The following is pretty long and is something like an attempt to sum up my world-view and contains many tangential connections. You may be more interested in my case against WW2 being black-and-white (without even mentioning nukes or firebombs), which appears to have succeeded in convincing my target, although it could be that I’m failing to recognize sarcasm on the internet.

I, and I suspect many of my readers, are wary of something we call (among other things) “universalism”. The universe is a large and scary thing, the local and particular less so. Universalism seems to have the upper hand in the battle of ideas, which perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising given it (duh) universal appeal. Even in critiquing universalism I must approach it with a universalist mindset. The particulars I cherish are universalist and my defense of particularism is universal.

As I noted upon his death, despite his history as a neoconservative, Samuel Huntington was perhaps the most high-profile academic example of a paleoconservative. While he is most well known for his attack on the democratic triumphalism of then-neocon Francis Fukuyama in Clash of Civilizations, Who Are We? (his final book) most clearly places him in the paleo camp. On his passing Matthew Roberts at TakiMag pooh-poohed his reactionary reputation by quoting Sam Francis’ review. Francis’ point is that the American creed of liberalism grows out of the Anglo-Protestant culture that Huntington said defined America (rather than a creed or “proposition”). Moreover, that creed is false in that it claims universal status when it is particular to that Anglo-Protestant culture.

In his book Huntington makes the useful and (these days) uncommon distinction between immigrants and settlers. The book on the settlers of America who define its culture even now which Huntington drew from is David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. Of his “four folkways” Fischer surprisingly enough (Razib disagrees) deems the Quakers to have had the most influence on present-day America. This despite the fact of their smaller numbers (they didn’t even make up as large a portion of their own Mid-Atlantic region as the other folkways did of theirs) and being less educated than the Puritans of New England. I myself feel more akin to the Puritans and still refer to myself sometimes as an ultra-Calvinist. Thought I complain a lot about my country’s involvement in war, I’ve never had the pacifist spirit but get vicarious enjoyment of some Wrath of a Vengeful God righteous smiting. My awareness of war as a negative sum game is purely System 2 thinking. I’ve noted before the decline of war, and agree with Sailer that due to modern economics its benefits increasingly shrink. Quaker folkways are especially suited to a mercantile society, a “nation of shopkeepers”. Mencius Moldbug gives a dissenting take on Quakerism here, replacing his previous supreme bugaboo of Puritanism. It is his disgust with the modern American creed that led me to write a Straussian interpretation of him as proponent of Islam (with a bonus update for Hinduism).

A previous figure who denigrated his own culture’s Christianity with its slave morality in favor of a more vigorous religion such as Islam or non-universal pagan religions like Shinto was Adolf Hitler. While today associated with the political right, it’s not hard to find seeds of leftism in Christian scripture and as Razib points out, it began as a self-conceived progressive movement in opposition to the conservative defenders of traditional Roman paganism. The trouble with a conservative today (like Alain de Benoist) rejecting Christianity as liberal in favor of something like Asatru is that paganism is no longer traditional. A modern paganism would be an Ossian-esque reconstruction afflicted with all the ills of modernity that plague related nationalist movements. Eric Voegelin famously claimed that both the Nazis (some of whom, not including Hitler, were actually involved in pagan revivalism) and Bolsheviks of perpetuating the Gnostic heresy in the political sphere. Whether or not we buy into his particular framing, there does seem to be a similar failure-mode that serves as a warning to any radical proponent of particularism (among other things), and so I see little possibility of completely excising the universalist parts of our culture while avoiding a “Gnostic” death-spiral.

Lawrence Auster has said that the problem with neocons is that they are too universalistic while the paleocons are too particularist and he (of course) occuppies the reasonable and moderate middle ground. I’m going to dissent from him on the claim that the paleos deny the existence of any universal truth. That sounds like post-modernism. The speed of light is absolute and the same everywhere for everyone, and I’ve never heard of any paleos denying that. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as a “transcendent truth”, whatever the hell that is, because it’s too mundane or something. That’s the way facts are. Values on the other hand (which may be what he was getting at) are another story. I don’t claim to be speaking for any paleos (the majority of whom likely disagree with me) but I do deny the universal truth of any values. This not to say I embrace “cultural relativism” in thinking that different values are somehow “true” in different places, but a complete skepticism about value-statements (or “norms”) having any truth-value whatsoever. This emotivist (or non-cognitivist, to be more general) meta-ethical view will of course be a tough sell to Auster (and, as mentioned, most paleos) as it runs up against a belief in the truth of any religion I’m sufficiently familiar with.

