The Donald is not a fascist; but the accusation itself brings dangers

By Lorenzo

Further to my previous post, the centrality of the ennobling effects of struggle and violence to fascism is demonstrated by its history, structures and rhetoric, but a particularly nice example of the latter is given in The Doctrine of Fascism, by Benito Mussolini and philosopher Giovanni Gentile:

Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it. All other tests are substitutes which never place a man face to face with himself before the alternative of life or death. Therefore all doctrines which postulate peace at all costs are incompatible with Fascism.

Whatever the The Donald is pushing, it is not that. The “The Donald as crypto/proto/actual fascist” is resorting to the rhetoric of denunciation: as such, it is a congenial substitute for understanding, and even more, a substitute for seriously grappling with, the phenomenon of The Donald (even just at a rhetorical level) and the support he has been able to generate.

The Hobbesian trap

But a deeper problem with misdiagnosing The Donald as fascism redux than getting the phenomenon wrong is that “The Donald is fascism now!” raises the political stakes in a dangerous way. It is already being used to justify violence against Trump rallies and supporters. (Bernie Sanders has made a particularly forthright denunciation of that violence.)

This is a dangerous upward (or, if you like, downward) spiral. But it is just the next step in a longer term pattern. The problem with virtue signalling via one’s moral positions (or, more accurately, moralised positions) is that if one signals virtue by holding that X, then one must signal vice if one holds not X. Demonising those who disagree is a natural consequence of such virtue signalling.

For being honest about those who disagree gets in the way of the ludicrous demonising (in order to self-elevate one’s moral splendour) of what are, taking a longer term and more global view, often quite minor differences in outlook. The demands of moral status-seeking regularly get in the way of the demands of accuracy and understanding. The Donald is just providing a more intense example.

Political correctness is often justified as “speaking for the underprivileged”. The fact that its adherents have generated increasing opinion conformity in the milieus they dominate (including entire industries) and have had great success in narrowing the range of acceptable opinion in the public space demonstrates how much it is an expression of power and dominance, not any sort of “under-privilege”. As with the (by now, ludicrously false) pretence of expanding civility, the claim to speak for the under-privileged has long since become far more status-seeking justification than reality; a secular religion-substitute piety.

Of course, like the rhetoric of denunciation (sexist, racist, homophobe, islamophobe, etc), such justifications become a great way of not dealing with problems and of blinding their adherents to how oppressive others can find their shrieking intolerance. It is part of their relentless “othering” of those who fail to conform to their moral, intellectual and language taboos which is also, as these things so often are, a pattern of self-blinding. Thus, the rhetoric of denunciation that the Virtuous are so addicted to is never, of course, hate speech, for “hate speech” is only ever done by Bad People and clearly the Virtuous are, by definition, the Good People. Even though they regularly used terms which imply or state that their opponents are, in fact, hateful. The accusation of “hate speech” has become another vehicle for delegitimising dissent, and another sign of the addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation.

Interwar analogies

Moreover, the accusation of fascism now! has implications regarding causality one doubts those so eager to bandy it around have considered (or are even aware of). Some are currently invoking the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany via electoral success as some sort of analogy to The Donald. Econblogger Scott Sumner commented:

… don’t make the “to know all is to forgive all” mistake. We could sit down and discuss all the reasons why millions of Germans voted for Hitler, and perhaps we could figure it all out. But that doesn’t excuse their votes in a moral sense.

Yet it is still a good question–what caused that to seem a sensible choice to lots of voters? Why were so many votes up for grabs in that way?

In fact, the interwar examples provide fairly clear key factors: how bad was economic stress?, how threatening did the local Left seem? basically sorts interwar Europe into those countries which experienced power-seizing Fascist/Nazi/Authoritarian Right outbreaks and those which did not.

The economic stress issue is fairly straightforward–if sufficiently severe, economic stress tends to undermine existing politicians and their political Parties while making outsiders look much more worth considering as vehicles for making things better. There was considerable economic stress immediately after World War I (when Mussolini achieved power) and during the 1930s (when Hitler and Franco did).

Spain had a much less severe 1930s economic experience that Weimar Germany; but it also took a civil war for Franco to achieve power.

The issue of how threatening the local Left seemed is a bit more complicated. A large Leninist Party (1920s) or Stalinist Party (1930s) was obviously threatening–particularly if conventional politics was looking unsuccessful and ineffectual. There was very little for any voter with any religious attachment or property which was not threatened by a Leninist or Stalinist takeover–not life, property, religion, family, freedom.

Italy, Spain and Germany all had significant Leninist or Stalinist Parties at the time of the Fascist/Nazi/Authoritarian Right seizure of power. That the democratic republic in Spain had only been recently established, and the failure to suppress political violence (including the mainstream Catholic Opposition leader being assassinated), added to the sense of threat and uncertainty.

But how the mainstream centre-left was behaving was also important. In particular, how they seemed to rural voters, as rural voters provided break-through mass support for Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Basically, in the countries with Fascist/Authoritarian Right/Nazi breakouts, the mainstream left largely ignored rural voters while doing little to allay suspicions that they were (also) in favour of rural collectivisation–i.e. stripping peasant farmers of their property. Which made rural voters ripe for recruitment and/or mobilisation by Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.

So, countries without large Leninist or Stalinist Parties did not have major Fascist/Authoritarian Right/Nazi breakouts in the interwar period. (One can exclude examples of normal political instability, such as royalist seizures of power in relatively new states.)

Where Leninist or Stalinist Parties were more than minor affairs, countries which also had mainstream centre-left Parties who did not seem property-threatening to rural voters, also did not generate equivalents of the Fascists or Nazis–except as fringe movements–or Authoritarian Right military seizures of power.

If you want to invoke interwar analogies, they may not lead where folk like. Are there any disaffected groups among current voters? is a good question to ask. How threatening to various political and other trends seem? is another one. It is remarkable how little people who are often fond of the term reactionary genuinely consider re-actions.

Though the analogies also remind us how much The Donald is not a fascist, as Mussolini and Hitler adopted Leninist modes of total politics for their national and race-greatness projects. Something The Donald has not remotely done.

Weaponising rebound

The Donald is, in many ways, a creation of the weaponising of morality and civility, the addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation. Going even further down that spiral is not going to make things better. (Particularly as there is no reason to suppose that anti-Trump folk are going to have a permanent monopoly of violence.) Trashing basic social protections because “oppressors have no rights”, “error has no rights” is a disastrous assault on what also protects those arrogant budding totalitarians who are riding their sense of moral entitlement and superiority to a wider social disaster.


[The post has been edited to increase clarity without changing content.]

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The rhetorical appeal of The Donald

By Lorenzo

The Donald is a demagogue and central to demagoguery is wish fulfilment politics. Demagoguery is not about believing in things, but in saying whatever the audience wants to hear. (The real trick is saying what they want to hear but haven’t articulated themselves yet.) Say it well enough and almost any amount of contradiction will work, as the wanting-to-believe audience will grab what they want to hear and discount what they don’t.

The fascist error

If we are to understand The Donald, we have to keep focused on the dynamics of demagoguery. The Donald is not Hitler redux, he is not Mussolini redux, he is not a fascist. He is not fascist in so many ways–no overt rejection of democracy, no paramilitary movement, no organised street violence (except by opponents), not in favour of a belligerent foreign policy, no fetishising of violence. (Indeed, a persistent theme in comments supporting voting for The Donald, is that The Donald is the less belligerent choice.) He does engage in Jacksonian rhetoric, but the notion that violence is the way the deep nobility of man manifests (a deeply fascist idea) is not what he is selling.

Moreover, fascism has an ideology (albeit somewhat protean one) and if you think The Donald has an ideology, you haven’t been paying attention. Looking at the list in Umberto Eco’s 1995 New York Review of Books piece on Ur Fascism (pdf) certainly shows The Donald’s rhetoric has some echoes of Italian Fascism, but rhetorical echoes are not enough. The Donald simply lacks the notion of purifying and ennobling violence which is so central to fascism in its various forms.

If you want an Italian model for The Donald, it is media billionaire turned recurring Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was not good for Italy.  (Though his scandals had a certain entertainment value.) Italian-American economist Luis Zingales previously (2011) pointed out the Trump-Berlusconi similarities, and has sensible and informed things to say about Italy’s in his conversation with economist and uberblogger Tyler Cowan. But the career of Berlusconi cannot be usefully analysed using the “fascist” metric.

The “Trump is a fascist!” rhetoric does appeal to those addicted to the rhetoric of denunciation. With the added appeal that no further thought is needed. (The Donald is Just Bad and Bad people support him.) Which is, of course, much of the appeal of the rhetoric of denunciation (“racist!”, “homophobe!”, “Islamophobe!”, “transphobe!” etc). But what if addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation is part of the problem?

Expressing appeal

So, what do The Donald’s supporters see in him? Start with academic, philosopher and blogger Keith Burgess-Jackson:

My support for Donald Trump is easy to understand. I am sick to death of Republicans standing idly by while Democrats destroy them. Think back to the way John McCain and Mitt Romney campaigned in 2008 and 2012 (respectively). Neither defended himself against the vicious attacks from the Left; both lost (and deservedly so). I saw early on in the 2016 presidential campaign that Donald Trump is a street fighter. To put it in the vernacular, he doesn’t take shit from anyone. He will smash the Clintons in their faces, as they so richly deserve. This tit-for-tat response is long overdue, and it is discombobulating not only the Clintons in particular but the Left in general. George Neumayr touches on this issue in his latest column. What excites me is that Trump hasn’t even begun to hit Hillary. By November, she will be staggering, if not knocked out. Get right with Donald.

This is echoed by academic refugee, philosopher, author and blogger John Pepple:

This post by Keith Burgess-Jackson pretty much sums up why I will vote for Trump, even though he is not my ideal candidate. Trump will fight against the Democrats as hard as he can. Trump also seems to have more control over the media than the other Republicans, though I’m sure that is not what the media intended. They intended to show how ridiculously un-PC he was, but it didn’t work. Their attention just drew more voters for him, and then they couldn’t stop because it would mean lower ratings. I remember a liberal expressing the hope last summer, as Trump began gearing up, that the Republicans would nominate him because I’m sure he thought of Trump as unelectable. I have the feeling he is having second thoughts about it now.

So, The Donald is good because he is rhetorically effective, which is certainly easier to be if you are also rhetorically shameless (see demagoguery).

Then there is retired US diplomat and now active blogger W. Lewis Amselem:

My reason for voting Trump is probably very similar to that of millions of other Americans. I will explain why I think so many of us vote for Trump–let me know if I have it wrong. As the military say, however, “bottom line upfront” (BLUF.) After all the verbiage I will spew, it comes down to one thing: I am tired, sick and tired, of seeing my country, our country, our laws, our history, our values, and our very civilization spat upon, kicked around, and degraded by hordes of low-information, pampered cretins allied with malevolent criminal thugs both at home and abroad. …

If one seeks to defend the values of America and the West, one gets labelled a racist, a xenophobe, a supremacist, a patriarch (see here, for example). The assault on dissent, on diversity of opinion, on individual freedom is unrelenting. The truth must remain unspoken.

So, The Donald is good because his rhetoric celebrates America (and he drives those who don’t wild).

Here is retired academic, philosopher and blogger Bill Vallicella:

Whatever you say about Donald Trump he did us all a great service by dispatching low-energy Jeb! early on. Jeb Bush and the rest of his family are decent people. His brother and father are gentlemen. No one could confuse Trump with a gentleman.

Unfortunately, in this age of post-consensus politics we need fighters not gentlemen. We need people who will use the Left’s Alinskyite tactics against them. Civility is for the civil, not for destructive leftists who will employ any means to their end of a “fundamental transformation of America.” For ‘fundamental transformation’ read: destruction.

It’s a war, and no war is civil, especially not a civil war. To prosecute a war you need warriors. Trump is all we have. Time to face reality, you so-called conservatives. Time to man up, come clean, and get behind the ‘presumptive nominee.’

Don’t write another article telling us what a sorry specimen he is. We already know that. We are a nation in decline and our choices are lousy ones. Hillary is worse, far worse.

Consider just three issues: The Supreme Court, gun rights, and the southern border. We know where Hillary stands. We also know where Trump stands. Suppose he accomplishes only one thing: he nominates conservatives for SCOTUS. (You are aware, of course, that he has gone to the trouble of compiling a list of conservative candidates. That is a good indication that he is serious.) The appointment of even one conservative would retroactively justify your support for him over the destructive and crooked Hillary.

Jonah Goldberg recently made the point that his vote doesn’t matter. True. Each of our individual votes is vanishingly insignificant. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether conservatives as a group should support Trump. The answer is obvious: of course.

The alternative is to aid and abet Hillary.

Are you a conservative or a quisling?

So, Hillary is identifiably worse and The Donald is rhetorically effective against the progressivists. (Nowadays, I am not keen on the use of the term “the Left” because the fading modernist Left is a rather different thing from increasingly dominant postmodern progressivism.)

Here is well-known, and mildly prolific, SF author Jerry Pournelle:

It’s official. Trump has enough delegates to win a majority on the first ballot, so barring an assassination – not an impossible event – he will be the Republican nominee. The Republican Establishment got both houses of Congress and a majority of Governors, but was a miserable failure at opposition. The deficit rose and rose, the budget grew and grew, the size of government went up and up, government workers got more and more pay, and meanwhile the Depression continued. Unemployment officially went down to manageable levels, but only because definitions were changed, so that those who just gave up and stopped looking for employment were no longer “unemployed” and were not counted in figuring the unemployment rate.

