-sized city, the community of “People who really like Sabaton” is very, very small.

        In fairness, I wouldn’t describe “liking Sabaton” as universalist, but “Are there enough people who like sushi that I can walk to 4 different sushi restaurants in a 5 minute radius” for the various values of sushi does actually impact quality of life. At least when it starts getting to “No, you have to drive 30 minutes thataway” levels.

        If there are 100K people in your city, but only 5K who share your interests, then the opportunity to explore those interests is often lowered.

        /And when I leave this job and start looking outside the region, “Here’s a list of the bands I like. Where do they tour?” is actually a limiter on where I’m going to end up.
        //Along with not-megacity (Read: Despite the band touring there, you still have to leave work early to make the concert because it’s 2.5 hours from Palo Alto the Fillmore).

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m confused. Say somebody lives in a small town and has their friends, their priest, their doctor, their boss, et cetera. Which of these is immigration going to take away?

        Funny you should mention that specific case when yesterday an immigrant or son of an immigrant decapitated a priest in a church in France.

      • Tyrrell McAllister says:

        I’m confused. Say somebody lives in a small town and has their friends, their priest, their doctor, their boss, et cetera. Which of these is immigration going to take away?

        Immigration will not take these away. You’ll still share your tight connections with the other natives. However, with immigration, a smaller fraction of your neighbors are natives. (If you interact with only natives, then you effectively live in a little micro-community with zero immigration. My argument doesn’t explain why you’d resist immigrants if you expect never to interact with them.)

        When you interact with other natives, your interactions benefit from a deep reservoir of common knowledge about everyone’s obligations and sympathies. Everyone knows where everyone else stands, if not as individuals, then certainly more specifically than as “generic human”.

        Interactions with nonnatives cannot draw upon such a deep reservoir of common knowledge. Such interactions are relatively more expensive, at least in certain respects. You have to spend time and effort just figuring out what the other fellow’s about. You also have to waste effort taking precautions in case he turns out to be hostile, because there’s less of a history of trust to build on. If the immigrants don’t seem to bring special benefits to compensate for this greater cost, you’ll prefer to interact with natives over nonnatives. Now, immigration seems to imply that a greater proportion of your interactions will be of this more expensive kind. So you’ll resist immigration.

        Suppose that you’re a member of a tight-knit community, and someone else just did something nice to you. You ask yourself, “Why were they so nice?”. Your mind will offer up many particular reasons having to do with your particular history in that community. “They were nice because they learned that I’m nice when I did a nice thing for them last year.” Or, “They were nice because they know that I’m a veteran who’s made sacrifices for this community.” Or, “They were nice because I display the subtle markers of wealth and power in this community.”

        Now suppose you ask yourself, “For what reason would someone who didn’t know anything about me be that nice to me?” Your mind is accustomed to explaining behavior in terms of community-specific common knowledge. But you wouldn’t share that common knowledge with an immigrant. So your mind will struggle to tell a plausible story in which an immigrant would have been that nice. You might then conclude that an immigrant wouldn’t have been that nice. You might further anticipate that more immigrants means more less-nice interactions.

        On the short term, immigration maintains all of the people you know but just adds more people also. On the long term, maybe your next priest or boss will be a Mexican guy, but why is that less of a community contact than a white priest/boss?

        It’s possible to recover close connections in the long term. But, in the short term, more interactions might seem more expensive for the reasons above. And even when you are once again on close terms with everyone, there is uncertainty about whether the terms will be as good as the current ones from your perspective.

        • lemmy caution says:

          “Now suppose you ask yourself, “For what reason would someone who didn’t know anything about me be that nice to me?” Your mind is accustomed to explaining behavior in terms of community-specific common knowledge. But you wouldn’t share that common knowledge with an immigrant. So your mind will struggle to tell a plausible story in which an immigrant would have been that nice. You might then conclude that an immigrant wouldn’t have been that nice. You might further anticipate that more immigrants means more less-nice interactions.”

          People who have different cultural backgrounds have different ways of doing correct behavior. These can cause micro-conflicts and annoyances.

          Politeness isn’t really about being nice. It is more about doing what everybody expects you to do.

          • Tyrrell McAllister says:

            Politeness isn’t really about being nice. It is more about doing what everybody expects you to do.

            . . . as well as about what you expect other people to do for you. (— Which is just the same thing described from the perspective of the other party.)

            I was using “nice” and “not-nice” as generic terms for the quality that you attribute to someone else’s treatment of your actions, depending on how happy you feel subjectively about that treatment. In that sense, politics is largely about encouraging nicer treatment of you and your allies.

      • nyccine says:

        On the short term, immigration maintains all of the people you know but just adds more people also. On the long term, maybe your next priest or boss will be a Mexican guy, but why is that less of a community contact than a white priest/boss?

        As a general rule, immigrants do not leave there to become us; they leave there to turn here into a “better” there; amusingly, this is true even strictly looking at Americans, as one sees in the trend of “californication” – where Californians flee the effects of their desired policies, only to insist that their new home states implement those same policies.

        Even a perfectly assimiliationist immigrant changes the existing culture, which is necessarily organic to both a place and a people; you can see the same issues arise without even needing foreign immigration, just by considering the problems of “rootlessness” – people who are encouraged to move to find work, and no longer have long-standing communities, instead living as atomized individuals.

      • wintermute92 says:

        I think you might be wildly over-estimating the rate of integration for certain immigrant populations. There are places in both the US and the UK where third-generation immigrants speak primarily their native language, and eat their native foods. There are public schools which are taught largely not in English as a concession to the students.

        I’m not calling out specific groups or blaming cultural causes for that – there’s some truth to the claim that immigrants assimilate just in time to hate on the next group. But what it does mean is that picturing a Mexican-born doctor with rural small town values and cultural signifiers is often wrong, even if they grew up in the small town.

        Between melting-pot culture (two way change) and slow assimilation, you can reasonably expecting a lasting impact on your way of life. Hell, Texas is nativist now, but they never shook off the legacy of the vaquero.

    • nyccine says:

      Culture includes things like food, clothing, languages, and customs.

      Strike the first three – which is Multiculturalism’s (deliberately?) wrong definition of “culture” – and expand “custom” to mean “the entire organization of society,” and you have an accurate statement. Culture is everything the people believe about how their way of life should be, by answering questions like “what is the proper relationship between the government and the governed? What is the relationship between men and women? Family and strangers? Who does what, who has responsibility for x, y, z?”

      Scott uses terms like “Universalist” which unfortunately carry implications that cloud discussion – the “universalist western civilization” Scott describes as “taking the best – as defined as what works – from every culture,” but this is wrong; capital-M Multiculturalism – which is what modern Western Civilization is – is a mono-culture, just like any other, and has what it believes to be the right answers for those questions, (at least the ones it believes matter) and ruthlessly suppresses viewpoints that threaten its supremacy. Caplan believes, quite wrongly, that “Western Civilization,” unlike all others, needs no censorship, yet completely fails to notice the desperate effort expended on ensuring beliefs that are a threat to “western civ” as Caplan defines it (in actuality, just Managerialism); see the reaction to demands that immigration be restricted, or the idea that maybe every woman isn’t happier being a wage slave.

  72. Mark says:

    This reads like TheLastPsychiatrist. Nice.

  73. Doctor Mist says:

    I am floored by this. I love it when you write something that seems so obvious it makes me feel like I haven’t been paying attention.

    It boggles my mind that, from this perspective, the Moldbuggian monarchists (whom I sort of respect as an odd sort of hyper-libertarian) and the anti-globalists (for whom I have never had anything but contempt) are actually sort of on the same page. I must think further on this.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      OK, now I’ve read 481 comments, and reread the original post, and have thought further.

      Like some others here, I’m pretty sure what Caplan means by “Western Civilization” is the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, not Thor and maypoles and illuminated manuscripts except insofar as they prefigure the E. and I.R. When I lament the fragility of Western Civ, I’m talking about trends that strike me as running counter to those movements — like victim culture and political correctness and religious fundamentalism and Luddism and deconstructionism. Are these part of the Universal Culture that are destined to be part of the boot stamping on the human race forever? Or are they aberrations that will damp out in time?