If human beings were a blank slate, then they could hold arbitrarily divergent conceptions of the good without any pesky fact about the truth of those claims interfering. As it happens, people share an evolutionary history which gives rise to what Tooby & Cosmides call the Psychological Unity of Mankind. There are some outliers who are masochists (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but you can predict fairly accurately that a random person will avoid the experience of pain and seek to alleviate it. If you are modest enough, it is then not completely crazy to think of some things as generally good. I approve of some things and a I think a very large number of other people would as well. I don’t regard those who don’t as wrong in any objective sense. Without believing in the objective truth of such propositions, there’s not much point in trying to impose them on people who would resist. On a practical level, those people who don’t share your goals would disrupt your attempts to achieve said goals, especially if they involve them. We see this problem repeatedly, from TARP to drug prohibition. An example of a change I approve of which is compatible with a divergence of goals or conceptions of the good is seasteading.

My skepticism about moral truths does not derive from any pomo type dismissal of anything being true, but rather a more positivist insistence on the separation of objective facts and subjective opinions. I do, however, advocate a good deal of epistemological humility regarding our ability to know of and have confidence in objective facts, which reflects my view of the map rather than the territory. Abandoning doubt could always have existential risks we don’t fully comprehend at the time. A proponent of this sort of epistemological humility discussed here recently is Karl Popper, but an even more radical figure in that respect is P. K. Feyerabend, whose position on the scientific method is often summed up with the phrase “anything goes”. If you’ve read David Stove making fun of him and think his ideas are ridiculous, I agree. I think Popper’s method of trying to falsify hypotheses is actually productive, mystical shamanism is not. Unlike Feyerabend, I see nothing wrong with scientists making fun of astrology or rain dances. On the other hand, I have no great desire to stamp out such practices and could even endorse Robin Hanson’s proposal to fund faith healing with Medicare (I can’t find a link at the moment).

This view of science/epistemology intersects with politics in the feature of libertarianism/laissez-faire which permits islands of socialism such as Israeli kibbutz to exist within the broader capitalist system. On the off-chance that socialism works, good for them. Given the reality that many people find capitalism displeasing, it’s understandable that some might try to find a better way. There have been a number of utopian communes based on such a model which have usually broken down after a certain scale is passed, but ones with religious foundations have proven more durable. I find more to admire in the achievements of the Amish than Will Wilkinson (only one murder recorded in their history), but since I happen to value the benefits of impersonal exchange more than community I wouldn’t choose to live in such a community myself.

I subscribe to an email group set up by Keith Preston which contains (among others) a number of people that describe themselves as “national anarchists”. I have a very low opinion of nationalism, but fortunately they seem to be thinking on the scale of tribes (they even use that word) rather than 19th century style nation-states. They have a sense of communal identity and wish for this community to constitute the political system they live under rather than the current and much larger one. Nationalism generally comes with a prefix, and even pan nationalist movements come in specific varieties like “pan-slavic nationalism” or even “pan-African nationalism” (which isn’t built on a nation at all, and is thus as silly as white nationalism) which may conflict with other nationalisms. Here too we find the “national anarchists” of the Bay Area in the odd position of getting in a tizzy about how some in the San Franciscan community raise their children. A more universalist vision is what might be called panarchy, implying some respect for all particularisms. This idea of tolerance does not imply the politically correct position that we must celebrate all forms of diversity, and as I’ve noted earlier I have a very active disgust reflex which might make me sympatico with the Bay Area National Anarchists, and panarchy implies toleration of this disgust as well. Jonathan Haidt has argued that pretty much everyone other than university-educated liberals considers disgust (or “purity/sanctity”) along with ingroup-outgroup and dominance/submission factors morally relevant. Trying to set up a society while ignoring that feature of human nature leads to failure.

This doesn’t imply that I have a very high opinion of all those features of human nature. An us vs them mentality leads to feuding and other negative sum games, while purity rituals seem only tangentially related to the health concerns that they are presumably rooted in. Ed Glaeser has argued that liberalism is found in dense cities that previously had lots of immigration due to early industrialization simply because it is functional in a society with so much diversity. I myself am something of a “rootless cosmopolitan” in that I don’t feel any special attachment to a community. However, the idea of universal citizenship is something of an illusion. As mentioned earlier, the liberal creed of Huntington’s book seems specific to an unusual culture. Thomas Sowell argued (rather persuasively in my book) that a lot of the social dysfunction we associate with blacks today seems to come out of an earlier redneck or “cracker” culture originating in the borderlands of England. However, Steve Sailer correctly noted how ordinary “rednecks” are around the world and how unusual in contrast were the more educated Quaker and Puritan folkways. Most people are not liberals either and liberalism may only be functional in a limited set of circumstances (with Scandinavia being the poster-child). Greg Clark has pointed out that most of human history has been characterized by no long-run economic growth, with no exceptions until the Industrial Revolution began in England. There are probably very few circumstances that would produce liberalism, just as cultures that can produce economic growth are going to be unusual. We should be aware of our unusually good fortune in belonging to such a culture and temper our liberal enthusiasm for it with a conservative appreciation of how improbable are its requisites (and the implication of how fragile it may be) and how difficult it may be to replicate our own particular universalism.

Advertisements