So we don’t have long lines of people looking for work; instead they sullenly stay home, or a few joyfully take the dole, food stamps, and all the other entitlements. Most Americans don’t like doing that. They want jobs. But the jobs are gone, sent overseas along with the equipment they worked with, and the economy settled into one of opening containers of goods from China, and “paying” for these cheap goods by borrowing the money from China to give it to the not-unemployed people who used to have jobs but don’t any more. And the deficit grows, the economy stagnates, people get more angry, and many of the Republican establishment long for the old days when nobody expected them to WIN for heaven’s sake. They were the permanent opposition, always employed with great benefits and retirement, and no ambition to be much more. They ran the only man Bill Clinton could beat in 1996, after which the defeated candidate made Viagra adds.

It may be that Mr. Trump can’t put America first, but he says he wants to. No one else even thinks it is a good idea. At which point I conclude that what the Republicans want to conserve is their jobs as opposition leaders who don’t have to govern. Maybe I’m just bitter. Of course for a while they did govern. They invaded the only real opposition Iran faced, hanged the former leader, disbanded his army, set an oppressed majority up to govern after disarming their former master, were shocked when the Shia began to oppress the Sunni – shocked, I tell you. But it was done democratically, wasn’t it?

Any business run the way the government conducts its business wouldn’t be in business long; fortunately they have an infinite capacity for borrowing money. Each of us owes north of $50,000 so far. You say that’s not that bad, and I point out that each means just that: a family of man, wife, and two children owes more than $200,000, each baby born owes $50,000. Sand that’s this year. Four years from now it will be well over $60,000 each. And the debt goes ever upward.

Salve, Sclave.

Mr. Trump is not an ideal candidate; but when we did run what looked like good candidates, they grew in office, and the budget went up, the deficit went up, the Depression continued, we entered wars in which our interest was not easily discerned and certainly was not served. I guess I had better get me a Trump hat. (Emphasis added.)

So, we tried conventional Republicans, which did remarkably little good, both at home or abroad, with the White House or without it. At least The Donald has positive-about-America rhetoric.

Jerry Pournelle’s endorsement is rather less fulsome than the previously cited, but does cite the rhetorical appeal. It also picks up a strong recurring secondary theme in support for The Donald that is even clearer in this post by academic and blogger Gene Callahan:

Our foreign policy over the last couple of decades has wrecked the lives of millions and millions of people in the Middle East. It has reduced country after country to anarchy in the bad sense: starvation, lawlessness, civil war. And surprise: all of this chaos enriches American corporations that sell weapons and “security” to foreign governments.

There are many important issues dividing the American electorate: SSM, gun control, abortion law, etc., etc. I don’t wish to downplay the significance of the debates on these topics, except to note that every one of them, on a global scale, pales in significance to the moral necessity that we stopdestroying the lives of millions and millions of people in the Middle East.

And it is clear to me that Hillary Clinton will eagerly continue to pursue the policies that create this destruction: indeed, she was the prime architect of some of the past destruction.

Donald Trump is not my ideal candidate for president: I would like to resurrect Dwight Eisenhower and vote for him, if I could. I agree that Trump is a wildcard, and we don’t really know what he will do once in office. But we do know that Clinton is the bought candidate of the merchants of death, and gambling that Trump is not so beholden to them is not really much of a gamble at all.

Let us put aside our differences on who is entitled to poop in what bathroom, and defeat the military-industrial complex’s attempt to profit off of creating continual chaos in other countries!

So, the The Donald is less about interfering militarily in other countries, because his opponent has a proven track record and all we have to go on (shameless rhetoric) suggests he will not be. (Though, to be fair, so does The Donald’s set piece foreign policy speech.)

Now, whether anything can be inferred about what President Trump would do from what The Donald says is a very good question (because, hey, demagogue) but the claim that he is the less belligerent candidate than Hillary is far from self-evidently false. If The Donald was actually a fascist, even a “fascist for the C21st”, it would be.

Notice, these are all intelligent, informed men of accomplishment (though it is also possible to find women who support The Donald). One may, of course, quibble about, for example, some of the economics. But they are not knuckle-dragging grunts. What they have in common is a profound sense of cultural alienation.

Cultural alienation

Reading posts and online pieces of the “I will vote for Trump because …” variety, the overwhelmingly dominant theme is cultural alienation. What they are culturally alienated by is fairly clear: relentless and ever-expanding moral bullying; rhetorics of denunciation pretending to be politics of compassion; a civilisation portrayed as if it was without achievements only crimes, a culture as if it was without virtues only sins; bearing lots of blame yet having little power; being the only folk with cross-generational guilt, and so on. With the abusive syllogism of:

we do X in order to achieve Y,

you are objecting to us doing X,

therefore you are against Y

being constantly deployed against anyone who arcs up. The rhetoric of denunciation so relentlessly employed is fundamentally based on both assuming, and attempting to impose on the public sphere, the illegitimacy of disagreement. It is the weaponising of morality and of (pretend) civility.

Nor is the cultural alienation surprising, as the information industries (media, entertainment, academe, IT) are overwhelmingly dominated by a narrow ideological range, increasingly disfigured by the pathologies that ideological echo chambers create.

And I mean the weaponising of morality and civility. The ludicrous lie that political correctness is about civility expresses either the deep duplicity or the deep self-blindness of its adherents. There is nothing “civil” about point-and-shriek (as Sir Tim Hunt and comet scientist Matt Taylor found) or the rhetoric of pc denunciation.

The concluding sentence of a Crooked Timber post against Jonathan Chait’s mild critique of political correctness–“Seriously, fuck right the fuck off, Chait”expresses the actual dynamics of pc splendidly. As this piece expresses particularly clearly the deep, pervasive disregard, indeed blindness, to achievement involved. (Boris Johnson gets the point.) But, then, landing a probe on a comet is hard; inciting and joining an online/public space moral sneering mob is easy: even inviting, as it drowns status from achievement with status from collective moral sneering. (And those who delight in attacking other people’s motives are typically outraged when someone questions their’s.) This plus crybullies blocking speech, no platforming, disinviting and all the other deeply uncivil abusive nonsense.

This is weaponised morality, weaponised civility, which extends all the way down, via “codes of conduct“*, to your local workplace. In other words, not civility at all. Instead, what is being run via the moral bullying, rhetoric of denunciation is a moral caste system, where you are allowed to hold someone’s race against them–if they are white. You are allowed to hold someone’s gender against them–if they are male. You are allowed to hold someone’s sexuality against them–if they are heterosexual. You are allowed to hold someone’s religion against them–if they are Christian. (And you are allowed to hold the existence of another country against them–if they are Jewish.) Treating Western civilisation as if it is not one of achievement and emancipations, but of crimes and oppression, and Western cultures as if they were without virtues, only sins. All the while bleating about heteronormative white male supremacy and being shockedshocked, when those whose civilisation, culture, country and identities are under serial attack arc up.

The notion that only “good people” would play identity politics was always a remarkably silly one.

Of course, when they do arc up, it gives you millions of fellow citizens to sneer at and feel superior to. No wonder, as historian Niall Ferguson points out, there is something of a turn to populism across the West; in cultural politics alone there is so much for them to work with.

Destroying civility

It turns out that, if civility and morality are weaponised, that removes important constraints within the body politic which — surprise! — has unfortunate implications. And those implications are likely to keep turning up as long as the underlying causes continue to operate.

And all this without considering the Alt Right, who are also obviously a product of cultural alienation and the toxic public culture of weaponised morality and civility. (Though prominent Alt Righter Vox Day’s blog commentary turned out to be much more accurate about The Donald’s Republican primary prospects than almost any mainstream media commentary.)

Online supporters of The Donald support him because of his rhetoric, his refusal to bow to the moral bullies that have so poisoned the public sphere. The shouts of “racism! racism!” and “fascism! fascism!” in response to The Donald’s rhetoric are using the rhetoric of denunciation against someone whose success is fundamentally predicated on a revolt against the very same rhetoric of denunciation. That is not likely to be a successful strategy.

But nor is copying populists the way to undermine them — that just legitimates what they say. The trick is to steal the underlying issue(s) in a way which leaves the populists with a lot of associated negatives. None of The Donald’s Republican opponents were clever enough to do that — partly because they did not take him sufficiently seriously until too late and partly because they were conventional politicians who did not understand the nature and level of angst in significant sections of the electorate and, when it did dawn, did too much implicit or explicit agreeing with The Donald, rather than stealing the underlying concerns his rhetoric played to.

Then Australian Prime Minister John Winston Howard provided a classic example of how to steal while undermining. In response to the populism of Pauline Hanson and One Nation he did not steal any of their policies or their specific rhetoric; he captured the underlying issue of control, of having a say, with the brilliant line of “But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.  All while running a high immigration policy, and the least Eurocentric migration policy Australia had ever run.

Yes, he may win

I am, however, not convinced that Hillary is clever enough politician to adapt to a situation where past rhetorics are the problem not the solution (“vast right wing conspiracyreally isn’t going to work).

So, those who don’t want President Trump are going to have to hope he alienates enough of the electorate by his rhetoric to get Hillary over the line. But The Donald is a shameless rhetorician, a demagogue, that the media cannot look away from because he is such good copy/viewership.

The Donald is also, as Dilbert author Scott Adams has been explaining for months, a very effective rhetorician. And Hillary is such a good target for a shameless rhetorician.

In a fight between the two most disliked candidates in US Presidential politics for decades, fighting over a public sphere poisoned by the rhetorics of denunciation and the weaponising of morality and (even more problematically) basic civility, the media-savvy shameless rhetorician who represents a revolt against the dominant culture of denunciation has a much better chance than those who have no clue about the politics of cultural alienation, or why it has such power, are likely to realise. In which case, we better hope that this is not just a puff piece and there is someone of substance under the shameless rhetoric.



* How can one object to codes of conduct? When they create ideological sins not remotely subject to precise definition empowering the politics of denunciation; especially when accompanied by dubious complaint procedures. They are, as suggested here, easy weapons for budding little totalitarians.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

What starts in Palestine does not stay in Israel

By Lorenzo

Years ago, in answer to the question about why gentiles should care about what happened to the Jews, an answer was that the Jews were “the canary in the mine“; one needed to pay attention because the Jews might be first on the hit list, but others would follow.

A similar question could be asked now: why should sensible folk be concerned about the obsession with Israel and its alleged sins that disfigures so much of postmodern progressivism? The answer is, because the Jewish state is also a canary in the mine: the pathologies that Western reactions to the Israel-Palestine disputes have given rise to do not stay confined to that issue.

Pathology petri dish

Those particular pathologies include wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial, fantasy Islam.

Wicked facts are straightforward–things which are true, but only Bad People mention or give significance to. That Palestinian media and schooling are saturated with crude Jew-hatred is a wicked fact, for example. That there have never been any serious Palestinian peace proposals is another wicked fact. (Especially if conjoined with there having been serious Israeli peace proposals, notably by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmurt: the Palestinian Authority did endorse the Arab Peace Plan, but was hardly in a position to refuse to do so.) The Palestinian insistence on the right of return, a “right” with no equivalent for any other case of population transfers, essentially blocks any serious possibility of an agreement, another wicked fact.

That Palestinians are the only refugees to be denied citizenship by their ethnic confrere state(s) (because the Arab states wanted stateless sticks to beat Israel with) is a wicked fact. That the current state of Syria, Iraq, Libya and the past history of Lebanon might raise issues about what a Palestinian state would be like, or the virtues of Israel, is another wicked fact (or wicked implication, strictly speaking). Other wicked facts are that a majority of Israel’s Jewish population is of Middle Eastern origins, or that Jewish refugees from Muslim countries outnumbered Palestinian ones from the creation of Israel.

They are not the same level of wickedness, but they are all things Good People don’t mention, or pass over as quickly as possible.

A classic wicked fact is that Israel is the most stable democracy in the Middle East with the most liberal society. This wicked fact is also a case of achievement avoidance: one is absolutely not to see Israel as any sort of achievement. Thus, referring to Israel’s vastly superior performance on queer rights to the rest of the Middle East is pinkwashing. If Israel does not represent any sort of achievement, then no awkward issues are raised by, for example, proposing the abolition of the most stable democracy in the Middle East with the most liberal society (aka the One State Solution).

The lack of serious Palestinian peace proposals, the corrupt failures of Palestinian politics, the systematic stoking of the politics of hatred, these are more wicked facts which are also cases of responsibility denial: as an “oppressed people” Palestinians are not to be held responsible for their own situation or their actions–even those that if done by Westerners would lead to furious denunciations.

Finally, there is fantasy Islam, not merely in the sense that Islam is not to be seen as in any way a causal factor in the Arab-Israel or Israel-Palestinian disputes (both a wicked fact and a contradiction of responsibility denial) but the reason it is not to be seen as such is that Good People adhere to a fantasy version of Islam and Islamic history.

That Palestinian politics and society is rarely, if ever, subject to anything remotely resembling critical scrutiny by the mainstream Western media means, of course, that Israel is always in the wrong and the cause of everything that goes wrong: the sins of Israel become THE story–indeed, the only possible story, given enough adherence to the notions of wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam.

Not quarantined

The problem is, there is no quarantine that stops the pattern of wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam being applied elsewhere. On the contrary, Israel-Palestine because a sort of petri dish, where these pathologies can be tested, developed, dry run and before being extended to other issues, and to Western societies themselves. If applying such is acceptable, indeed “good reporting”, on Palestine-Israel then it is acceptable more generally. It is not that these notions were invented to apply to Palestine-Israel; it is that Palestine-Israel provides a media realm to prove their acceptability and develop their application.

Thus, that African-Americans (around 13% population) commit half the homicides in the US is a classic wicked fact. (If you doubt that, try using it as a response to Black Lives Matter.) Similarly, the current buzz term of white supremacy is an exercise in responsibility denial (due to the oppression of white supremacy nothing negative in the situation of African-Americans is in any way a responsibility of African-Americans). While Western civilisation has become, in postmodern progressive parlance, an entire zone of achievement avoidance.