      Coke and English and business suits seem kind of like distractions in contrast to reason, freedom, toleration, and secular government.

    • Anonymous says:

      It boggles my mind that, from this perspective, the Moldbuggian monarchists (whom I sort of respect as an odd sort of hyper-libertarian) and the anti-globalists (for whom I have never had anything but contempt) are actually sort of on the same page. I must think further on this.

      The spittly dwarfs are against globalism because they in general don’t believe in a universal culture for different peoples. What works for Chinese is not guaranteed to work for Spaniards, and what works for Spaniards is not guaranteed to work for the Chinese. The globalist attempts to enforce uniformity in this area is just harmful beyond belief from this perspective. Especially if some core parts of the supposed universal culture are demonstrably counterproductive and harmful to anyone who adopts them.

  74. Mercer says:

    I disagree with your characterization of universal culture. I think outcompete is a bit of a funny word to use, as it implies that universalism is better and grows because of its betterness. But it could also be growing because its highly invasive, and is the majority culture of a very powerful tribe (The Blue tribe). This tribe projects power globally and is very interested in spreading, and hence their culture has pockets everywhere in the world. It does not need to be “better” in any way to pull this off. Technically killing the people who subscribe to an enemy culture and replacing them is “outcompeting”. I also challenge the notion that this culture really does take “the best from everywhere”. What I think it does is kill its enemies then parade around wearing their corpses. Its a giant charade that to my eye as little to do with improvement. Other cultures are acceptable to universalism so long as they’re either completely dead, or horribly neutered. It deals with real, living other cultures in the same fashion as any predatory culture.

    Certain things absolutely will spread because they’re outcompeting given open enough pathways of transmission. But I don’t see universal culture as being synonymous with this. If we were to actually assemble all the things that in a truly open world would rise to the top, I dont think that collection looks anything like our current universal culture. I think universal culture is itself a tradition. Which is to say I agree with Voldemort on this, mostly.

    Now, a different question, and an important one, is how right are traditionalist cultures to be afraid of multiculturalism?

    Jews have lived as a minority people in many places for a long, long time, and tend not to attempt to win converts, so they arent really a threat to whoever “hosts” them. Gays have a distinct culture but whether they can grow as a population is hard to say, probably theres some fixed limit for how many people in a population are going to be gay. Neither group can threaten to replace the culture they coexist with. For all the attention these groups have historically received from host cultures, they seem pretty benign. The arguments advanced against them generally seem wholly unconvincing.

    Some cultures coexist fine next to one another, and some don’t. Some want to replicate themselves far and wide, some stick to themselves. And multicultural unease is not always necessarily about being replaced, its also about coexisting safely. The growth of the Muslim population in Europe isnt happening as fast as some alarmists suggest, but even if they remained at their current proportion indefinitely, it doesnt seem like they’re getting on too well. Blacks have a distinct culture and relations between them and the two majority cultures in America are not exactly going well at the moment, either. So some skepticism of multiculturalism is warranted, I think. Some say its impossible to pull off peacefully; I think it is probably possible, but very difficult, and usually requires some clear hierarchy of cultures and control over what is likely to repeat itself and where. The fact that the Red and Blue tribes in the USA can coexist despite absolutely hating one another speaks to this, I think.

  75. Brad (The Other One) says:

    This is ultimately a discussion surrounding kingdoms of this world, and not God’s kingdom, but I would like to note that Humanity tried universal culture without God before, and it didn’t go well.

    The principle issue facing humanity is not global cosmopolitanism vs. parochialism, but the question of where the culture – by which one can mean the people – stands in reference to God, that is, Jesus Christ: is it for, or against? I do not feel the need right now to link the many examples of God judging nations in the bible for their sins, which should take priority over any other considerations. I therefore highly recommend that individuals inclined to hear me out do what has always been commanded by Jesus and his servants and Repent away from sin and towards God. We have it on record that the repentance of a nation has averted disaster before.

    (Interesting side note: Jesus remarks both in Matthew and Luke that “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” I suspect but cannot confirm the use of “scattering” may be a subtle reference to the scattering of the people at Babel. Also, I am linking David Guzik’s commentary in case anyone wonders why God confused the languages at Babel. )

    • Jiro says:

      Do you understand what this blog is about?

      • Brad (The Other One) says:

        “Topics here tend to center vaguely around this meta-philosophical idea of how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs, and especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all. “

        It seems to be about that.

        As for this specific thread, it’s questioning current distinctions between western culture, global culture, and local culture, and then, relevant to my interests, tries to parse which is preferable. I am saying that, strictly speaking, evaluating which form of culture is best via human self-selected preferences may not, in fact, be in the best interests of humanity insofar as both their temporal and eternal wellbeing goes, since the bible repeatedly presents A: Humanity’s base motives as sinful, evil, selfish, destructive, etc. and B: Presents global, united societies and empires which operate without God’s guidance as fundamentally wicked and ultimately doomed to destruction. You know, the whole “doom us all thing” above.

        Since my model of the world may be seen as pretty weird compared to Scott Alexander’s, I framed it using biblical verses (which I consider authoritative and accurate) to explain my position and indicate the solution, which is living, active, and sincere faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God.

        • Saint Fiasco says:

          What’s wrong with your previous comment is not the specific claims, but the way you “evaluate arguments for [your] beliefs”. I’m sure your sincere faith sounds convincing to you, but you will have to justify that using a common epistemic framework before we can discuss your ideas properly.

        • TheAltar says:

          “I am saying that, strictly speaking, evaluating which form of culture is best via human self-selected preferences may not, in fact, be in the best interests of humanity insofar as both their temporal … wellbeing goes…”

          I think arguments could be made for this with proposals for alternatives and the downsides of giving people what they think they want.

          “Since my model of the world may be seen as pretty weird compared to Scott Alexander’s, I framed it using biblical verses (which I consider authoritative and accurate) to explain my position and indicate the solution…”

          If your goal is to convince other people of your argument, then using evidence, explanations, and ideas that will be effective at convincing them of your position is likely the first step. Knowing your audience and tailoring your argument to your audience is very important.

          If your goal is something else like self-affirmation, bravery debate statements, or signalling, well then more power to you.

          If you want to make arguments that are effective here, I would start by reading:

          Original Post on SSC which talks about the Principle of Charity
          Policy Debates Should not be One-Sided
          Politics is the Mind-Killer

  76. Brian says:

    You note the Noahide laws as a strong example, but we Americans have our own version of the Noahide laws, called “federalism.” “You 50 states can make whatever rules you want, as long as you defer to the federal government on a few key issues like interstate commerce and national security and don’t break these few extra rules we added to protect individual rights.” And conveniently, it even includes a process for adjudicating what should be added to those rights, except for the part where the left has come up with creative ways to justify interpreting new rights into existence if five Supreme Court justices agree. As government institutions go, it’s hard to do a better job of striking the balance between protecting local culture and promoting universal culture than the Constitution does.

    • Nornagest says:

      Except that it’s implementation that matters here, not law as written, and as you note the implementation of the Constitution is so different from the written document that it’s hard to give the latter much credit.

      You could argue that this is a recent development, but I’m not sure it is. The feds are more powerful now and so there’s more scope for abuse, but Congress has been happy to flagrantly ignore the Constitution within the scope of its authority since about 1793.

      On the other hand, the practical tradition of Constitution-plus-creative-interpretation has been remarkably successful.

    • Anonymous says:

      And conveniently, it even includes a process for adjudicating what should be added to those rights, except for the part where the left has come up with creative ways to justify interpreting new rights into existence if five Supreme Court justices agree.

      I particularly enjoy – in the same manner that Sherlock might enjoy the tenacity and ingenuity of a criminal he’s investigating – the way they made growing crops for one’s own use to be a matter of interstate commerce.

  77. naath says:

    Personally I think coca-cola tastes vile (also I think cow-milk tastes vile and likely I would think the same of yak milk), I prefer the proper English drink of TEA (which doesn’t even grow here, but whatever). I think Universal Culture has room for more than one kind of beverage, and I am saddened when it fails to (also when it fails to have more styles of dress, or art, or music, or food, or etc.). I think we do quite well with food and drink, and quite badly with clothes (Western style business suits are common on the streets of Tokyo, are they really “better” than a kimono at covering your nakedness or displaying status?). I think I can celebrate the March Of Progress towards Better Things and still enjoy renaissance art and maypole dancing :-p

    • Nornagest says:

      You could make a pretty good argument for tea as an early product of universal culture. The Chinese have been drinking it since forever, but it took the Brits to start planting it in India (Darjeeling didn’t exist before the East India Company), mixing it with milk and sugar (sugar itself being something you need a global supply chain for), shipping it to godforsaken places like Boston or Glasgow where tea plants won’t grow, and drinking it with scones and clotted cream at four o’clock in the afternoon.

      • Lumifer says:

        The Brits started adding milk to tea because for a while they didn’t have the proper tea (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) which the Chinese tightly controlled. Instead they only had a close relative (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) which grows in India, but produces a much more tannic and so more bitter infusion. In fact, it was so tannic it was necessary to add milk to it to make it palatable.

        And, of course, adding milk to proper Darjeeling is an unpardonable offense.

  78. TheAltar says:

    If Universal Culture continues its expansion and assimilation of favorable (superior?) parts of other cultures do you think it will ever change to a degree that you will be uncomfortable living in?

    The demon sounds less kind to those who favor its current proclivities when you realize it’s not going to stay the way it is right now for very long.

  79. John Schilling says:

    I cannot help thinking that this post could well have been written as an essay in fourth-century Rome.

    More generally, and this isn’t original to me but I don’t recall who I should be crediting, I believe there is a general tendency for cultures or civilizations that are losing their material supremacy, to take pride and comfort instead in their presumed moral supremacy. Their culture is the universal culture, the one that all right-thinking people will adopt once they see how much better it is, and if the rivals of a declining civilization should acquire material supremacy, why it won’t matter a bit because those enemies will by then want nothing more than to share in – and if necessary help enforce – the “universal culture”. Why, if you look around, you can see former rivals already moving to adopt the UC, a clear sign of the End of History…

    We’ve seen all this before, and mostly in the form of Ozymandian ruins both material and cultural.

    Western civilization, like every other civilization, is particularly good at the things it values most. Which, at the moment, means creating material wealth, denying mortality, and achieving racial and gender equality. I would argue that Western Civ isn’t just particularly good at those things, but the best there has ever been. Western Civ, like every other pretender to “Universal Culture”, is the culture that works. Problem is, the things it works at are not universal human goals.

    If there is a universal human goal, it is either happiness or power. It has been convincingly and repeatedly argued here that Western Civilization is not the best at producing happiness. It has traditionally been the best at achieving raw power, in part because of the correlation between wealth and power, but it is not clear that this will continue indefinitely. If Western Civilization does not work to achieve truly universal human goals, then it is not the Universal Culture on the basis of being the culture that works. And it may in the future be replaced or subjugated by a culture or civilization of powerful, happy people who do not have great wealth or race/gender equality. This is not an inevitability, but it is a possibility that ought to be seriously considered.

    Should such a transition occur, the early stages will likely appear to the casual observer as the rising civilization adopting the forms and values of the universal culture declining civilization. Partly because the ones who are most likely to speak the language of the declining civilization, to create content likely to be viewed by them, are the ones on the assimilationist tail of the bell curve. And partly because the rising civilization will want to experiment with all the tolerable bits of the rival culture, to figure out which ones were responsible for that culture’s past power and might be safely incorporated into the new, while tossing out the rest.

    • Francisco says:

      Excellent

      • Mercer says:

        I second that. My response below is almost superfluous to this, you voiced my concerns in better words than I could think of.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Didn’t Rome’s culture in fact get adopted by everyone including its rivals and survive so well that my university diploma is still written in Latin and the world’s biggest religion is still Christianity? And didn’t Roman culture only get replaced by other things after a few thousand years when our technology was finally advanced enough to do what the Romans did except better?

      This doesn’t really seem like a good example of arguing against me.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        On the one hand, yes.

        On the other hand, the fall of Rome was still pretty traumatic, involving population decline, lessened trade, lower urbanisation, collapsing education standards, lower quality of living, etc. If the coming centuries are “only” as bad as the Dark Ages, that’s still pretty worrying.

        • gbdub says:

          First, the Darkness of the Dark Ages is easy to overstate.

          Second, the fact that, after we recovered from that nasty collapse, we replaced it with something more like Rome than the forces that conquered Rome, could be construed as an argument in favor of Rome’s universalism.

          I thought Scott made it pretty clear that he believes outside forces can make progress toward “universal” culture move backward… but only for awhile.

        • wintermute92 says:

          Dark Ages mythologizing aside, it’s worth noting that Rome’s fall was economic and political, which is why the Byzantines survived despite their Roman norms.

          An empire too large to communicate across, a political system that kicked petty affairs far too high up the bureaucracy (without strictly codified laws, Emperors and high functionaries dealt with individual cases), and conquest-based military economics (which stopped working once you had to pay for defense and peacekeeping instead of looting) crippled Rome far more than any inherent failure. Even the assassinations and civil wars were largely an outgrowth of these issues.

          • Randy M says:

            What do you mean by inherent failure? I would have called the things you describe as such.

      • John Schilling says:

        Didn’t Rome’s culture in fact get adopted by everyone including its rivals

        Didn’t you start this essay by arguing that Roman culture was part of the dead or dying past, replaced by Universal Culture? Let’s see,

        “I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved.”

        Possibly I don’t need to argue against you because you are arguing against yourself?

        But I’m glad you remembered to include Thor, because while we often tread Western Civilization as a continuity of (Greco-)Roman Civilization, it is really I think a fusion of Roman and Germanic cultures, with a hefty dose of Judaic culture and bits of other stuff tacked on along the way. “Dark ages” may indeed be an overstatement, but most of Roman culture did not survive that interregnum and most of what came out of it was the culture of Rome’s bitter enemies.

        If the culture we have now undergoes a similar transformation, I do not believe you would see it as the inevitable march of progress of Universal Culture even if people do still print formal documents in Old High English.

      • Anonymous says:

        and the world’s biggest religion is still Christianity?

        Christianity only came along only after Rome has entered its decline period. Indeed, in its healthy period, it might not have managed to spread at all. I would not count it as especially “Roman”.

        • John Schilling says:

          Yes, and if we count Christianity as a continuation of Roman culture because we define Roman culture as That Which Was Roman ca. 400 AD, then we have to count Democracy as something the West got from somewhere else, because the Romans had long since disposed of that quaint notion by the time they adopted Christianity. Note, for example, how they adopted Christianity.

    • Ith says:

      > I cannot help thinking that this post could well have been written as an essay in fourth-century Rome … Why, if you look around, you can see former rivals already moving to adopt the UC, a clear sign of the End of History…

      I was about to reply that this article reads like something Francis Fukuyama could have written in 1989, but looks like you got there first.

      More seriously, I don’t buy that there’s anything like the all-conquering ‘Universal Culture’ presented in the article, nor do I think ‘creating material wealth, denying mortality, and achieving racial and gender equality’ are specifically Western values any longer. They (arguably minus racial equality plus some others) are the values of industrial civilization, values dictated by its economic system just as agrarian societies need values other than those of hunter-gatherers in order to function. It’s pretty obvious that the values needed for industrial society will follow when countries industrialize.

  80. Kenziegirl says:

    I thought of one more point that you haven’t addressed – university education. The US, followed by the UK, are the most popular destinations for students who want to earn their degrees abroad. Link That link says that 684,807 students from abroad were earning advanced degrees in the US. By contrast, US students studying in other countries number only 40,000. Link. These are the future economic, political, and business leaders, and they are literally coming to the US to absorb Western education and Western thought and then presumably returning to their home countries.

    • Subbak says:

      This is in a big part a product of the fact that everyone speaks English, which is mostly due to the fact that the US won history, though.