One of the bridges from Israel-Palestine to the West in general is how issues to do with Muslims (particularly Muslims in the West) are framed. Thus, the depth of Jew-hatred in the Muslim (particularly Arab) world (wicked fact) and how embedded it is in Islamic Scriptures are not things Good People mention (fantasy Islam).

Which makes the Holocaust something of a problem. As James Kirchick points out in a recent essay, the push is on to universalise the Holocaust so that it in no way provides any shielding to Jews in general, or Israel in particular. In Europe especially, this is pushing at an open door because it has long been obvious that much of the European elite can never forgive Israel for the Holocaust, as the Holocaust tarnishes European elite pretensions to being the moral arbiters of the planet.

Underlying wicked facts, achievement avoidance and fantasy Islam is a wish for a simple framing that buttresses moral pretension. The complex idea that yes, other folk were subject to the Holocaust and yes other genocides have occurred but the specific targeting of Jews was at the heart of the Holocaust is apparently too complex an idea: the diversity of real apparently just doesn’t work for ease of Virtue. While dismissing the Holocaust as white-on-white crime points to the intellectual degradation identity politics naturally leads to.

But the last is so far from an irrational move, it is a natural part of the pattern. One way the Jews are so awkward is that they demonstrate that a group which is oppressed and excluded from political power can nevertheless achieve considerable social success. (They are hardly the only group that demonstrates that, but they are a particularly salient group that does so, especially from a Western perspective.) So they seriously get in the way of blaming everything bad that happens to any group on white folk. Declaring them to be white folk (who therefore don’t count in the oppression stakes) is a natural move to block that bit of inconvenient complexity.

If one bothers to become seriously knowledgable about the history of European Jew-hatred, then the strength of Jew-hatred in the Muslim world is hardly a surprise. Essentially the same patterns apply as applied in C19th and early C20th Europe–angst over modernity that seems threatening and foreign, hostility to a historically despised group that seems to be doing “unnaturally” well, religious hierarchies acting as gatekeepers of righteousness encouraging Jew-hatred as a tactic to buttress their own authority. The factors that led to rampant Jew-hatred (indeed, exterminatory Jew-hatred) in C19th and early C20th Europe are alive and well in contemporary the Islamic world.

They are, indeed, if anything stronger in the Islamic world. Modernity was at least created within the West; Islam experiences modernity even more as a foreign intrusion. While the Catholic Church’s investment in encouraging Jew-hatred (though continuous and extensive) could never reach the level it does among contemporary Islamic clerics because there are barriers within Christianity to full blown exterminatory Jew-hatred–the most obvious being that Christ and His disciples were Jews and that Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself was originally preached by a Jewish man to Jewish audiences. However far Christian Jew-hatred could extend, one had to take steps beyond Christian doctrine to embrace exterminatory Jew hated. (Which, over the centuries, plenty of folk calling themselves Christians did.)

Islam has no such internal barriers–Muhammad and his Companions were not Jews, his audiences were (mostly) not Jews. Worse, Jews were specific targets of homicidal retaliation by the Prophet and the Quran has many negative references to Jews, which a famous hadith takes further (also).

Taking Islam as a belief system seriously (rather than concocting a fantasy version of it), taking a critical look at patterns within Islamic societies (rather than treating such as a collective aggression against Muslims) and taking Jew hatred itself seriously, all give grave grounds for concern about where the level of Jew-hatred within Muslim countries leads. But if one is committed to the deep stupidities of wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam, then all this becomes invisible. For the Virtuous, Ignorance is Strength.

But, having been tried and tested and shown to be completely acceptable in reporting on Israel-Palestine wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam are all now coming to a media outlet near you. What starts in Palestine does not stay in Israel.


ADDENDA Richard Landes points out a quite different and, at the sharp end, murderous effect of such journalism back in Europe.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

(Not) coping with the diversity of the real

By Lorenzo

The heterosexual/homosexual distinction is relatively recent, being coined in the mid C19th. Like all binary classifications, it is somewhat problematic in dealing with the diversity of the human. That being said, it is not merely a social construct: there is a real underlying diversity in human sexuality that it tries (somewhat clumsily) to grapple with.

The attempt by Michael W. Hannon in his essay Against Heterosexuality in the Catholic magazine First Things to employ the works of queer theorists and Michel Foucault to entirely dismiss the concepts of heterosexual and homosexual fails on various levels, but its most basic failure is simply not acknowledging any aspect of the sexual diversity of the human that the distinction tries to grapple with. (It is hardly surprising that the term bisexual does not turn up anywhere in the essay. [In contradiction to a famous study of a few years ago, it appears that bisexual males do exist.])

But there are a lot of problems with the piece. First, Michel Foucault is a notoriously unreliable source for historical facts. Second, just because the terms heterosexual and homosexual are relatively new, does not mean that a sense that people differed in sexual orientation was not much older. Rictor Norton’s The Myth of the Modern Homosexual is a good source for that (see also here).

The reality of diversity

Third, there is now significant scientific evidence of diversity in sexual orientation. Such as differences in reaction to the smell of sweat, to visual stimulation (the more so among men than women), and in cross-gender brain structures and cognitive traits. (Really, is anyone surprised that lesbians tend to have more typically “male” cognitive features and gay men tend to have more typically “female” cognitive features?) This is still a developing field. There may well be problems with the heterosexual/homosexual construction as it has developed, but it is an attempt to grapple with a real phenomenon–human sexual diversity.

(Oh, and a tip for female authors in particular: gay men are not girls with penises, they have testosterone; it makes a difference. For example, gay and straight men may look at different porn, but they use porn in essentially the same way.)

If, as our author alleges, the matter is all social construct and not any underlying awkward reality, then one does not have to struggle with why said social constructions popped up in the first place, let alone why there has been a decades-long queer rights movement. Nor any awkward questions about why it has succeeded as much as it has.

The author does make reference to:

Over the course of several centuries, the West had progressively abandoned Christianity’s marital architecture for human sexuality. Then, about one hundred and fifty years ago, it began to replace that longstanding teleological tradition …

The older teleological view measured morality against man’s rational-animal nature; in the sexual realm, this meant evaluating sex acts by reference to the common good of marriage, which integrated spousal union and the bearing and rearing of children.

If the reality of human sexual diversity is ignored, then the long persistence of said “marital architecture” is completely unproblematic. Conversely, if humans are, and always have been, sexual diverse, then how did such a tradition persist for so long?

The short answer is brutality: it was brutally enforced. Somewhat intermittently, and with periodic moral panics and purges, but the basis of its maintenance was brutality. As the necessary enforcing brutality faded away, the reality of human sexual diversity began to emerge into the light, so to speak. Why the movement for gay rights? Because people were able to connect who were tired of being treated like crap. (There was also a much broader resistance to the very narrow and controlled conception of family the Church pushed that has won out.)

The growth of science provided non-religious grounds for knowledge and authority; the interaction with other cultures created an awareness of the diversity of human gender taxonomies and sexual ethics; the growth of transport and communication technologies allowed smaller and smaller minorities to connect; mass urbanisation allowed folk to congregate together. In other words, much the same patterns as underlay the other steps in the Emancipation Sequence. And you cannot put the genie back in the bottle without the necessary enforcing brutality.

Sodomising Scripture

But this does not exhaust the problems with the essay. The author tells us that:

The Bible never called homosexuality an abomination. Nor could it have, for as we have seen, Leviticus predates any conception of sexual orientation by a couple of millennia at least. What the Scriptures condemn is sodomy, regardless of who commits it or why.

Well, that is not remotely true, because sodomy is not a Scriptural concept; for the New Testament predates development of the notion of sodomy by centuries, much of the Old Testament by about a millennia.

Of course, later translations inserted sodomy into Scripture, but that does not make sodomy a Scriptural concept, no more than inserting homosexuality into Scripture does.

Moreover, using Leviticus as an authority hardly works–Leviticus repeatedly insists that its proscriptions are an all or nothing matter: you have to either enforce the lot or none, you cannot pick and choose. (So tattoos, for example, are right out, as are priestly tonsures.) Every Christian, and every denomination of Christianity, is in breach of Leviticus.

If you are picking and choosing which bits of Leviticus to take notice of, your authority is not Leviticus, it is whatever basis you are using to pick and choose. Nor does Leviticus condemn same-sex relations per se, it condemns a man taking the female role in sex. The point, fairly clearly, is to enforce strict gender differentiation–more specifically, to not have men “unman” themselves by taking the female role. Women lying with women is, apparently, fine.

Sodomy refers, of course, to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain, in Genesis 19. A good exercise is to read the Scriptural story closely and clearly without the imposing the since-traditional “it’s all about butt sex” interpretation on the text. Does that interpretation make any sense from the actual Scriptural passages?

Put it another way, how do you turn attempted group rape of visiting guests who were messengers of the Lord into any sort of condemnation of any sexual practice as such? Especially given there is no divine intervention until it comes to saving Lot’s daughters and the messengers are there to warn Lot that God has already given up on the cities. (Does, for example, the brutal group rape and murder in Judges 19 mean that there is something wrong with opposite sex sexual relations?) The answer is, you can’t. You have to add to the text to elevate same-sex relations to being the key issue.

Note that seeing the key issue as vile treatment of visitors and guests, of the stranger among you, is very much in accord with other Biblical passages, such as Exodus 22:21 and Exodus 23:9. The notion that the most important thing was the butt sex that didn’t happen, is supported nowhere.

So, how did the since-traditional interpretation arise? By an intellectual applying an academic theory to the text in order to score points in a cultural war. The intellectual was Philo of Alexandria (c.25BC-50AD), the academic theory was Greek natural law philosophy and the culture war was between monotheist Hebrews and polytheist Greeks.

Here is Philo the culture warrior, condemning a pagan religious parade:

At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet. (Special Laws III, VII, 40)

It could be any contemporary Christian, Jewish or Muslim cleric condemning the Gay Pride parade of your choice.

Since Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain, were the premier examples of God’s specific wrath (apart from small matters such as the Flood), a range of (often not very specific) sins were attributed to its inhabitants in Scripture. Philo, however, focuses particularly on the consequences of prosperity:

As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence. (On Abraham, XXVI, 135-6)

The concern for strict gender roles comes across very clearly. But it is also an introduction of the (Greek) notion of the “laws of nature” which the inhabitants of the cities of the plain sinfully discarded. It also establishes the utility of denying human sexual diversity, for such denial provides the best of both worlds: on one hand, by pretending anyone might do it, same-sex activity is turned into a huge moral threat bringing with it social sterility; on the other, by condemning something most people are uninterested in doing, you are selling very low cost virtue.

There is, in fact, a curious insecurity about opposite-sex attraction involved. (Though if being female is such a desperately inferior state, then perhaps the resilience of being attracted to them is something to be insecure about.) An insecurity there is no biological or social basis for–in no society, not even in societies where same-sex relations are a compulsory adolescent experience (yes, there have been some) do men give up having sex with women, or having children. Opposite sex desire is a reliable feature of human affairs. Merely not a universal feature of actual humans.

Philo was not conforming to the rabbinical oral tradition concerning the cities of the plain, which held that they were not immoral, but anti-moral: that is, they actually punished people for displaying moral behaviour towards the weak and vulnerable. Which has the virtue of making the both their punishment, and its extent, congruent with the moral message elsewhere in the Old Testament: it certainly makes much more sense than fearful insecurity about the power of opposite sex attraction or the apparently enormous moral significance of butt sex. (To the extent that sodomy has a precise theological definition, it means any non-reproductive sex to the point of ejaculation; but anal intercourse has always been the archetypal version of sodomy.)

Philo’s conception was, however, an intellectual winner, winning converts outside Judaism, extending to Christianity and Islam. The Qur’an incorporates the notion that the cities of the plain were destroyed for their homosexuality, even claiming they were the first to engage in such.

Editing nature into convenient form

When one looks for the original argument that demonstrates same-sex acts to be unnatural, one comes across much assertion, but precious little argument. The original source seems to be Plato’s The Laws. In Book One, the Athenian asserts that:

Now the gymnasia and common meals do a great deal of good, and yet they are a source of evil in civil troubles; as is shown in the case of the Milesian, and Boeotian, and Thurian youth, among whom these institutions seem always to have had a tendency to degrade the ancient and natural custom of love below the level, not only of man, but of the beasts. The charge may be fairly brought against your cities above all others, and is true also of most other states which especially cultivate gymnastics. Whether such matters are to be regarded jestingly or seriously, I think that the pleasure is to be deemed al which arises out of the intercourse between men and women; but that the intercourse of men with men, or of women with women, is contrary to nature, and that the bold attempt was originally due to unbridled lust. The Cretans are always accused of having invented the story of Ganymede and Zeus because they wanted to justify themselves in the enjoyment of unnatural pleasures by the practice of the god whom they believe to have been their lawgiver.

The implied argument, from the citation of animals, is that it is contrary to nature because we do not see same-sex activity amongst animals. In Book Eight, the Athenian says:

For if any one following nature should lay down the law which existed before the days of Laius, and denounce these lusts as contrary to nature, adducing the animals as a proof that such unions were monstrous, he might prove his point, but he would be wholly at variance with the custom of your states. …

Our citizens ought not to fall below the nature of birds and beasts in general, who are born in great multitudes, and yet remain until the age for procreation virgin and unmarried, but when they have reached the proper time of life are coupled, male and female, and lovingly pair together, and live the rest of their lives in holiness and innocence, abiding firmly in their original compact:-surely, we will say to them, you should be better than the animals.