  81. Divy says:

    Great article, but I would say that there is a sharp distinction between traditional colonialism and immigration as practiced today. Colonial powers in the past did not respect the legal systems of the countries they invaded and instead granted special rights for themselves. Europeans in China forced the Chinese to accept concessions and extraterritoriality so that the could live in China while still being subject to their own laws instead of Chinese laws and have more legal rights than the native Chinese. Europeans in Africa often abandoned even any pretense of law and enslaved or plundered the local populations. Colonialism wasn’t bad because it changed native cultures (I don’t think most people would equate deliberate attempts by a country like Turkey or Japan to Westernize with colonialism even though both had the effect of changing native cultures); it was bad because it reduced native peoples to second-class citizens or worse in their own country.

    By contrast, immigrants to England have to follow the same laws and have the same rights as the native English, nor are they plundering or enslaving the native English. So the main things that made traditional colonialism bad–like apartheid and slavery–do not exist with modern immigration. Therefore, I think it is perfectly consistent to oppose colonialism as it happened historically, while supporting free immigration today.

    • cassander says:

      >By contrast, immigrants to England have to follow the same laws and have the same rights as the native English, nor are they plundering or enslaving the native English.

      There is plenty of evidence that they don’t.

  82. Kenziegirl says:

    Wow interesting read. I do have to take issue with a few of your points:

    (1) Regarding Western medicine – a while back I read a book called “Crazy Like Us” which basically argues against your point. According to that author (who is speaking about psychological treatment specifically, but I think it applies to other fields) Western medicine is a worldview. It is a set of assumptions about a human body, its interaction with the mind and the soul. Non-Western cultures have been importing Western psychological techniques and treatment methods, not without a negative impact to the local cultural worldview and how they view the health of the human person. Is it in fact more effective to have a disease model of psychological disorders, and to treat it in accord with Western rationalist techniques? The author argues at minimum that it’s not a 100% improvement.

    (2) You say “If China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed it” – but the fact is they didn’t. And many people believe there are reasons for that. Real, cultural reasons. And I absolutely disagree that if the Industrial Revolution had started in China, that it would look the same as it currently does. I’m sure you’re familiar with Guns Germs and Steel which lays out some interesting theories basically regarding the availability of resources that gave some cultures a head-start. But even beyond that there are cultural factors at stake. China’s complete respect for authority, and inhibitions on saying exactly what you mean, is nothing like what we have in the West. The argument can be made that such a culture stifles creativity and innovation, in the name of obedience and subservience to those in authority. Leaders in such a country are never required to hear a conflicting viewpoint, if they have the power to just have dissenters killed on a whim. It’s the worst kind of groupthink. Why is it that China and not the US has such strict laws about censorship? And what effect does it have on China’s economic and industrial activity? They seem to be navigating their way through these issues somewhat, but obviously they’ve got a lot of catch-up to do to be a truly global player.

    And finally, here is how I would define “Western culture” – a commitment to rational principles. A belief in science and scientific methods as being trustworthy and irrefutable. Despite the belief in science, Westerners also generally affirm that an individual has the right to pursue their own faith practices and their own conscience, even if it seems irrational to others. A belief in the dignity of the human individual, and their right to pursue liberty, wealth, and happiness – no matter their social class. A belief in individual autonomy and agency, contra a more communal and community-focused worldview. A belief in the absolute good of progress, without taking account of the costs or what will be lost; related to that, a capitalist and acquisitive mindset that wants “more! more! more!” without considering our impact on the ecosystem or on less advanced cultures. And yes, a bit of arrogance and the belief that WE have the right solution if only those poor unenlightened tribes could just see it. All these things I believe are unique and peculiar features of the Western world, and to the extent that the other nations follow suit, they are learning them from us.

  83. Vaniver says:

    The SF metro area may be 6% gay, but the city itself is about 15% gay.

  84. Quixote says:

    You often end posts by saying we need something like archipelago with noahite laws. But that is mostly what we already have. The conflicts in the US are mostly between groups that want to violate the norms you yourself said would be imposed from the top outside the local level in archipelago, or the general noahite laws of our modern culture. The one that comes up a lot is “thou shall not select a random subsection of the population and be utterly horrible to them.” The other one is “don’t dump poison into the rivers that supply everyone’s drinking water.” Every* major conflict in US politics comes down to a local group violating one of these two laws and the top level saying no.
    *(well most of them)

    • Vaniver says:

      Some universalists are clamoring for conflict with Russia because of how they treat their LGBT citizens. But note that this is actually the Russian government enforcing the Noahide laws!

  85. stargirlprincess says:

    Great post. I expect this post to get alot of criticism. Imo this reflects a problem with rationalist norms. An original peace is less likely to be totally polished and people will focus on the minor issues instead of the main ideas.

  86. Jay L. Gischer says:

    What you describe is often true, but not universally true. Your argument is a little bit like arguing that since VHS beat Betamax, it was better. It was not better in any metric other than winning.

    Adoptions of various practices, products and institutions are not independent of each other and of who the powerful people in the culture are at the time.

    As an amusing example, it is very, very hard to get Coca-Cola to drink in the city of Bellingham, WA. That’s because Bellingham is just isolated enough to be served by one bottling company, which is affiliated with Pepsico. Everywhere we went, they served Pepsi, not Coke. Because that bottling company had outcompeted the local Coke distributor.

    Power is part of this equation, and it always has been.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that “winning” is the appropriate metric here. Universal culture isn’t necessarily better – part IV goes into this at length – just better at winning memetic competitions.

      • Jay L. Gischer says:

        The passage I’m having a problem with is from part IV:

        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.

        This doesn’t land on me well, but I’m not sure whether we disagree.

        Anyway, this reminds me of a paper I read by Seligman, et al, about “Universal Virtues”. It wasn’t this book, but probably something that the book was based on.

        The surprise is that pretty much all humans agree on what sort of things are admirable in another human being. We spend a lot of time arguing over whether a particular person, or a particular act, might demonstrate that virtue, but the virtues themselves are universal. It seems relevant.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      @Jay L. Gischer:

      VHS […] was not better [than Betamax] in any metric other than winning.

      Not true. The VHS format was better in a few aspects, the most notable of which was length – VHS tapes were available in a format long enough to reliably record a movie or sports match in a single tape, whereas Betamax tapes (during the relevant period) were not.

      Early Betamax was better in terms of signal quality, but that’s not the only thing people care about – if it were, MP3s wouldn’t have beat compact disks.

      • LHN says:

        Also IIRC price. (Since any cheap label could license VHS, while Beta was premium brand Sony only.) The early lead was then reinforced by network effects once video stores came in.

      • Jay L. Gischer says:

        Okay. I don’t really know.

        The point I’m trying to make is that there isn’t a universal metric for what makes the best videotape format, and saying, “It won therefore it’s better” seems like a very suspicious argument. I didn’t think it was better. Neither did a bunch of other people. We lost, and I’ve moved on.

        Winning doesn’t equal better. That’s my point. And those of us who are embedded in the winning side really need to be careful not to make the argument that “winning equals better”. Your preferences are fine, when stated as your preferences. But if you universalize your own preferences as an unqualified “better”, there will be a bunch of problems.

        Now, there are lots of things that win because they are better in the eyes of large majorities. But there are few things, very few things, that are universally acclaimed as better.

        There are universal values and universal virtues, I’m not a complete relativist. What happens is that people don’t map specific things or institutions to their values in the same way, or they don’t weight different values with the same relative weight. That’s legit, I’d prefer not to erase it.

        Those are my values.

  87. Peter Gerdes says:

    I realize it was just an analogy but you are both wrong about the spread of heroin use and how bad it would if that happened.

    Lots of people are exposed to and even try illicit opiates (most borrow and oxy but more people try IV drug use than you might think) and it’s not a lack of access or fear of law enforcement that stops them from becoming addicts. Indeed, social conformity is a much more powerful force than mere illegality. As long as society viewed it as distasteful or bad (rather than excitingly good but forbidden) I doubt usage levels would climb very high nor that this social attitude would change.

    Also, it’s my understanding that there are some traditional African societies who engage in social opium smoking with relatively little problematic effects. Of course this might partially be a lack of availability but I suspect not.

    Having said this I think your point stands despite the imperfect choice of example. Just because people might choose something doesn’t mean that is the better choice.

    —–

    Also if we all liked hydrogen we would be horribly unhappy all the time at the constant destruction of our favorite thing in billions of stars across the universe.

    • Yeah, Scott’s understanding of heroin doesn’t tie in with my understanding of how it interacts with culture, or with how Portugal’s approach has worked.

      Heroin, by itself, is not dangerous in known amounts, and heroin addicts can have perfectly productive lives, as evidenced by numerous doctors who have been secretly addicted to heroin for decades, but because they have access to pure/clean heroin in known quantities haven’t suffered ill effects.

      • Psmith says:

        numerous doctors who have been secretly addicted to heroin for decades, but because they have access to pure/clean heroin in known quantities haven’t suffered ill effects.

        I’ve heard this before, but can’t find a source (other than paraphrases.). Citation?
        (Also, consider the possibility that the relevant factor is not having access to pure/clean heroin in known quantities but rather having sufficiently high IQ, conscientiousness, future-orientation, etc., to become a doctor.).

        • S says:

          Also note that resistance builds up to heroin, so it’s not a matter of a known quantity of X mg per body-weight for a given effect; you also have to guess what your current level of resistance is. Get that wrong, eg by quitting for a few months and then going back to too close to your old dose, and you’re dead.

          (Quite apart from moral considerations of self-stupification).

        • Glen Raphael says:

          [regarding heroin use among doctors]
          @Psmith:

          I’ve heard this before, but can’t find a source (other than paraphrases.). Citation?

          I first heard about it in the book Licit and Ilicit Drugs by the editors of Consumer Reports. It’s out of print, but available online here. Chapters 3 and 5 are especially on point.

          The main negative health effect of long-term heroin use (assuming you can get a reliable supply) is constipation.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I didn’t deny any of that. I’m saying if it were freely available, people would probably use it a lot.

        • Aapje says:

          Yet there is no clear link between legalization of marijuana and the amount used. The Netherlands has legalized weed for a long time now and it’s use is about average in the EU and substantially lower than the US with it’s drug war.

          IMO a decent amount of drug use is self-medication. So I doubt that the current non-users are equally eager to use it.

      • Anonymous says:

        my understanding of … how Portugal’s approach has worked.

        Would it surprise you if I said a lot of people view the Portugal data through pro-drug tinted glasses… and then poorly try to extrapolate said view far beyond the data?

  88. Alex says:

    Whenever I read anyone talking about the universal awesomeness of Western Civ, I always think about garum. In every region that was a province of the Roman empire, you can find the cracked shards from jars of garum – a sauce made from fermented fish-guts that the Romans used to put on everything. I can imagine some Romans explaining this by virtue of garum’s “universal awesomeness”. After-all, at the time, everyone from Persian to Britannia was wild about it. Now, not a single one of those regions produce the stuff. I could come up with biological reasons for why garum is awesome – after all, it was extremely nutricious and vitamin-rich – just like people come up for chemico/neuro/cognitive explanations for the popularity of literally EVERYTHING these days, but obviously the once universal popularity of garum was dependent on Roman cultural hegemony, and it ended when Rome did.

    There’s a quote of Samuel Huntington (hardly a bleeding-heart multiculturalist) from The Clash of Civilizations: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this; non-Westerners don’t.” This comes over as a bit portentious, but I take it as a reminder that there are other, less flattering, explanations for for the current success of Western cultural forms than their default superiority. If you’ve been raised with Western gender norms or entertainment, or to venerate anything that comes out of the West as superior, or simply been forced to by a Western government, then you’ll copy Western gender norms, but for the same reason that Celts and Gauls started wearing togas and Koreans and Vietnamese following Confucian ritual – ie. contingencies of local history, rather than some Hegelian unfolding of universal culture.

    I don’t want to push this too far – obviously all humans like sugars and fats (which is why all cultures that have access to those things cook with them), and there may well be more specific products – coffee I’m sure of, cocoa maybe – that produce pleasant effects common to all people on a biological level. But even as I write this I’m becoming skeptical: in Burma, for instance, chocolate in available but not frequently consumed.

    People seem innately more attracted to positing explanations for a fact that rely on innate properties than cultural-historical causes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fact that few women could read/write/went to university was explained by their inferior intelligence; as Orlando Patterson observed, in all slave-holding cultures, the proverbial laziness of laves is put down to their innately “slavish” nature. Sure, I’d wager that if you gave a randomly-selected human child the choice between coke and some milk-yak blood concoction from Mongolia, they’d probably take the coke (but who knows?), but I’d wager that the reason everyone loves coke, or Hollywood films, has as much to do with the current prestige of America/Europe coupled with the Western companies’ drive to acquire new markets than it’s essential superiority. As much as it would flatter my personal vanity to imagine myself as a representative of truly “universal” culture, I’d wager that the world consumes the Western culture I do because Westerners had better guns (to put it bluntly), not because “Western civ is better”.

    • cassander says:

      > “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this; non-Westerners don’t.”

      This pre-supposes that ability to apply organized violence is orthogonal to all cultural traits, a notion that is manifestly false. Ability to organize allows you to be good at violence, but it also allows you to do things like organize year long oceanic trading voyages that let you consume coffee and sugar in England for pennies a cup.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree the West invaded a lot of places and that helped it institute its preferred form of government. But we’re not invading China now, and they sure did adopt a lot of our commercial practices / foods / etc, and they sure are putting a lot of effort into censoring our TV shows and movies.

    • Civilis says:

      The problem is that non-westerners, or more accurately, people in the west that don’t like western civilization, don’t understand that the reason organized violence worked so well for the west was because of the superiority of its values at producing military force, specifically, the political, scientific and industrial revolutions that transformed warfare. The Chinese, Mongols, Huns, and Islamic states were just as inclined to organized violence, but the necessary economic, technological and social backing to support violence wasn’t there. Western civilization had better guns because western civ is better at producing guns.

      In Japan, the nobility maintained control of the development of society, including the development of weapons and the tactics to employ them, to limit the threat to the noble military caste, the samurai. In Europe, the ‘samurai’, the knights, were increasingly displaced from their place in the military order by the development of ‘peasant’ weapons such as the longbow, and with the noble military caste deprived of its monopoly on power, the power of the nobility fell proportionately. Japan stagnated, Europe evolved.

  89. newt0311 says:

    They’re [western] 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.

    Given the sub-replacement fertility levels in pretty much every single society that has adopted them, I don’t think we can declare that these norms “work.”

    I’ve known lots of competent female professionals (incl. my mother and sister) but if it’s a choice between this and the extinction of the human race … perhaps that requires a little thought?

    Re. Peter Akuleyev: I’m pretty sure all societies need above-replacement fertility levels.

    PS. I think hlynkacg mentioned this first and I think it deserves a little more consideration. Thus the separate post for it.

    • Nathan says:

      Also, as Scott himself pointed out recently, women are happier in more traditional societies where they don’t have to work.

      The west is currently surviving on immigration from higher-fertility regions with different gender norms. If it ever becomes so successful as to convert all its donor countries, it will struggle to remain successful. We have seen what a shrinking population looks like and it looks like Detroit.

      Women being expected to pursue careers like men is pretty defensibly a case of Universal Culture being inferior.

      • Anonymous says:

        Who’s to say that surrogacy won’t take off? It’s only been possible for thirty years and it’s still pretty expensive for even the upper middle class of the west. As that changes, and especially if an artificial womb is developed, we may see large cultural shifts.

        Extending out the current trend line indefinitely is the worst sort of lazy reasoning.

        • Friday says:

          Surrogacy replaces pregnancy, not parenthood. I’ll concede that more extensive childcare options could also obviate a lot of the actual caretaking as well, but that’s different.

          This also doesn’t address the issue of women who would rather not work having to do so for economic reasons instead of staying at home with their children.

          • Anonymous says:

            Revealed preferences make me skeptical of those happiness surveys. In any event, no one suggested it was a Pareto improvement.

      • Psmith says:

        We have seen what a shrinking population looks like and it looks like Detroit.

        Or Japan. Even without leaving the Rust Belt, there’s Pittsburgh.

        • Anonymous says:

          Japan, what a shithole! I’d much rather live in Niger. Now there’s a successful culture.