So, the argument seems to be that animals follow nature, animals don’t do it, so it is against nature. If nature is the measure of the natural, then the argument is way out of luck, for nature is an incredible array of sexual, gender and mating diversity. Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity provides chapter and verse.

As for the purpose of sex being reproduction, nature is not helpful there either, as sex is used for a much wider range of purposes in nature than merely reproduction. Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People provides considerable detail on that. The Athenian of Plato’s Laws is not a very good, nor a knowledgeable, observer of nature.

Folk became aware that nature did not live up to the alleged restrictions of the natural: animals such as hares and hyenas were identified as letting the side down. This was coped with in the way teleological conceptions normally cope with uncooperative diversity–the conclusion was used to police the premises. That is, evidence in nature which contradicted what was declared to be the natural order was declared to be unnatural–outside the “proper” order of nature. If one is allowed to simply exclude the contrary cases, then one is fine. (Marxists turned this into a fine art with respect to the social order, but natural law theorists were perfecting the technique centuries earlier.) Of course, one’s theory then rests on nothing but itself, but that has never proved to be an insuperable difficulty for any faithful concerning the teleological apparatus of their devotion.

Based on nothing but assertion and a deemed license to exclude contrary cases it may be, but the classing of same-sex activity as unnatural had grim consequences when tied to monotheism. For the notion that same-sex activity is unnatural is then turned it into an act of treason against God, as nature’s Creator. As early as the C4th, St John Chrysostom (c.349-407), the patron saint of preachers, is assuring folk that same-sex activity is worse than murder. (It being treason against God and all.) For:

All passions are dishonorable, for the soul is even more prejudiced and degraded by sin than is the body by disease; but the worst of all passions is lust between men…. The sins against nature are more difficult and less rewarding, since true pleasure is only the one according to nature. But when God abandons a man, everything is turned upside down! Therefore, not only are their passions satanic, but their lives are diabolic….. So I say to you that these are even worse than murderers, and that it would be better to die than to live in such dishonor. A murderer only separates the soul from the body, whereas these destroy the soul inside the body….. There is nothing, absolutely nothing more mad or damaging than this perversity.

One notes again the concern for male status and standing. Apart from St Paul in Romans, there is no Scriptural basis for claiming that women can commit “sodomy”, and precious little Patristic support. (St Paul’s wording fairly clearly shows the influence of Philo.)

By the medieval period, in the medieval best seller The Golden Legend, compiled by an Archbishop of Genoa later beatified for his editorial and compilation efforts therein, we are told that a miracle of the Nativity was:

And it happened this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame. Whereof S. Austin saith that, it lacked but little that God would not become man for that sin.

The Christmas day massacre–God kills all the sodomites so that Incarnation can happen and the Gospel of Love can be let loose on the world.

So, sodomy is not Scriptural; the claim that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was all (or even primarily) about same-sex activity is, to say the least, weak; the it-is-unnatural argument is based on a complete misreading of how nature actually is and the whole thing rests on an insecurity about opposite sex attraction which also has no basis.

(Though Christianity is a very broad tradition–St Aelred of Rievaulx suggests, in his Spiritual Friendship, that Jesus and John were married in Heaven.)

Having someone to pick on

So, what gives?

Several things. If entire sections of nature can be excised as “not counting”, then a minority of humans can easily be so. The conspicuous thing about arguing that sex-is-only-for-reproduction, reproduction can only be properly done within marriage, it is all about human flourishing is that it relies on excluding the same-sex attracted–their flourishing clearly doesn’t count. And that exclusion is the point.

I said there was no cost to most folk in banning something they have little or no interest in doing. But there is a cost: the cost is treating fellow human beings badly; which is actually the point–having a very vulnerable group to so easily and (mostly) costlessly pick on.

Queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus. It is hard to think of any group that it is easier to isolate and pick on; particularly as it is hard to think of a group that it is easier to drive into hiding and not speaking up for themselves. They make such a splendid target–and that is the point.

For where do priests and clerics get authority most easily and graphically? From being gatekeepers of righteousness; from telling you what is righteous and what is not. And the more unexpected the markers of righteousness are, the more the “expertise” of the priest or cleric is need.

We don’t need priests or clerics to tell us that murder is wrong, that theft is wrong–cultures either come to those conclusions or they don’t get off the ground. But we do need a priest or cleric to tell us that heaven hates ham, that God hates butt sex, that dogs are unclean. It is not morality, but moral taboos that are priests and clerics distinctive stock-in-trade. (As it is, for that matter, for secular clerisies.)

A consequence of turning the archetypal instance of God’s specific wrath into being all about butt sex meant that picking on this incredibly vulnerable group was “necessary” to preserve social order from the wrath of God. Which made it a desperately important issue–so much so, that discharging semen into someone’s anus was apparently worse than murder. Well, it had to be, otherwise God was being pathological. Of course, if the story of the cities of the plain was really about systematically picking on the weak and vulnerable, then … (One might also stop to note that the Gospel Christ has very little to say about secular authority, but a great deal to say about religious authority being used in cruel and oppressive ways.)

It is very clear that there are plenty of believers who are outraged that queers are being treated as “real people” not the targets of oppressive, no-voice repression that is how any Godly society should treat such folk.

Moreover, the queer (the sexually and gender divergent) are a natural target for monotheistic religions. First, because the One God is not a sexual being in the way polytheistic deities are. In animism and polytheism, sex connects us to the divine. In monotheism, it separates us from the divine. Except in one form–reproduction, because that connects us to God the Creator. So, reproductive sex becomes the OK form of sex. Second, because such targeting provides a splendid point of divergence from polytheistic and animist religions; it being very clear, very low cost for most folk and picking on such a vulnerable group.

Third, because monotheism comes only from the Middle East, so only from plough-and-pastoralist societies–that is, patrilineal and patrilocal societies. If there is only one Ultimate Authority, that Authority is bound to be conceived as Male and with Male authority priests. (Polytheism tended to include third gender priests, animism third gender shamans: so another point of differentiation.) Which naturally encourages a very strict gender dichotomy.

All of which leads to monotheism’s history of murderous hatred of the queer.

The various monotheisms do not use the same set of scriptures, they do not use the same set of justifications, or, in the case of Zoroastrianism, come from an entirely separate scriptural tradition, but they keep coming to the same conclusions.

But the reasons for the recurring pattern are not reasons anyone is going to use as justifications. Hence the need to create various legitimating theories when talking to non-believers (as Jews and Christians were). A need which way overshoots the actual scriptural and philosophical supports claimed for them.

Missing the irony

It turns out there is also another cost. What you do to others, others can do to you; especially if you have already set up the patterns and justifications. So Jews justified picking on pagans as against God; Christians picked that up and justified picking on pagans and Jews as against God; Muslims picked all that up, and justified picking on pagans, Jews and Christians as against God. The dhimmi, Pact/Conditions of Umar elements of Sharia are the anti-pagan, anti-Jewish laws of the Christian Roman Empire extended to Christians, theologised and generalised.

And they have all agreed about picking on the queers and never, ever saw any irony involved.

Now, in the increasingly intolerantly secular West, it is believing Christian and Jews who are on the receiving end. Folk being outraged by political correctness yet failing to see any parallels with previous gender and sexual correctness are, once again, not seeing the irony. (But, then, nor are the purveyors of political correctness at all grasping that moral fervour, far from protecting folk from being oppressive, is a great motivator and justifier of oppression.)

Though I wish queer folk would learn the lessons of history better and not join in. But it seems folk simply don’t so learn, because their moral fervour is (always) true righteousness personified. Selling belief in collective moral narcissism is demonstrably a perennially easy sell.

And they always have a theory. It is just never a good one.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The Perfect Soldiers

By Lorenzo

LA Times journalist Terry McDermont’s study Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers, Who They Were, Why They Did It goes into the otherwise unremarkable lives of the 9/11 hijackers, firmly establishing that family background had nothing to do with their suicidal jihadism. Most did not come from particularly religious families; one, Ziad Jarrah from Lebanon, apparently did not realise he was a Muslim until he was 12. (His Christian nanny used to take him to Christian services on a Sunday: his deeply secular Sunni Muslim parents apparently did not object.)

The linking thread in their (short) lives was going to college. The notion that education is some solution to the problems of jihadism and Islam-derived animus towards apostates, “immodest” women, queer folk or followers of other religions is revealed to be utter nonsense by simple examination of the biographies of the 9/11 hijackers themselves, who were typically highly educated. (Mohammad Atta, the oldest, did a PhD in urban planning, for example.) Equally nonsense is the notion that poverty has any role: as you would expect from people engaging in university education, they overwhelmingly came from comfortable middle class or even wealthy backgrounds.

What made college life a common thread is that it took them away from their families and local communities. So they were confronting the “who am I?” question as isolated young men in foreign lands–they were mostly studying in the West.* Which made them excellent recruitment material for those pushing an intense Islamic identity.

Militancy, not radicalism

Including those often described as “radical imams” pushing “radical Islam”. But radical is the wrong word. Australian political scientist David Martin Jones expresses nicely the problematic nature of the “radical” moniker:

Rather than being radicalised, young Western Muslims are attracted to what a more religious age than our own recognised as enthusiasm, zealotry or fanaticism.

… any analysis of jihadism’s self-confirming zealotry suggests that those labelled “radicalised” are not really radicals at all. Ideological radicalism, properly understood, requires a clear break from traditional religion, of whatever form, in order to achieve a pluralist, secular modernity.

By contrast, a scriptural literalism based on the message of the Prophet Mohammad and the hadith of his rightly guided seventh-century successors, the Rashidun, fuels Islamic State’s thought and practice. They look to past models purified by purificatory violence today to build tomorrow’s religious utopia. … Today’s jihadi is an enthusiast as defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, namely, one who is “possessed by a god” or in “receipt of divine communication”. No matter how deluded their actions appear to modern secular sensibilities, in their minds they are directly engaged in a divine mission to re-create the caliphate.

In other words, jihadis have very little in common with the radicals of any Western tradition. They are far more like the Reformation and Counter-Reformation religious “enthusiasts” of the C16th and C17th that C18th Enlightenment folk so strongly reacted against. They have even more in common with the original Jewish Zealots: true believers homicidally enraged that human law is permitted to trump God’s law and whose murderous ire falls particularly intensely on “wickedly compromising” fellow believers. The issue is not radical Islam, it is militant Islam.

The book is clear and highly readable, as you would expect from a veteran journalist. It is also extensively footnoted.

About half way through, the link between the hijackers biographies up to that point and their suicidal mass homicides was still unclear. It was all very well to say that they sympathised with the Palestinian cause or were unhappy with the US giving up on the squabbling Afghani factions after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (particularly as their Pakistani allies systematically undermined any secularising groups). But how does one go from being unhappy with Israel over the situation of Palestinians, or the US over its support for Israel, or the US’s disengagement from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, to suicidally killing thousands of random strangers?

The answer that emerges from McDermott’s narrative is very clear–intense cultivation of an Islamic identity; particularly a mainstream Sunni Islamic identity. It was that intense identification with Islam which lead them to existing jihadi networks and their mass homicide of random strangers in planes and buildings.

What is also very clear as McDermott follows the lives of the hijackers-to-be is that seeing Islamic militancy as some product of Western foreign policy is a ludicrous simplification. If anything Soviet foreign policy (the invasion of Afghanistan) and Russian foreign policy (the Chechen wars) was more important. Similarly, blaming the Iranian Revolution of 1979 on the CIA-SIS organised Shah’s 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh is equally specious. Particularly as the Revolution was a joint Islamic-Leftist revolt–it was only later that Khomeini turned so successfully on his former Leftist allies. Khomeini’s triumph was a success for Islamic militancy, demonstrating that political Islam could triumph; nevertheless there was limited cross-over to Sunni Islam, precisely because intense cultivation of a Sunni Islamic identity tends to intensify the distance from Shia Islam, as events in Syria and Iraq have been demonstrating.

Nor is Islamic militancy significantly explained, or even generated, by the Israel-Palestinian dispute. On the contrary, Islamic militancy (particularly via the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928) had a great deal with making the dispute so intractable in the first place, and the outbreak of war in 1947. Certainly, the success of Israel generates a lot of resentment, and is a favourite talking point, but it has had very little to do with the development of the jihadi networks.

Even considering jihadis who have fought Israel, Hezbollah was more a product of the Lebanese Civil War; while Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, with much of its success coming from reaction against the corrupt failures of Fatah. Indeed, the failures of the socialist-nationalist push within Arab countries have been much more important in generating support for Islamic militancy than any aspect of Western foreign policies: a larger pattern within the Arab world well on display in the Algerian Civil War.

Out of Islam

McDermott follows the future hijackers through their experience of the networks organising against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. This was a deeply Islamic milieu–as one would expect. Saudi Arabia and other Muslim backers provided two-thirds of the funding, Muslims provided all the fighters and even the US assistance was mainly channelled through the Pakistanis. The defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan is seen in the Islamic world as a Muslim triumph, and for good reason.

So, why does intense identification of an Islamic identity lead to suicidally killing thousands of random strangers? First, because of Islam’s valorisation, indeed sanctification, of violence. The archetypal Muslim martyr is one who dies fighting the infidel. This is very different from the Christian concept of martyrdom–one who is killed for refusing to deny their Faith.

Second, because of Islamic supremacism: the pre-eminent cause in which such violence is sanctified. Sharia is the law and path of God, the Sovereign of the Universe, and as such rightfully applies to everyone. Sharia mandates that believers should rule, and that conversion to Islam or acceptance of Islamic dominance are the only peaceful options open to non-believers (apart from temporary truces). Otherwise, the unbelievers should be fought until either they convert, they accept Muslim rule or they die. As ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)–scholar, jurist, pioneer historical sociologist–says in his Muqaddimah:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam by persuasion or by force. …To discuss or argue these things with them [the Christians] is not for us. It is (for them to choose between) conversion to Islam, payment of poll tax, or death (3:31).