          • Psmith says:

            Yes, that’s my point, and Pittsburgh has been voted “most livable city in the US” for five years out of the last ten or something. The problem is not that declining population sucks to live in. If the declining population is sufficiently nice and civilized it can be quite pleasant while it lasts, “while it lasts” being the operative phrase.

          • newt0311 says:

            Japan’s demographics are a problem: https://vimeo.com/80542212

  90. John Ohno says:

    Suggesting the universalism of any kind of cultural norm is a dangerous game, because every culture is prone to seeing its own norms as universal and the norms of other cultures as temporary abberations. I’m not convinced that you’re wrong here, but I don’t think you’re being careful enough about the subject to convince me that you’re right.

    There’s another angle here that makes it worthwhile to code this culture, even if it is closer to ‘universal’ than others, as western, which is that any culture will pick up whatever elements are optimal without violating its norms (and those elements in turn cause a change of norms, but not immediately) — in other words, we’ve gotten a head start on universalism but it’s still the subset of norms we don’t find perverse. My suspicion is that a ‘universal culture’ will look far more alien to us than western culture would look to, say, the Sentinelese.

    The west hasn’t reached anything close to peak objectivity in terms of cultural selection, and indeed its questionable whether or not we can expect cultural selection to get closer to universality over time: the current state of a culture is the environment in which new states appear, and provides selection pressures for those new attributes — in other words, the energy change for a particular mutation is not relative to some theoretical universal baseline but relative to the current state of culture.

    The west, by being more advanced in terms of distribution tech, has the same kind of edge over other cultures that it did when it had an advantage in manufacturing or weapons, so it’s particularly easy to confuse ease of distribution for universality.

  91. Peter says:

    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.

    • Anon says:

      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.)

  92. Rob says:

    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.

  93. jacksmonkey says:

    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”

    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.

  94. Gil says:

    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.

  95. Long time reader, first time poster; first of all, thanks for the excellent blog!

    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.

    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.

    We think of it as a tragedy when the dominant culture manages to take over and destroy one of these smaller cultures.

    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.

  96. Dirdle says:

    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!

    • candles says:

      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.

  97. Salem says:

    in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters… 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.

    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.”

  98. Typhon says:

    « 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
    Westernization”, 1997)

  99. Alphaceph says:

    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.

  100. Ilyushechka says:

    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):

    Radical Enlightenment conceived as a package of basic concepts and values may be summarized in eight cardinal points:

    (1) adoption of philosophical (mathematical-historical) reason as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true;

    (2) rejection of all supernatural agency, magic, disembodied spirits, and divine providence;

    (3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual);

    (4) secular ‘universalism’ in ethics anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity;

    (5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking;

    (6) personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults;

    (7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press, in the public sphere.

    (8) democratic republicanism as the most legitimate form of politics.

    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”:

    Radical Enlightenment conceived as a package of basic medical concepts and values may be summarized in eight capacities:

    (1) medical practice grounded in science and based upon evidence;

    (2) remediation of obsessive-compulsive and/or delusional cognition in favor of self-directed and rational cognition;

    (3) equality of all patients;

    (4) healthcare practices anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity;

    (5) remediation of Cluster A personality disorders (“odd or eccentric“), sufficient for freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking;

    (6) remediation of Cluster B personality disorders (“dramatic, emotional, or erratic”), sufficient for satisfying social lifestyles, including healthy sexual conduct between consenting adults;

    (7) remediation of Cluster C personality disorders (“anxious or fearful”), sufficient for healthy and mature freedom of expression, political criticism, and open participation in the press, in the public sphere.

    (8) universal (unrestricted) access to healthcare as the most legitimate objective of democratic economies.

    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:

    “It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties.”

    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. 🙂

    • FacelessCraven says:

      @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?

      • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

        FC wonders  “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?

        • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

          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?

        • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

          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.

          • baconbacon says:

            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.

            Why?

          • baconbacon says:

            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.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          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.

          • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

            Mark Twain expressed it humanely:

            It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.
                — Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar (1894)

            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!

          • Nicholas says:

            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.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @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.”

            Haiti.

          • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

            FacelessCraven says  “I think I would rather be dead than have someone who talks like you playing around with my brain. It’s possible that this visceral horror reaction is unreasonable, but it is quite real.”

            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 were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.
               — Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar (1894)

            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.

          • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

            FacelessCraven avers [in regard to the practical feasibility of Enlightened Modernity / Medicine]  “Resource scarcity is a b*tch.”

            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.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @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.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @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.

          • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

            FacelessCraven complains [with ample justification] about people who  “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'”

            Leszek Kolakowski’s writings are a sovereign remedy for the cherry-picking historiography of which FacelessCraven justly complains. In Kowalski’s view:

            “We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.”

            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.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @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.

          • Uncle Ilya Kuriakin says:

            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! 🙂

  101. Alex says:

    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.]

    • U. Ranus says:

      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.

      • Ninmesara says:

        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.

      • Tekhno says:

        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.

        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.

        • Anonymous says:

          >probably

        • U. Ranus says:

          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.

    • Publius Varinius says:

      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.

      • NN says:

        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.

        • Publius Varinius says:

          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).

          • NN says:

            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.

    • Forlorn Hopes says:

      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.

      That said.

      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.

      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,

      • Alex says:

        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.

        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”.

        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,

        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.

        • Aapje says:

          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.’

          • Alex says:

            IMO, it’s simply not true that the blue tribe reflects universal culture and the red tribe the opposite.

            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.

            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.’

            I think the same is true about universal culture whether you believe it to be identical to blue culture or not. Am I wrong?

            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 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 Nybbler says:

            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.

          • Alex says:

            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.

          • Aapje says:

            Alex,

            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.

        • Forlorn Hopes says:

          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.

          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.

          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)

  102. Jonathan Monroe says:

    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.

  103. JBC says:

    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.

    • Ptoliporthos says:

      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.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      It’s old and unnecessary, people get bored of old and unnecessary things unless they’re constantly reminded of them.

  104. Anonymous says:

    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.

    • Ruben says:

      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?

      • Anonymous says:

        Because low fertility is an absolutely vital component of universal culture and won’t respond to changes in structures, incentives and culture.

        A component of the culture will not respond to changes in the culture?

        Can you rephrase with some added sense, please?

      • Friday says:

        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.)

        • Anonymous says:

          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.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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.

      • Anonymous says:

        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.

        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.

        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.

        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).

        • Ruben says:

          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).

          • Anonymous says:

            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.

            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.

            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.

            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.

            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.

            The timescale is different, yes. Otherwise, I stand by my analogy.

          • Ruben says:

            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.

          • nyccine says:

            …maybe you will consider a technological/biological solution like postponing menopause more realistic.

            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.

          • Anonymous says:

            What “core program”? Is this the “cathedral” that you mentioned earlier?

            Yeah. Moldbug is the go-to source for analysis of what these meme cluster is all about.

            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.

            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.

            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?

            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.

            And why would it have to be safe en masse, if most people won’t need it?

            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.

            Technologies that afford fertility late in life are already being used despite risks.

            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.

          • Ruben says:

            @nyccine
            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.

            @Anon
            “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:
            https://rubenarslan.github.io/paternal_age_fitness/1_compare_descriptives.html
            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?

          • Anonymous says:

            What are you on about?

            I’m referring to the fact that humans have menopause. AFAIK, most animals don’t.

            “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.

            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.

            As I said, there is no “core program” and politicians are willing to (somewhat blindly) pull on levers related to 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.

            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).

            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.

            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).

            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.

            Then look at this graph:
            https://rubenarslan.github.io/paternal_age_fitness/1_compare_descriptives.html
            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 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.

          • nyccine says:

            Those problems are my area of research. Maternal age-related defects are already quite well-solved by available screening

            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.

            paternal age is not as big a problem as you appear to think it is.

            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.

          • Andrew G. says:

            There are significant differences in children of older men, particularly involving personality disorders like schizophrenia.

            Is that so?

          • Ruben says:

            @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.

            @Anonymous

            All I hear from them is proposals for more childcare, more state support for mothers, etc.

            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.

          • Anonymous says:

            And you think that won’t work

            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.