This is standard fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, easily replicated from any number of even more authoritative sources (pdf).

Third, because of the systematic dismissive Othering that is pervasive in Islamic doctrine. The omnipresent success of kafir societies is itself an offence to intensely cultivated Islamic sensibility: it denies the truth of Islam and its proper dominance. It is hardly accidental that jihadi targets in the West include places and gatherings with cultural significance, such as the Two Towers themselves, or a rock concert in Paris.

Cultural reaction

Reading the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)–who has been deeply influential in motivating jihadis–it is very clear that it is above all the cultural omnipresence, the cultural pollution of the West, which he feared and reacted against (including the apparently outrageous sexual licence of a dance in small town 1940s US) far more than the comings and goings of Western foreign policy. (It is useful to remember that ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness is a key aspect of pious Islamic practise.)

The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers: so most Muslims just get on with their lives. But if one is young, unmarried, separated from kith and kin, and intensely cultivates an Islamic identity, the jihadi path is one that young men in particular are easily and naturally led to. Especially in mainstream Sunni Islam as (1) it has no sources of authority for religious reason other than inference from the Quran, the life of Muhammad (a ruling-and-conquering Prophet) and his sayings and acts and (2) it has the numbers to aspire to dominance.

Across Islam

McDermott includes several appendices, one of which lists key al-Qaeda personnel and connections; looking at the list it is clear that they came from across the Islamic world. The book also makes clear the Islam-spanning nature of jihadi networks and aspirations. The original notion for the 9/11 attack developed from a plan originally intended to operate out of Manila in early 1995.

The reason so many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, is that they were the ones who could get visas to the US: all the Yemenis who were originally picked were knocked back by US consular officials as potential economic migrants.

The 9/11 hijackers were remarkably ordinary young men, separated from kith and kin, who intensely cultivated an Islamic identity, turning themselves into, as the title says, Perfect Soldiers for that intensely cultivated Islamic identity.

Meanwhile, Europe has taken in thousands of young Muslim men, separated from kith and kin, for whom an Islamic identity is the easiest identity to reach for. What could possibly go wrong with that?

ADDENDA The power of the book precisely comes from its recreation of the lives of the protagonists. One gets to see what impacted their lives and a sense of the milieus they were immersed in that much more fully and effectively.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

* Given that treating Western civilisation as a source of achievement, and any positive notion of “Western values”, is regarded as impossibly gauche by so many Western academics, the notion that young Muslims studying in the West would be encouraged to have a positive view of matters Western by their educational experience is also somewhat contra-indicated.

Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses

By Lorenzo

The recent case of a Norwegian left of centre politician who is apparently distressed that his convicted Somali rapist is likely to be deported has caused a minor online stir. I was, however, particularly struck by this statement:

But perhaps the most notable lesson Hauken says he learned is that “rapists are from a world so different from ours.”

“In his culture, sexual abuse is about power, not lust,” Hauken said. “And it’s not considered a gay action to be the one who engages in power and violence.”

“I don’t feel anger against my rapist, because I look at him as a product of an unjust world. A product of an upbringing full of war,” Hauken said.

What this all means, according to Hauken, is that refugees need our help more than ever.

The culture in which the rapist was raised plus generic injustice provided a mitigating prism through which to view what the rapist did. To state the bleeding obvious, a Western male rapist would never be granted any such excuse. The principle here is clear: Western men have moral agency, Muslim men have excuses.

Now, any contemporary postmodern progressive, if directly challenged on this point, is likely to indignantly deny that any such principle is operating. Yet, it is abundantly clear in the pattern of postmodern progressive commentary and indignation that it does.

Especially some are entirely upfront about it, such as academic Miriam Cooke, active in “Middle Eastern Women’s Studies”, who has stated:

When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women.


Now there is a return of colonialism that we saw in the nineteenth century in the context of globalization. What is driving Islamist men is globalization.

(The great thing about the “globalization” bogey is that it means the stick of “Western imperialism” never goes away.) But Cooke’s claims are historical nonsense, since the patterns involved extend deep into Islamic doctrine and history: indeed, to when Islam was the great imperial civilisation.

When Cooke further claims that:

Polygamy can be liberating and empowering

she is showing considerable ignorance of a great deal of social science evidence to the contrary. But it is clear her claims are driven by the need to seem morally Virtuous, not anything even vaguely resembling close attention to history and evidence. One can only agree with writer Kay S. Hymowitz’s statement about the wider travails of contemporary Western feminism:

That this combination of sentimental victimhood, postcolonial relativism, and utopian overreaching has caused feminism to suffer so profound a loss of moral and political imagination that it cannot speak against the brutalization of Islamic women is an incalculable loss to women and to men.

Consider the (dreadful) term “Islamophobia” which operates to block critical examination of Islam, basically on the grounds that Muslims believe Islam, so a critical examination of Islam is unfair/hostile/the equivalent of racism (i.e. an act of collective aggression against Muslims). If Muslims were treated as full moral agents, no such argument would be entertained for a moment. How can we tell? Because any attempt to apply the same reasoning to Christianity would be dismissed with contempt. Christianity is the dominant Western religion, Westerners are moral agents, so their beliefs (particularly their religious beliefs) are completely fair game for critical examination; indeed, fair game for casual contempt. The beliefs of Muslims, on the other hand, have protected status.

So protected, that their religious beliefs are allegedly so central to the identity of Muslims that critical examination of Islam is a collective aggression against Muslims. Yet, if any particularly problematic element of Islam is raised, it is typically claimed that many/most Muslims don’t believe it. Islam becomes a religion without content–or, at least, without significant problematic content. It is, instead, an apparently no-problem-content marker of protected identity. Yet critical examination of Western culture, Western religion, Western history is de rigueur. So much so, that strong attachment to Western cultures and identities is treated as morally offensive and retrograde.

There is also a perverse numbers game played, where if something is not believed by some large number of Muslims (either all, a large majority, a majority, depending on rhetorical convenience) then it is not a basis for criticising Islam. Needless to say, no such protective numbers game is played with any other religion (particularly not Christianity) nor Western identities generally.

Philosopher Cornell West provides a nice example of the contrast between the protected and the resonsible. In the aftermath of murders in a black church, he argued for the removal of the Confederate flag, claiming that the problem is that:

the vicious legacy of white supremacy is still shot so deep in the culture

Later, reacting to comments on mass sexual assaults in Cologne (and elsewhere), Cornell West decides that, when it comes to Muslims:

every culture has good morality and bad

Flying a flag says something deep and nasty about American culture: mass sexual assaults say nothing about any Muslim culture.

In Europe, the “morally responsible” position that folk have been browbeaten and shamed into is that critical examination of Islam and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities is inherently racist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The locals have to adapt to the newcomers while insistence that Muslims adapt to the patterns of the (highly successful) societies they are coming to is inherently racist, colonialist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The Anglophone settler societies of US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are a fair way down the same path. The clear principle being that Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses: hence the former must adapt to the latter.

All the sins of Western civilisation and Western states must be at the moral forefront at all times. None of the sins of Islamic civilisation have any such relevance. Indeed, are almost certainly the fault of Western imperialism in the first place. Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

The contrast is particularly stark over hate crimes. If a non-Muslim Westerner commits a violent hate crime, then the postmodern progressive gaze is turned intensely and hostilely on the killer; indeed, on anyone who sounds, looks like or can be vaguely associated with the killer. If a Muslim commits a violent hate crime (a rather more frequent occurrence), then the postmodern progressive gaze is most emphatically not so directed: instead, the killers become moral cyphers in a narrative of Western guilt. Any number of Muslims can kill any number of people (overwhelmingly, of course, fellow Muslims: but that is a recurring historical pattern which goes deep into Islamic history) while shouting “Allah akbar!” and it is never about the shooters, or their beliefs. Hence the nonsensical claims that the Islamic State is “not Islamic”.

No one who is acquainted with Islamic doctrine and history could ever make such a claim in good faith. The problem with the Islamic state (indeed, with all the jihadists) is that they are intensely Islamic. If the Islamic State was obviously heretical, if it was obviously not-really-Islamic, it would be far less of a problem because the Muslim world would unite much more effectively against it. It is precisely because it is a manifestation of devout, Sunni literalism that it has such resonance. (On said literalism, see their online magazine Dabiq.)

Australian political scientist David Martin Jones makes an excellent (if very uncomfortable) point when he says it is highly misleading to talk of “radical Islam” and “radical Muslims”. First, because radicalism in Western history was a tradition of intense secularism. Second, because the jihadis, and those on the Caliphate curve generally, do not want to change the religion of Islam: on the contrary, they are literalists seeking to revive Islam in what they conceive of as its purist, most proper, form. They are zealots (and fanatics), they are not radicals.

Troublemaking Algerians

The true radicals of the Muslim world are the secularists; typically adherents of the modernist Left. But the modernist Left is dying in the West, taken over by the hostile parasite of postmodern progressivism. For the modernist Left was an Enlightenment project, and proud to be so. Postmodern progressivism is, by contrast, “post Enlightenment”, which turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment re-booted. And postmodern progressives either ignore Muslim secularists or, if they become too public, denounce them.

A recent example of this being the piling on by various Western intellectuals denouncing Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud when he critiqued attitudes to women in the Arab world. Daoud was demanding that Muslim men in particular be treated as moral agents, that patterns of belief and culture in the Arab world be subject to critical examination. This heresy could clearly not be tolerated, hence the serial denunciations. (Political writer Paul Berman and philosopher Michael Walzer wrote an informative defence of Daoud.)

Algeria is something of a stronghold of the modernist Left in the Muslim world. Originally because Algeria won its independence from France by a relatively standard revolutionary insurgency established a secular, at least notionally socialist, state. The experience of the Algerian Civil War–a violent and brutal struggle between military secularists and organised Islamic zealotry–subsequently re-radicalised many Algerian intellectuals because they were literally on the firing line, subject to death threats and assassinations by said zealots. As the struggle had nothing to do with Western foreign policy,* they tend to be strongly immunized against treating political Islam as some derivative phenomenon. Algerian-American academic Karima Bennoune’s Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is a particularly fine example of these Algerian troublemaking tendencies.

Moral panic

It is particularly revealing that a standard response of postmodern progressives to any hate crime by jihadis is to immediately start worrying about Islamophobia. Indeed, ever since 9/11, postmodern progressives have continually attempted to generate a moral panic about a backlash against Muslims. The issue that engages them far more than killing in the name of Islam is bad Westerners displaying their inherent racist/xenophobic/colonialist tendencies in treating innocent Muslims badly even though, by every empirical measure, it remains a minor issue.

Again, the contrast with Westerners engaging hate crimes is stark: there is absolutely no concern after such events that there might be a backlash against innocent Westerners (particularly not white Westerners). For Westerners have moral agency (indeed, automatically morally suspicious moral agency), Muslims have excuses.

It is now approaching 15 years since 9/11 and what is very clear is that any such backlash against Muslims resident in the West is hugely less significant than violence coming from Muslim communities in Western countries–not only jihadi violence, but attacks on Jews, attacks on queer folk and assaults on women. In the West, attacks on Jews (often by Muslims) are statistically much more sizeable than attacks on Muslims. But the violence by Westerners that doesn’t happen looms as a much larger moral bogey within the Virtuous/postmodern progressive worldview than the violence by Muslims that does happen.

It is not even a case of Westerners having moral agency and Muslims having excuses, it is much more a case of violence by Muslims being studiously ignored (particularly by much of the mainstream media) or, when that can’t be done, then treated as an exercise in Muslims having excuses.

In the case of attacks on Jews, the standard excuse is, of course, Israel: if Muslims were full moral agents Israeli policy would be absolutely no excuse for attacks on Jews as individuals, especially outside Israel; but Muslims do not have such agency, they have excuses. Yet Jew-hatred is rampant throughout the Muslim world–for example, 61% of Malaysians hold anti-Semitic attitudes compared to 13% of Thais–which is precisely why so many Jews fled Islamic countries to Israel and the West (around 850,000: they and their descendants making up a majority of Israel’s Jews).

Thus Muslim culture and experience are used as an excuse, when Western culture and experience never is: well, not at least if you are white. Which is where we came in.


Where does this blatant and deeply persistent double standard come from? (One which is particularly obvious in the tolerance of various levels of Jew-hatred, in contrast to hyper-sensitivity on other forms of racism.) Like most double standards, it comes from the defence of status. In particular, moral status as decent, concerned, compassionate persons with the proper level of intellectual sophistication.

Muslims, particularly Muslims in the West, have become what economist Thomas Sowell calls moral mascots or social psychologist Thomas Haidt calls sacred victims.

Globally, the equivalent term to Muslim is Westerner, since Islam is a civilisation in its own right, with a 1400 year history. A civilisation with some very strong recurring patterns.

Thus, in the C11th, the Al-Murābiṭūn (Almoravids), Berbers united by religious fervour, swept out of the deserts and mountains and conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Sound familiar?) They were supplanted by the al-Muwaḥḥidun (Almohades), the “monotheists”; Berbers united by religious fervour who swept out of the deserts and mountains, conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Again, sound familiar?) The only thing new in Islam about the Islamic State is its use of technology. Yet we see again the pattern of blaming the Islamic State on the West (because Westerners have moral agency) and not seeing it for what it is; a contemporary example of a recurring pattern in Islamic history (because Muslims have excuses).