            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’ll withdraw the proposed bill from the legislative process momentarily. 😉

  105. Ruben says:

    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.

    • Tibor says:

      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.

      • Ruben says:

        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.

      • S says:

        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.

    • Doug S. says:

      History books? Old literature? The Amish?

      • Ruben says:

        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 🙂

  106. Anonymous says:

    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:

    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.

    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.

    etc.

    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.

    • Mary says:

      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.

      • The Nybbler says:

        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.

        • Mary says:

          IF.

          The scenarios offered, that I objected to, started from the principle that she might as well have thrown some dust at him.

  107. 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.

    • Jonathan Monroe says:

      This appears to be a special case of “If you are nice, you can join our cuddle pile.”

      • Jill says:

        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.

        • Catchling says:

          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.

  108. Avanoosil says:

    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?

    • david says:

      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.

      • Avanoosil says:

        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.

  109. U. Ranus says:

    Quibbles:

    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?

    • Anon says:

      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?

      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.

      • Anonymous says:

        By just about any metric that isn’t athletic or musical talent, African is clearly not a genome that works.

        It works by the most important metric – self-replicability.

  110. S says:

    Shut up and take your soma.

  111. Dan Lucraft says:

    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.

    • Anonymous says:

      Maybe it first arose in England

      Hillel the Elder beat the eponymous earl by 18 centuries.

    • Jiro says:

      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”.

      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.

      • Forlorn Hopes says:

        Are bite sized triangular sandwiches common in the USA? Or are they being particularly English just a Daily Show joke I heard once.

        • Randy M says:

          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.

          • Forlorn Hopes says:

            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.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I thought you were going to say “chicken tikka masala”, which I’ve also heard.

  112. Nelshoy says:

    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.

    • Obelix says:

      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.

      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.

      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.

  113. multiheaded says:

    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.)

    • Anon says:

      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??

      • Hector_St_Clare says:

        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).

  114. utilitarian troll says:

    who cares which elements came from what culture. that way lies pointless identity politics. let’s maximize expected utility

  115. suntzuanime says:

    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?

    • Tekhno says:

      And Christocapitalism is sitting there in its full splendor enticing you with its blue jeans?

      I love the English language sometimes.

  116. hnau says:

    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.

    • Psmith says:

      Why did “universal culture” start in Western Europe, as opposed to China or India or Mesoamerica?

      Excellent question.

      (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.).

    • SamChevre says:

      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.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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.

      • wintermute92 says:

        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.

    • Jugemu Chousuke says:

      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.

      edit: beaten

  117. blacktrance says:

    Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity.

    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.

    • multiheaded says:

      Strongly endorsed.

      (Re: Islam – see that famous anecdote of the Ottoman Sultan sending famine relief to Ireland against Britain’s will.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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.

      • Yossarian says:

        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.

      • Doug S. says:

        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…

      • onyomi says:

        “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).

        • Anon says:

          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.

          • John Schilling says:

            That guy currently would probably smoke;

            You really think that, here and now, “that guy” on average isn’t using anything harder than tobacco?

          • Anonymous says:

            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.

          • onyomi says:

            I didn’t say legalizing heroin wouldn’t increase heroin use at all, only that it wouldn’t necessarily increase it a lot.

      • The Nybbler says:

        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.

      • multiheaded says:

        Scott, have you read this article about meth et al?

        I did meth for the first time when I was 15, and by the time I was 17, I was using it once or twice a week. I can safely say that although many fine writers, Reding included, have attempted to tackle drug use in small town America—and have exposed the uncomfortable truth that drugs are more prevalent in rural than urban areas—none of them really understand the subject.

        These outsiders routinely accept a sensationalized version of meth’s power: it is a uniquely addictive drug that ruins everyone it touches. But most people who take meth and other illicit drugs are otherwise normal—they just like to get lifted every once in a while. This is not to minimize the possibly dire consequences of drug abuse. I have a number of friends who died well before their times due to rampant substance-abuse problems—none of them directly meth-related, however. One of my best friends died after shooting up coke hours before his court date. Few have more familiarity with these tragedies than I do, but they are by far the exception rather than the rule.

        Meth is not the whole story here, not by a long shot. In my tribe, almost everyone took almost every kind of drug imaginable—meth included, but it was hardly the sine qua non of our drug universe. On a typical weekend night, we might drink a fifth of whiskey on top of a couple blue bombers of hydrocodone, then snort a rail around three in the morning to keep the party going. The order could be reversed by taking a psychedelic like LSD or psilocybin in the afternoon—possibly accompanied by a little meth or ecstasy to steady the mind—and then drinking into the early morning with a nightcap of codeine cough syrup to ensure a peaceful sleep. We smoked weed almost constantly regardless of which route we took, and drinking and driving was treated like a competitive sport.

        For the most part, however, we were not the stereotypical burnouts that people expected this behavior from, nor did we think of ourselves as such. Several of my closest friends and I were in the top decile of our class despite being intoxicated half of our waking lives—frequently including school hours. We were almost all athletes and participated in a number of activities and clubs. For two years, every one of my class’s officers was a multiple drug felon.

    • Yossarian says:

      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…

      • Anonymous says:

        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

        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).

  118. lambdaphagy says:

    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?

    • suntzuanime says:

      “Obvious superiority” from the perspective of the demon, not the summoner. Lots of taxes are good.

    • multiheaded says:

      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.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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.

      • lambdaphagy says:

        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 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.

        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.)

  119. MawBTS says:

    Good article with parts that confuse me.

    “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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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?

      • Anon says:

        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?)

        • Jiro says:

          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.)

  120. Nick Whitaker says:

    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.

  121. 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.

  122. Aevylmar says:

    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.

  123. Thomas says:

    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.

    • Civilis says:

      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.

  124. alia D. says:

    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.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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.

    • Troy says:

      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.

  125. josh says:

    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.

    • multiheaded says:

      but there are also very Chinese elements at play, like armed guards maintaining order outside the Potala Palace, sporadic mobile communication censorship/blockage, etc

      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.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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.

  126. onomaphobe says:

    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.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “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)

      • Nornagest says:

        “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.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Cosmopolitan has a very positive connotation to it. Using it to describe something makes it sound like you approve.

        • Blue says:

          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”.

          • nyccine says:

            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.

          • DavidS says:

            In the UK, cosmopolitan is if anything left/progressive, being associated with being pro immigration, pro lgbt, not a ‘little Englander’

      • Alex says:

        “Modernity” would have done just fine, I think.

  127. Ghatanathoah says:

    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.” …. 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 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.

    • Anonymous says:

      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.)

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        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.

    • nydwracu says:

      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.

      [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]
      [dies alone]

    • Scott Alexander says:

      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)

  128. Brian Slesinsky says:

    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.

  129. W.T. Dore says:

    Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity.

    Is it?

    • hlynkacg says:

      Yes, until the heroin addicts failed to reproduce.

      • Jody says:

        Don’t Date Robots!

      • U. Ranus says:

        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.

        • Anonymous says:

          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.

          • Tibor says:

            If that were the trend, then the future would probably look like a significantly reduced welfare state followed by a reversal in reproduction patterns.

          • Mary says:

            Radical realignment. How harsh and how swift depends on how the welfare state breaks down for lack of tax payers.

          • Techno-Satanist says:

            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.

          • Anonymous says:

            Wrong.

            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.

    • Levi Aul says:

      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.

  130. Providence Commenter says:

    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?

  131. stahe says:

    This is probably one of the more moldbuggian things you have written

    • U. Ranus says:

      More Landian really.

    • Anonymous says:

      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.

      • Anonymous says:

        Indeed.

        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.

      • Anon. says:

        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. “

      • Oscar says:

        James Fitzjames Stephen propounded one eloquent account of the Moldbuggian view, in response to John Stuart Mill:

        Be this as it may, let us consider the question whether the “law of force”—the “law of the strongest”—really has been abandoned? whether if it were abandoned it would tend to produce equality? and whether the general course of events in recent times has tended or does now tend to set it aside? First, and by way of introduction to the other questions, let us consider what it is.

        Force is an absolutely essential element of all law whatever. Indeed law is nothing but regulated force subjected to particular conditions and directed towards particular objects. The abolition of the law of force cannot therefore mean the withdrawal of the element of force from law, for that would be the destruction of law altogether.

        The general tenor of Mr. Mill’s argument rather indicates that by the “law of force” and the “law of the strongest” he means force unregulated by any law at all. If this was what he meant, he should have said it; but he could not have said it without being at once involved in an obvious contradiction to facts ….

        The question with which I have to deal is whether these facts authorize Mr. Mill’s two doctrines: namely, first, the doctrine that the law of the strongest, or the law of force, has been abandoned in these days—an assertion which, I think, must, for the reasons already assigned, be taken to mean that force tends to be less and less important in human affairs; and, secondly, the doctrine that this abandonment of the law of force is equivalent to the growth of equality. Both of these doctrines I deny, and I deny that the facts which I have admitted tend even to prove them.

        Society rests ultimately upon force in these days, just as much as it did in the wildest and most stormy periods of history. Compare Scotland in the fourteenth century with Scotland in the nineteenth century. In the fourteenth century the whole country was a scene of wild confusion, of which one of the most learned of Scott’s novels (though it was written after his genius had received its fatal blow), The Fair Maid of Perth, gives a striking picture. “My name,” says one of the characters, “is the Devil’s Dick of Hellgarth, well known in Annandale for a gentle Johnstone. I follow the stout Laird of Wamphray, who rides with his kinsman, the redoubted Lord of Johnstone, who is banded with the doughty Earl of Douglas; and the Earl, and the Lord, and the laird, and I, the esquire, fly our hawks where we find our game, and ask no man whose ground we ride over.” Every page of the book is full of the feuds of Highland and Lowland, Douglas and March, burghers and nobles, Clan Chattan and Clan Quhele. The first impression on comparing this spirited picture with the Scotland which we all know—the Scotland of quiet industry, farming, commerce, and amusement, is that the fourteenth century was entirely subject to the law of force, and that Scotland in the nineteenth century has ceased to be the theatre of force at all. Look a little deeper and this impression is as false, not to say as childish, as the supposition that a clumsy rowboat, manned by a quarrelsome crew, who can neither keep time with their oars, nor resist the temptation to fight among themselves, displays force, and that an ocean steamer which will carry a townful of people to the end of the earth at the rate of three hundred miles a day so smoothly that during the greater part of the time they are unconscious of any motion or effort whatever, displays none.

        The force which goes to govern the Scotland of these days is to the force employed for the same purpose in the fourteenth century what the force of a line-of-battle ship is to the force of an individual prize-fighter. The reason why it works so quietly is that no one doubts either its existence, or its direction, or its crushing superiority to any individual resistance which could be offered to it. The force of the chain of champions of whom the Devil’s Dick was the last link is now stored up in the vast mass of peaceable and rational men, who, in case of need, would support the law, and from them it is drawn off as required. It can be defied only on the smallest possible scale, and by taking it at a disadvantage. A criminal may overpower an isolated policeman just as a pigmy might with his whole weight hold down the last joint of the little finger of a giant’s left hand, if the hand were in a suitable position; but deliberate individual resistance to the law of the land for mere private advantage is in these days an impossibility which no one ever thinks of attempting. Force not only reigns, but in most matters it reigns without dispute, but it does not follow that it has ceased to exist.

  132. Anonymous says:

    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:

    Niderion-nomai’s commentary: It is well that we are so foolish, or what little freedom we have would be wasted on us. It is for this that Book of Cold Rain says one must never take the shortest path between two points.

    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.

  133. Rohan Verghese says:

    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?

    • Bleyde says:

      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.

    • Civilis says:

      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.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Shouldn’t other people have adopted Roman culture as objectively better?

      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.

    • Levi Aul says:

      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.

  134. Dormin111 says:

    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.

    • multiheaded says:

      You typing “Odonism” made me imagine an anarcho-communist egalitarian pagan culture of maritime raiders.

    • Kaathewise says:

      That!

      • Dormin111 says:

        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…

    • Avery says:

      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.

      • Swami says:

        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.

      • johnstricker says:

        +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.

    • Dormin111 says:

      Ooops, I meant “Classical**** Liberalism.” Not “Calssical.”

    • gbdub says:

      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.

      • Dormin111 says:

        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.

      • Techno-Satanist says:

        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:

        1. “It is ordered to believe that there is only one God, creator of heaven and earth, who alone gives life and death, riches and poverty as pleases Him—and who has over everything an absolute power, a different version states that there was liberty to worship God in whatever way suitable (Plantagenet Somerset Fry).
        2. He [Chingis-Khan] ordered that all religions were to be respected and that no preference was to be shown to any of them. All this he commanded in order that it might be agreeable to Heaven. {al-Makrizi}
        3. Leaders of a religion, lawyers, physicians, scholars, preachers, monks, persons who are dedicated to religious practice, the Muezzin (this latter appearing to be from the later period of Khubilai Khan unless this was further translated there had been no specific reference made to any Muezzin and cities including mosques were levelled), physicians and those who bathe the bodies of the dead are to be freed from public charges. {Al-Makrizi}

        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.

      • I am the Tarpitz says:

        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?

    • nyccine says:

      To Caplan, “Westernism” equals “Enlightenment values of Classical Liberalism.”

      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.”

      • Dormin111 says:

        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.

  135. numbers says:

    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.

    • Civilis says:

      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.

  136. Earthly Knight says:

    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.

    • Montfort says:

      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.

      • gbdub says:

        Makes sense. Pepsi is sweeter – I find it cloying more quickly than Coke.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        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.

        • Montfort says:

          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.

  137. Thecommexokid says:

    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.

    • Kyle Strand says:

      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”.

      • NN says:

        But that doesn’t work for China and Tibet, because Chinese and Tibetans are both East Asians.

        • Kyle Strand says:

          But it’s typically white people doing the fretting over which cultures are worth preserving and which are not.

          • NN says:

            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.

          • Kyle Strand says:

            You appear to be intentionally missing my point.

          • Anon says:

            @Kyle

            Here is your post, in case you had not read it previously:

            But it’s typically white people doing the fretting over which cultures are worth preserving and which are not.

            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.

  138. SolveIt says:

    I think this post will become a part of the “canon”, much like Meditations on Moloch et cetera. Thanks for writing this stuff.

    • lambdaphagy says:

      Given that this post argues for essentially the opposite conclusion, future exegetes and harmonizers will have their work cut out for them.

      • Bassicallyboss says:

        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.

      • U. Ranus says:

        This post adds that Moloch convinces his followers that going along with Moloch is objectively better than resisting.

        • Paul Torek says:

          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.

          • autonomous rex says:

            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!

          • Montfort says:

            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.*

            You don’t have to wait for Caplan. What kind of odds and stake are you offering?

          • Anon says:

            that whole post

            k

            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.

  139. The_Dancing_Judge says:

    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.

    • U. Ranus says:

      > 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,

  140. AnonymousCoward says:

    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.

  141. Sniffnoy says:

    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…

    • Peter Akuleyev says:

      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.

      • Yrro says:

        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.

      • Jiro says:

        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.

        • Anon says:

          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”.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            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.

      • PoignardAzur says:

        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.

        • Levi Aul says:

          If we had to choose a “universal, grammatically simple” language, we’d all be discussing this in Esperanto.

          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.

          English is a stupidly forgiving language—think of programming languages like PHP or Javascript. Like those languages, it doesn’t force you to use it “right” to use it. Like those languages, everyone can get by using it (in ways prescriptivists would say are) horribly wrong. And so, like those languages, it has spread to fixation.

          Or, to put it another way: a pidgin of another language and English, is called English.

          • 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.

            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.)

            Tufala i stap yet long Betlehem, nao i kam kasem stret taem blong Meri i bonem pikinini. Nao hem i bonem fasbon pikinin blong hem we hem i boe. Hem i kavremap gud long kaliko, nao i putum hem i slip long wan bokis we oltaim ol man ol i stap putum gras long hem, blong ol anamol ol i kakae. Tufala i mekem olsem, from we long hotel, i no gat ples blong tufala i stap.

            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.

          • Sfoil says:

            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”.