Haan history

Despite being members of a grand (indeed, historically highly imperial) civilisation, postmodern progressivism treats Muslims purely as a minority. In many ways, they have become (along possibly with transgenders) the minority; the central minority for postmodern progressivist moral concern. Even outside the West, the global dominance of the West turns the civilisation of Islam into an “as-if” minority. A dominance which is in no way to be understood as in sense a matter of Western achievement, merely of Western sin. Based on what econblogger Noah Smith usefully labels Haan history. In his words:

What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.

Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.

Many countries and civilisations were subject to Western imperialism, while the Middle Eastern experience of Western imperial occupation was relatively brief. Indeed,  in the case of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, a little over three decades (c.1919-c.1956), which are now six decades ago. Yet that, in the contemporary world, only Islam produces serious religious persecution and religiously motivated mass murder, and Muslims are the only migrant communities that generate networks of the homicidally religiously enraged, becomes a non-fact. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

That Islam has a much longer and more systematic history of imperialism than Latin-Christendom-cum-Western civilisation: over a thousand years of, mostly successful, jihad hugely outweighs in time and territory 170 years of ultimately failed Levantine Crusades; that the Saharan slave trade was every bit as horrible as the Atlantic slave trade (and lasted centuries longer, so was considerably greater in total scale of suffering); that Islam has Othering built into its fundamental premises: none of these burdens of history count, unlike their Western equivalents. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

Full victims, excellent mascots

So why? Why the obsession with a hugely overblown “Islamophobia” while Muslim persecution Christians (much more serious) becomes a factor without significance?

We might also note in passing that the emptiness of the common progressivist excuse for not paying attention to non-Western sins–“we should concentrate on what we have control over”–is well on display, given the absolute lack of interest in looking a problems within Muslim communities in the West; the sort of “see no evil” response that was a significant factor in the years-long, massive, systematic abuse of vulnerable girls that is the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal.

Why these patterns?

Why? Because if you grant a group full moral agency, they cannot be full sacred victims. They are no longer simple moral objects in a grand morality passion narrative, but people like other people, who act and whose acts have consequences. They cannot be “struggled for” in the nice, easy, I don’t have to think awkward thoughts, way. For, as Noah Smith says of the appeal of the Haan history narrative:

What’s important seems to be the constant struggle. In a world pervaded and defined by injustice and wrongness, the only true victory is in resistance.

A feature, not a bug

But it is more than that. Because there is actually considerable cognitive ingenuity involved. Postmodern progressivism is all about queer rights, third wave feminism, opposition to Othering, denial of religious claims within the public space. Yet Muslim migration involves importing wholesale people with near zero commitment to queer rights (indeed, often strongly of the opposite opinion), deeply pervaded by patriarchal and misogynist ideas, with a deep tendency to Other folk (particularly Jews and ex-Muslims) and strongly inclined to make religious claims on the public space; indeed, among whom presumptions of Muslim supremacism are embedded. A religion which valourises violence more than any other contemporary religion and, more to the point, a global religious community which valourises violence more than any other.

In other words, a group profoundly pervaded by ideas which appear to be the opposite of everything postmodern progressivism is supposed to be for. Ideas, moreover, that members of said community have distinct tendencies to act upon to varying degrees.

But that does not make them problematic as sacred victims, it makes them even better sacred victims, even better as moral mascots, as markers of virtue.  How so?

If we adopt Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez’s theory of cults of personality (useful discussion here), we can see how so. In a time, particularly in social milieus, where morality is compulsory, and ostentatious morality a marker of identity and status, how do you show you are truly Moral, truly Virtuous? By embracing contradiction. The more awkward facts you are prepared to ignore or explain away, the clearer your commitment to being one of the Virtuous is (and the less cognitive dissonance you have to deal with). And no group of potential sacred victims generates more awkward facts to ignore or explain away than Muslims.

All that apparent contradiction to what postmodern progressives are supposed to stand for? A feature, not a bug. Indeed, by not “imposing” the Enlightenment values the modernist Left was committed to, one shows how virtuous Post-Enlightenment and postmodern progressive one is. And, especially given that the post-Enlightenment is the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted, the very non-Enlightenment religious identity of Muslims fits very well.

Systematic aggression

How to get the wider community to go along (to the extent it has)? Economist Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification allows us to see the mechanics of that. The combination of emotional fervour (since people’s sense of status and moral identity is so bound up in this) and moral abuse of dissent imposes reputational costs that people are deterred by–they don’t want to be seen as “bad people”. Especially when becoming sufficiently informed to see through the push takes effort. It is so much easier just to go along. So folk do.

The potential power of such status-driven tribalism is particularly strikingly displayed by the perversion of nutritional science where seizing the scientific-status high ground through (what turned out to be) empirically unsupported claims and sustained assault on dissent profoundly distorted the nutritional advice given by doctors and governments for decades.

Tribalism is a powerful driver of human actions and attitudes, particularly when identity is tied to status. Doctrines themselves can be powerful markers of identity and status (which does not, however, mean the content of doctrines has no effect: ideas still have consequences).

Econblogger Arnold Kling makes a pertinent observation:

I think that progressives are more prone to using the threat of scorn or excommunication, and it is hard not to respond to that. As a thought experiment, I believe that if I were to say, “I think gay marriage is ok” in a room full of conservatives, they would not hold that against me. However, if I you were to say, “I think gay marriage is wrong” in a roomful of progressives, they would give me what-for and never let me forget it.

The Virtuous advance in part due to their greater aggression; their greater intolerance of dissent and lack of civility. Conservatives, and folk more generally, have their identity connected to the wider society they inhabit: which includes folk having varying views. The Virtuous have their identity tied to their sense of being Virtuous, and against the wider society (being “subversive”). Moreover, holding view X is the more Virtuous the more holding view not-X is evil, which makes differing views Vicious and subject to “bad people think that” attack–and without any overarching broader common-social-identity protection.

As filmmaker Jamie Palmer points out, this tribalism undermines the willingness to make elementary moral distinctions, due to:

an insufferable belief in the Left’s own moral superiority, an article of faith the Left is extremely reluctant to question. To be on the Left, it is held, is to care about others; to be on the Right is to care about nobody but oneself. This assumed monopoly of truth and virtue carries the assumption that those who contest Left-wing axioms harbor debased motives. Meanwhile, organizations on the Left—particularly those in the NGO sector—are held to be above reproach and are consequently excused from any meaningful scrutiny.

This tribal reflex has sometimes prevented the Left from making the most important and elementary moral distinction of all, which is not between the political Right and Left, but between democrats and authoritarians. It has often given Left-wing dictators the benefit of the doubt while expressing furious indignation against those on the democratic Right who point out those dictators’ shortcomings. If the Right turns out to have been correct about something, then one frequently hears the objection that this is “for the wrong reasons.”

So, where does that all end up? With Westerners having moral agency–since status only really works if it status over others; thus focusing on the wickedness and evil of the West and Westerners allows one to morally lord over all those wicked Westerners who do not follow the Path of Virtue–while Muslims have excuses, in order to be the perfect moral mascots and sacred victims.

The entire exercise of status through Virtue asserted against Western society, as well as its history, and those who embrace its achievements, thus operates to generate contempt for fellow citizens and the wider society we share: not a pattern likely to be socially adaptive in the long run.

In reality, the Virtuous typically have far more in common with Western conservatives and libertarians, as well as the working class Westerners that they are so busy despising for their unreconstructed patriotism, than with the Muslims they are so ostentatiously solicitous for. (Though not with the ex-Muslims they ignore.) Indeed, nothing that cutting edge Virtuous academics or other activists produce is likely to be treated with other than contempt by most Muslims, who have their own rich traditions of intellectual endeavour to tap into.

But the Virtuous refuse to look under the black box of Islam, and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities, so that reality is not even on their radar. If Muslims have excuses, not moral agency, they cannot be a problem, can they? But it is a recurring blindness of the smugly arrogant throughout history to think that others will be their controllable pawns. [It is one thing to engage in the Curley effect with folk like oneself, it is quite another to do so with folk very different from oneself.]

There is a further awkwardness: looking at the problems within Muslim communities and Muslim societies may put the actual difficulties postmodern progressives face as well-educated Westerners in an unfortunate perspective. The more the modernist Left objective of a prosperity-and-rights-for-all is achieved, the less actual suffering or oppression the game of status-through-subversive-Virtue has to work with: hence the creation of ever greater mountains of moral angst out of ever small molehills (e.g. micro-aggressions) and the entrepreneurial search for more (Western) things to be outraged over (cultural appropriation, anyone?). The more Western achievements are acknowledged, the more pathetic their moral grandstanding becomes. And then where would they be?

The entire game of Virtuous status-and-contempt is deeply intellectually dishonest and increasingly socially disastrous. But you can’t be truly Virtuous by worrying about consistency and consequences. For, after all, being “subversive” means never having to take serious responsibility for anything; except one’s ostentatious moral fervour, however hypocritical and overblown that may become.


ADDENDA: Commenter Paul raises an excellent point, regarding the surge in commentary on Indian misogyny after the particularly brutal rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi. (See, for example, this Guardian piece.) What is striking is the space given to Indian women to strongly critique Indian culture: for example, this piece on CNN, this on the Huffington Post. The sort of local feminist critique that is studiously ignored when it comes to Muslim cultures (or even denounced) was given prominent platforms when non-Muslim men and social attitudes were at issue. The contrast with the reaction to mass sexual assaults in Cologne and elsewhere, the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal, is stark.(Leaving aside whether Indian men and culture have been slandered.)  So, apparently non-Westerners can have moral agency, not excuses; if they are not Muslims and so do not reach the apex of standing as moral mascots and sacred victims.

[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud]

* The struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan intensified Islamic militancy, provided experienced and energised recruits for the Islamic insurgency, but as the US provided only about a third of the funding (the Saudis matched US contributions and private fund-raising raised a similar amount again) while much of the organising was done via Pakistan or Islamic networks blaming the West for that is drawing a long bow, to say the least. After all, the original cause was the Soviet invasion.

Can a contemporary Western country have a moral immigration policy with a reasonable risk level?

By Lorenzo

The intense, and highly moralised, debate over migration in the West is clearly based on a widespread presumption that it is obviously possible for contemporary Western societies to have a moral migration policy. That proposition, when examined, is much more dubious than it might appear.

It is obvious that people moving to the West from the Rest are likely to improve their economic (and other) prospects, as noted in economist Michael Clemens’s 2011 journal article (pdf). Hence a Gallup World Poll suggesting that about 700m people worldwide would like to move permanently to another country.

This motivation is quite obvious and the fundamental driving factor–if it was not true, there would not be such demand to move to the West and the issue would largely be moot. What is much more difficult is why prospects are so much better in the West than in most of the Rest and how robust that success is to population inflows. Though the moral issues extend beyond that.

Bleeding initiative 

Consider the epitome of a successful immigration policy–Australia. There is effective border control, so the migration debate in Australia has not gone feral, as it has in other Western democracies. Even more impressively, a high level of migration is managed with remarkably little social disruption or political angst. So, a successful policy.

But one with distinct moral downsides. First is that effective border control involves a certain amount of cruelty: this cruelty, by deterring efforts to arrive by boat, does stop people drowning at sea in black market transportation. Still, it is cruelty.

Second, a key element is that Australia cherry-picks its migrants quite successfully. This means that there is much less downward pressure on labour income within Australia, as the migrants bring a significant amount of capital (including human capital) with them. It is often pointed out that migrants increase local demand: but if they bring labour (but not much capital), then there is relatively more pressure on average labour incomes–particularly “pure” labour incomes (i.e. unskilled labour)–as the pool of those competing for labour income from the increased demand expands much more than the capital doing so.

Note, the claim is not that migrants reduce wages; wages are “sticky” downwards. (At least not cause an overall reduction in wages, though there may be significant specific effects to segments of the labour market [pdf].) The issue is the distribution of the returns to economic growth–importing large numbers of people reliant on labour income is likely to distribute more of the returns to growth to the holders of capital, and the newcomers, and less to resident providers of labour.

Hence, that Australia successfully cherry-picks is is good for Australia’s internal social cohesion, but it means that Australia (a rich country) is bleeding off people with initiative (plus persistence–measured by willingness to go through the application process) and skills from less wealthy countries. In global terms, this is a perverse redistribution of scarce resources.

As Clemens points out, an ameliorating counter-effect is to raise the return to human capital in the countries left. Nevertheless, as he also points out, this reduces the externality to the countries providing migrants, it is not likely to eliminate it.

Not that there are no domestic problems from Australia’s successful migration policy. That so many of Australia’s housing market entrants are non-voters makes it much easier to regulate to restrict housing land supply, driving up the cost of housing (and so shelter) and undermining the incentive to provide infrastructure.

The infrastructure effect occurs as restrictive regulation of land use raises the opportunity cost of land for infrastructure–both from the increase in land price plus the knock-on effects of increasing resident resistance. (Expectations of rising property values increase the NIMBY effect.) It also lowers the revenue benefit of providing infrastructure, as governments can, much more easily, tax the artificial land scarcity they create without the bother and expense of building infrastructure and then taxing increased land values therefrom. In other words, land use rationing plus taxing of the created artificial scarcity creates very similar dynamics as those which lead relying on private provision to under-provide infrastructure.

In Australia, the infrastructure and land regulation debates are also a classic example of using migration policy for other purposes–specifically, Virtue signalling. Hence the Virtuous position of no new dams, no new motorways, no new power stations, stopping urban sprawl, opposing in-fill (i.e. BANANA –NIMBY on steroids) while supporting high levels of migration: an utterly self-contradictory set of positions but whose very self-contradiction makes it an excellent pattern for Virtue signalling–embracing the contradiction makes one very Virtuous. While pointing out the contradiction is very unVirtuous (but questioning the signalling marks of Virtue is generally unVirtuous: which has an invidious effect on open debate).

As per the explanatory mechanism in political scientist Xavier Marquez’s theory of cults of personality, when moralism is compulsory, how does one signal superior morality? By accepting the costs of contradiction–it operates as an excellent sorting mechanism and is a splendid application of postmodern authenticity trumping reason.

Regarding the general regulatory effect of migration, having higher numbers of non-voters being market entrants makes it easier to regulate to benefit market incumbents (typically voters) over market entrants, increasing dysfunction across a range of markets. This is particularly notable in Europe, with labour market regulation.

A positive take on the moral difficulties, but policy success, of Australia’s migration policy is that it conforms to a point economist Thomas Sowell makes–there are no morally perfect solutions, only trade-offs

Disrupting order

To avoid the specific moral problems of Australia’s immigration policy, simply give up on effective border control (no cruelty) and stop cherry-picking (no bleeding off).

Failure to have effective border control more or less guarantees your domestic immigration debate will “go feral”, from voters resenting having no say. If there is any sea route involved, lack of effective border control increases deaths at sea. It also increases perverse market-exclusion effects, as “illegals” are then stripped of normal legal protections, creating pernicious black markets in labour.

Not cherry-picking migrants greatly increases the costs, and reduces the benefits, of migration to the host countries. As voters are likely to notice, this also increases the chance of one’s migration debate going feral.

A migration policy which degrades one’s own political and social cohesion does not look particularly moral. Nor a sensible policy choice. As Chancellor Merkel and the EU are currently discovering.

Open to catastrophe

The next alternative is simply to go for completely open borders. There would be no “illegals”, so no black markets in labour.

Given the relative ease of modern transport, there would not be much selection for persistence, or for commitment. (This is very different from the C19th.) There would be some selection for initiative and some for capital. But the greatest relative increase in income would be for labour, so overwhelmingly the selection would be for importing (massively) more labour.

Note, this is the only option that would make any serious dent in the level of global poverty (as distinct from specifically benefiting migrants). No remotely plausible level of migration to the West would otherwise have significant (positive) effect.

At which point, we confront what econblogger Nick Rowe labels, accurately, the Autism of economics. As economist Paul Krugman nicely points out, economists think in models. And models are abstractions: ceteris paribus (other things being equal) is a necessary element in making models useful by being simple enough to be tractable. Thinking of people as participants in markets abstracts away from all sorts of other aspects of being human and being part of a society. (Barry Weingast provides a nice analysis of problems with that in development economics and aid policy.) Indeed, economists abstract so completely that there managed to be a long period of not paying much attention to property rights, as they were so just assumed.

That economists are still struggling to come up with models of long-term cross-country economic growth which satisfactorily explain the patterns we actually see demonstrates that there is a great deal which matters about how societies as a whole function, even in just narrowly economic terms, that economics is still grappling with.

Which makes glib application of open market models to migration policy highly Autistic. So long as economics cannot produce a robust cross-country theory of long term economic growth compatible with the historical evidence, it cannot claim to provide any sort of reliable guide to the implications of open borders.

There is no reason to think that the factors which make Western countries stable and prosperous–and so attractive targets for migration–would be able to withstand a truly open borders policy. The current population of the West (EU, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) is about 890m. Adding 700m people to that population, or even a significant proportion thereof, would be an enormous social, economic and cultural shock.

The strain on existing physical infrastructure would be potentially huge. Then there are the social infrastructure issues. Why would existing structures of formal regulation be able to magically scale up without any significant degradation? Why would existing informal structures of social order be able to magically scale up without any significant degradation? What would be the effects of having voters being a minority of adults? If the existing institutions (formal and informal) are not robustly elastic on the scale required, would the policy not simply be one of importing social dysfunction–potentially, massive social dysfunction?

Open borders have almost infinite capacity to go catastrophically wrong in ways which would be non-reversible. Taking such risks with the lives, freedoms and prospects of citizens and their children is not a moral policy.

Nor is it a rational one for existing voters, given that the possibility of multi-generational and irreversible social catastrophe so outweighs any likely benefits to them. And it is the existing electorate which, directly or indirectly, would be making the decision.

Marriages and visitors only

A policy which would have none of the above costs would be to have effectively a no-migration policy. This is the other way of minimising black markets. There would be little cost in local social cohesion. Rich countries would not significantly bleed off initiative and human capital from poorer countries. In the circumstances of the modern world, the most moral migration policy for Western countries may well be to simply have a policy of not being a society open to further settlement.  At the very least, it is much more morally and socially defensible than many folk seem to be willing to credit.

Moral certainty on migration is very easy if you have a simplistic enough perspective, or otherwise block out awkward facts and problems. (Such as simply simply assuming that the necessary structures for social order scale up indefinitely and robustly; giving no significant positive weighting to the good functioning of Western societies; and/or using the debate for other purposes.) Taking a broader moral view may not lead where one expects at all.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Post-Enlightenment is the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted

By Lorenzo

There is a clear difference between the modernist Left and the postmodern progressivism. The modernist Left was an Enlightenment project, and proud to be so. This is the stream of political analysis and commentary represented in our time by such figures as the late Christopher Hitchens and Norman Geras, by Terry Eagleton’s jeremiads against post-modernism and by the Euston Manifesto. They are the anti-fascist Left; as they will not have a bar of the Counter-Enlightenment in any form. (And can get their heads around the complicated idea that there could be brown-skinned fascists and non-Western movements which are analogues of fascism.)

Conversely, postmodern progressivism is Post-Enlightenment and proud to be so. The trouble is, the Post-Enlightenment just turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted–whether engaging in the romanticisation of nature, emphasising emotion (particularly “compassion”), deprecating reason (especially reasoned debate) or using hierarchical identity politics (heterosexual white male has become an accusation as much as a description). All of which reboots of classic features of Counter-Enlightenment thought and movements.

Thus, what economist Thomas Sowell calls moral mascots and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt labels sacred victims are all about developing a moral caste system of status-ranked identities. While the habit of coining ever more “boo words” (racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc) as conversation-and-thought stoppers is classic elevation of emotion and deprecation of reason.

Dipping from a poisonous well

A friend, in conversation, called Hitler “the first postmodern dictator”: on the grounds that he was all about Will (and so Intent) trumping everything. I then came across this piece by one Aeman Ansari about minorities needing “safe” (i.e. no-whites-allowed) spaces, which is all about racial/ethnic identity being morally trumping, and I was once again struck by how much current culture wars involved postmodern progressivism dipping into the Counter-Enlightenment well. Especially when thinkers such as HeideggerPaul de Man and even Carl Schmitt, fed ideas into the postwar Left.

For losing a Big War, even a Very Big War, does not mean that your conceptions vanish–does contemporary China, for example, conform more to Mao‘s vision or Chiang Kai-shek‘s? Clearly the latter. (And the history of Nazism does tell us about the consequences of ideas, so using Godwin’s Law to block discussion actually makes it easier for noxious ideas to spring back in new forms.)

The context is sadly clear enough. The Dictator’s War (aka WWII) can be understood as a three-way Western civil war, where the liberal democracies, led by Anglo-America, represented the Sceptical Enlightenment (which applies reason to history, based on the notion that human nature is largely fixed, so lessons translate across history and societies); the Soviet Union represented the Radical Enlightenment (which apples reason to society and history but holds human nature to be transformable) and Nazi Germany represented the Counter Enlightenment (which rejects reason in favour of intent, will, emotion, passion and authenticity).

A classic Sceptical Enlightenment moment is James Madison running a failure analysis on republics throughout history before drafting the US Constitution. A classic Radical Enlightenment moment is Lenin holding that over two millennia of struggling with how to restrain political power could be completely ignored, for the Bolshevik Party had the transformative Key to History. A classic Counter Enlightenment invocation of emotion is Triumph of the Will.

The Dictator’s War started with the Radical Enlightenment Soviets allied with the Counter Enlightenment Nazis dividing Eastern Europe between them (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) against the Sceptical Enlightenment Anglo-French and ended with the destruction of the Counter Enlightenment Nazi empire, and the Sceptical Enlightenment and Radical Enlightenment Powers dividing Europe between them (the Yalta/Potsdam Agreements). Leading to the Cold War, a global struggle between the the Sceptical Enlightenment (the Western alliance) and the Radical Enlightenment (the Soviet bloc).

Which famously ended in the victory of the Sceptical Enlightenment West, with the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet empire. Long before that, however, it had become obvious that Leninism and the Soviet Union (or, for that matter, Leninist offshoots such as Maoist China) were not the transformative social vehicles they had claimed to be. Hence the rise of post-modernism; a way of achieving triumphs of the mind as a substitute and consolation for the failures of social transformation–a rise so incisively analysed by philosopher Stephen Hicks.

Triumphs which are only in the mind. A strong contemporary pattern is: the contemporary Western “Left” (i.e. postmodern progressives) functionally allies with the Muslim “Right” (political Islam): notably by accepting strong religious identity claims for all folk of Muslim heritage while seeking to disallow any serious critique of Islam. The other side of the pattern is that the Western “Right” (conservatives and libertarians) prefers the Muslim Left (humanists, secularists, feminists, etc of Muslim heritage: folk who are still modernist, Enlightenment folk in their thinking and so can still be treated as Left) while postmodern progressives ignore or belittle them. The cross-over pattern occurs because Western conservatives and libertarians like those who want what the West has while Western postmodern progressives prefer those who reject the West, because that is more “subversive” and morally “authentic”.

But it is also the consequence of postmodern progressivism rejecting Enlightenment values–such that, for example, feminism and queer rights are not for export; universalism being rejected in favour of “authenticity”. (Which includes criticism and ideological abuse of folk from non-Western backgrounds who speak for Enlightenment universalism.) Moreover, postmodern progressives can hardly seriously call out political Islam for its Othering on the basis of belief, given that is precisely what contemporary progressivism does so avidly. Even more so, given that postmodern progressivism and political Islam have overlapping targets for their respective Otherings.

Group identity sets moral rating

For the first and most obvious way that rejecting Enlightenment values leads to rebooting the Counter Enlightenment via the culture wars is the notion that group identity is morally trumping. Yes, it is true that progressivist ratings reverse those the former Counter-Enlightenment endorsed (or, for that matter, early C20th Progressivism)–whites on bottom instead of on top. But to merely reverse the framing is to continue the framing.

The Aeman Ansar piece cited above is dreadfully bad history; she claims that:

Segregation was imposed on people of colour by people of privilege …

I.e. all whites got together and imposed segregation on all blacks.  At this point, one wants a little more Marxism–i.e. a little more sense of varied interests in social causation. Yes, lower income whites were most certainly an audience for segregation–they were sold higher status. But Jim Crow was more complicated than that. Yes, excluding black voters increased the value of white votes: it was about creating privilege. But it was also about depressing black economic competition, including restricting their choices, to make them easer to exploit. It was not simply something “whites” collectively did to blacks–there were always whites who opposed it.

Races simply are not causal units. One becomes somewhat nostalgic for the Marxist Left–for, however crude class analysis can be, it is way better than race analysis as a causal explanation.

At all times in the Emancipation Sequence (Jewish, Catholic, Female, Black, Queer), crucial to the series of breakthroughs in political participation and social standing were that increasing numbers of people saw common humanity rather than dividing categories. Reverting back to such categories as morally trumping is not a moral advance. Thomas Sowell’s comment of some years back:

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.

Has, sadly, acquired even more force. A product of Virtue signalling, and its spiralling upward dynamics of exclusion, it may be. But it is also a win for the Counter Enlightenment in the culture wars.

As is a certain form of multiculturalism, which SF writer Sarah Hoyt goes to town on here (and notices the win-for-Hitler–i.e. the Counter-Enlightenment–aspect of it):

I saw it in my kids homework, when they were requested to write about “your culture” but got the essay sent back when they wrote about SF/F geekdom because they wanted “your ancestral culture.”

In my kids particular case the situation quickly became tragic or funny depending on how you look at it, because I descended on them like the wrath of Sarah, demanding they explain themselves.

The explanation went something like this “Language and costumes are tied to your race. Trying to get an immigrant to learn a new language/integrate in the culture he immigrated to is aggression, since you’re supposed to keep your culture, because it’s part of your race. To want you to change is racist.”

(Note to those in SF/F this is much, much worse than the position staked out by VD, the banished one, which if I understand him correctly is that SOME characteristics are inherited and make you more/less competent for industrial civilization. Note also that I don’t even agree with his position, much less the more extreme one. Note also that for his position he is condemned as racist, but the other position makes you enlightened and possibly beautiful and full of the meanings.)

This is the point at which I broke out my broom and flew in circles around their office, pointing out their position was something Hitler would have been proud to embrace. What they are claiming in fact is that there is some ur-mythical-quality to races (and races in this case are defined in the European sense, like my dad blathering on about the “Portuguese race”) which imbues them with their own language and culture. If wanting to change that is racist, and if some of these “races” are better at life than others (understood in the whole system of Marxist reward and punishment) then what will prevent them from in the future deciding to eugenically improve the breed by eliminating the less competent? Or just, as they’re doing now, handicapping them by never teaching them the lingua franca of the age and the technological culture needed to survive?

As she points out, the entire history of human betterment is a standing case for contamination, to use the felicitous phrase of Anglo-Ghanian philosopher Kwane Anthony Appiah. To see us as being our cultural/ethnic/racial category (and even more, to see that as fixed) is not only morally retrograde, it is dreadfully bad history–and in exactly the same sense that Hitler’s sense of history was appallingly flawed: making simply false causal claims about racial groups.

Category mistaking

The reality is that cultural identity in particular can be startlingly fluid. As James C. Scott points out in his splendid The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South East Asia, cultural identities can be chosen to fit in with ways of life (specifically: river valley farming, slash-and-burn horticulture, foraging) that can also be chosen (in the cases he considers, including to get away from rule by the river-valley agrarian states). There is no ur-identity here. Chosen identities are not an invention of modern Western sub-cultures.

For instance, in living memory, the Palestinian identity has been created. There is a line of Zionist argument which holds that Palestinian claims are illegitimate as there was no Palestinian identity before the waves of Jewish settlement. The historical claim is correct, but has no moral implications, because there certainly is a Palestinian identity now: created, as such identities so often are, in opposition (in this case, to the Zionist project).

Though there are some similarities to the dynamics of the Jim Crow American South, in that the no-compromise strain in Palestinian identity was originally an unholy alliance between clerics acting as gatekeepers of righteousness and those landlords who resented the undermining of existing structures of social control and exploitation based particularly in debt-bondage. An undermining they–perfectly correctly–blamed on the Jews, as the rise in wages was a result of the influx of Jews, and especially their accompanying capital (which raised wages), while the influx of those attracted from elsewhere in the Middle East by the increased economic activity also undermined existing social hierarchies and patterns of control.

A further similarity with the Jim Crow South is that it seems that the only consensus position among Palestinians is that, unless they get to be the equivalent of Jim Crow Southern whites, no peace agreement with Israel is acceptable.

Nor was there historically some sort of ur-racism. Not only are racial, ethnic and cultural categories more fluid than is commonly realised, but the normative weight put on them is also remarkably fluid over time. Asians have become functionally “white” in the contemporary US while medieval Christendom had little or no skin-colour racism to speak of (though it had plenty of other negative categorisations); as was also true of the Greek and Roman Classical Mediterranean.

Putting negative moral weight on (black) skin colour first arose under the Christian Roman Empire but then, rather more fully, in Muslim North Africa. In both cases, it was about justifying slavery within a universalising moral perspective (Christianity or Islam respectively). In the Muslim case, to justify the mass enslaving, rather than conversion (which would block said enslaving) of Sub-Saharan Africans. The use of mass slavery in the Christian-ruled Americas led to similar derogatory rationalisations, which got another oomph with the adoption of Enlightenment universalism. (Of course, so did opposition to slavery.)

Racism was far more of a post hoc rationalisation of oppression and exploitation than an originating cause thereof. Though, like all moral exclusions, it retains the appeal of effortless virtue, an effortless sense of superiority. (The rise of “biological” conceptions of ethnicity and race from the C18th onwards was an attempt to locate a sense of identity, for a culture of increasingly mass literacy, that wasn’t religious or dynastic yet seemed scientific.)

Even more confusingly, by far the worst manifestation of racism in world history was Europeans systematically massacring other Europeans. Given that there is non-white racism, and that the victims of the worse manifestation of racism were also white, the race-as-(inevitably hierarchical)-moral-category approach really does not work–except as a new way of selling effortless virtue. Which is precisely what the framing does, in both Hitler’s form and its “progressive” reversal. In either form, it is an ideology in Vaclav Havel‘s sense:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.

An ideology that is simply rebutted through grasping, indeed celebrating, our common humanity.

Islam is better

In his private conversation, Hitler was not very keen on Christianity. As he says in his Table Talk,

The heaviest blow ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illtegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity. Bolshevism practises a lie of the same nature, when it claims to bring liberty to men, whereas in reality it seeks only to enslave them. In the ancient world, the relations between men and gods were founded on instinctive respect. It was a world enlightened by the idea of tolerance. Christianity was the first creed in the world to exterminate its adversaries in the name of love. Its key-note was intolerance.

Without Christianity, we should not have had Islam. The Roman Empire, under Germanic influence, would have developed in the direction of world-domination, and humanity would not have extinguished fifteen centuries of civilisation in a single stroke.

Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the nature of things. (11/12th July 1941).

Nor was this a one-off comment, the Table Talk is littered with derogatory comments about Christianity and the Church. By contrast, Islam was distinctively preferable:

Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers–already, you see, the world had already fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing Christianity!–then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism [Islam], that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens up the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so. (28 August 1942).

When Hitler mentions Islam, it is typically to note ways in which it was preferable to Christianity. After the Nazi defeat, there was something of a trail of ex-Nazis to the Middle East–after all, they got to help fight Jews. And the elevation of Israel to the status of the state that Western progressivists and political Islam can bond over by hating has been an excellent conduit for moving from the Radical Enlightenment modernist Left to Counter-Enlightenment postmodern progressivism. Just as it has been an excellent conduit for the, now endemic, habit in so much of the mainstream media of preferring Virtue over veracity.

Maximum virtue, minimum effort

As a friend noted in conversation (and Stephen Hicks develops with clarity and intellectual depth), the explicit ideologies arising out of the Radical Enlightenment fail; so moving to a set of “compassion authentic” positions with accompanying justifying rhetoric (the latter created as necessary) works much better. Hence the rebooting of the Counter-Enlightenment–as that elevates intent, passion, sentiment, authenticity.

All of which are excellent bases for effortless, or very low cost, Virtue. Which is the other advantage of the Counter Enlightenment rebooted; it provides endless ways of signalling membership of the tribe of the Truly Virtuous. (A claim and process that postmodern progressivism and political Islam also have in common.)

Particularly if you adopt what econblogger Noah Smith calls Haan history; a vision of history very different from the hopes and aspirations of both the Sceptical and Radical Enlightenments:

… what’s clear is the anti-Whig perspective. Progress does not fix things. The fact that Jim Crow was less horrible than slavery, and that redlining was less horrible than Jim Crow, and that today’s housing policy is less horrible than redlining, does not mean that things are getting better. What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.

Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.

Western civilisation becomes defined by the weight of past sins (and ludicrous over-weighting of current ones). Other civilisations are not so defined (particularly not Islam). In internal Western status games, Haan history gives the Virtuous instant moral superiority over any of their fellow citizens who express any attachment to the society in which they were born; the society whose success and stability is the crucible for the hopes and aspirations for them and their families. Such instant moral superiority is, of course, the point of the exercise.

For the moral posturing involved is precisely that–moral posturing. The purpose is to buttress the collective normative narcissism of Tribe Virtue. Hence the patent inconsistencies in moral concern, including the endless excuse-making why Western sins (and especially Western “white” sins) get so much weight, and anyone else’s so little. It produces remarkably closed minds and, even better, easily transmittable techniques for closing minds.

Analytical insight

Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez’s analysis of personalities cults, and his criticism of the use of the notion of legitimacy as an empirical criteria, are both useful analytical tools for understanding what has been going on.

Regarding the former: in a situation where moralism is compulsory, how do you signal your membership of the Truly Virtuous? By embracing any required level of inconsistency–which facts count, which don’t; what sins count, which don’t; what critiques are acceptable, which aren’t. The Counter-Enlightenment’s trumping of identity and emotion are made for that; while its deprecation of reason (and especially reasoned debate) are necessary for the specific Virtue signalling strategy’s success.

To take a current salient example of embracing inconsistency to signal Virtue; any critique of Western society as “rape culture”, and Western men (such as college students) as willing, even eager, participants in said “rape culture”, is Virtuous. Conversely, any critique of Islamic societies as “rape culture”, or cases of Muslim men as active rapists (from Rotherham to Cologne to …), is to be denied, belittled, emptied of significance. Even if such critique is done by people of Muslim heritage (with formulations such as “native informant“, essentialist or orientalist being used to discount what they say). So, that the sources of Islam canonically endorsed the right of believing men to have sex with (i.e. rape) their non-believer captives, including their married captives, is a reference to be ignored, belittled, denied significance; while Western history and culture can be happily ransacked for evidence of violent misogyny.

Muslims make excellent moral mascots or sacred victims not despite the queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, misogyny, and abusive Othering which is so pervasive in Islamic cultures (flowing directly from the doctrines and long term effects of Islam on moral sensibility) but because of all that. One has to embrace so much inconsistency in embracing Muslims as moral mascots of sacred victims, that doing so becomes a perfect mechanism for signalling Virtue.

To take an extreme, but revealing, example of highly selective concern for facts, and the dominance of rhetorical convenience and Virtue signalling over logical consistency, a “white trash” young guy kills 9 African-Americans in a church in Charleston and the progressivist concern is all about the shooter, and anyone who might look in any way like the shooter, or might think in any way like the shooter, or might be attached to a flag that the shooter might or might also be attached to.

jihadi couple gun down 14 people in San Bernardino, seriously injuring another 23, and amongst progressives, it is all about not talking about the shooters, absolutely not about anyone who might look or think in any way like the shooters, or might be attached to any doctrines espoused by the shooters. In fact, any number of folk can kill any number of people while shouting “Allah akbar!” and it is never about the shooters. Except, possibly, in a “root causes” way, but the “root causes” of white racism are never considered in any way similar to the alleged “root causes” of jihadism.

Similarly, the chances of an American being killed by a terrorist are, as progressives love reminding folk, pretty remote. Probably about as remote as of an African-American being killed by a white racist. But the first observation is Virtuous, the second very much not.

Then there is the recurring attempts to create moral panics over anti-Muslim sentiment which, on the statistics of actual attacks, is a relatively minor problem. Conversely, the statistically rather more significant problem of attacks by Muslims on Jews is largely ignored. The more factual selectivity and logical inconsistency you are prepared to embrace, the more clearly you signal your Virtue, your membership of Tribe Virtue.

Marquez’s critique of legitimacy argues that signalling, and how free or blocked are information flows, are the key issues in analysing social dynamics (not cognitive commitment, which is often largely invisible). For Tribe Virtue, signalling provides coordination: and modern information technology (and particularly social media) provide excellent coordination mechanisms. Markers of Virtue can then operate to coordinate large group of people. Again, elevating “authenticity”, emotions, identity all simplify and magnify signalling effects.

Turkish-American economist Timur Kuran’s analysis of preference falsification is also useful to understand what is going on–especially the mechanisms for the creation of public acquiescence. The Virtue Game weaponises morality–it imposes genuine costs on those who fail to publicly acquiescence; especially repetitional costs (pdf). Particularly given that, since adherence to the various claims signals Virtue, contradicting or criticising them signals Viciousness. The dialectically false, but rhetorically extremely powerful, syllogism of:

X is done/advocated to stop Y

You are against/criticising X


You are for/insufficiently against Y

Is accepted and applied to denigrate and shout down dissent and to enforce conformity. As priests and clerics have found down the ages, the ability to define Virtue is a powerful mechanism for enforcing social compliance: one always defined and applied as “true” morality. A nice contemporary example of how it works is economist Robert Frank’s experience of the resulting social pressure from using University granting athletic scholarships, and the (false) reputation of athletes as less intelligent than average, to provoke more comprehensive discussion of affirmative action.

As people’s sense of moral identity (and moral superiority) is at stake, a significant proportion of those seeking the status of being members of Tribe Virtue in good standing are willing to impose social costs on those who dissent.  Especially given their reasonable confidence that they will be backed up.

Codes of conduct (notably “speech codes) become an excellent way of entrenching and institutionalising both markers of Virtue and punishment of dissent. Violation of elementary principles of natural justice and due process (such as hidden accusers) demonstrate how much of a power play it all ultimately is.

Self-righteousness, status seeking and power plays are combined together in a noxious package. Hence the (ironic) title of Social Justice Warriors for those for whom trashing civility, freedoms and rights is paraded as some sort of moral advance, rather than the deeply self-serving, narcissistic power grab, wielding weaponised morality, it is.

There is a perennial tendency for organisations to be taken over by those who are able to mobilise and wield reputational effects, to impose reputational costs, most thoroughly. For decades, that has been the modernist Left, who have been even more successfully followed by postmodernist progressivism. Hence historian Robert Conquest‘s observation that:

Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.

The modernist Left and postmodern progressivism are both deeply controlling when they get any serious amount of power precisely because they are so normatively driven–hence profoundly inclined to adopt the deeply totalitarian principle that error has no rights. They more or less automatically commit the just-add-morality error.

They also tend to be remarkably poor at actually running organisations and institutions (as distinct from taking control of them) because they are so inclined to block information (and to heretic-hunt) while substituting normative display for practical effectiveness. Creating, for example, education systems not terribly good at imparting knowledge and skills (particularly given the resources consumed) but truly excellent at stripping people of their deeper cultural heritage.

The massive sense of moral entitlement involved–displayed currently by claiming the right to determine what people can say, how they can say it, what they can wear, what they can enjoy, what concerns are legitimate–fuels this march-through-the-institutions power grab.

The collective narcissism tango

The package parades (above all, to themselves) as being the epitome of morality. Which is precisely what it is not: neither in the overturning of elementary civility and any reasonable sense of moral proportion; nor in the weaponising of morality against both masses of fellow citizens and one’s own society; nor in the pervasive contempt for human achievement which underpins the entire outlook.

The achievements of Western civilisation are far more distinctive than its sins, and far greater. We in the West live in prosperous and profoundly decent societies, where an ordinary citizen of today lives better than a billionaire did a century ago: only a pathological moral outlook would treat confidence in, and respect for, those achievements as something contemptible. A moral outlook all the more pathological for being so ultimately self-serving: which, of course, is where it gets so much of its emotional power–the combination of sneering superiority and self-righteous moralism is very powerful. But that makes it no less contemptible.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end the Left-Right divide that had operated since the French Revolution. As philosopher Stephen Hicks has laid out, post modernism was a way to rescue a sense of moral purpose and superiority from the serial failures of the entire post-capitalism project. Let loose from any commitment to actual social achievement, the substitution of attitude rooted in nothing more than a profoundly tribal sense of the collective moral narcissism provides a profound sense of emotional self-worth, and moral superiority, without the tedious business of actually building anything worthwhile.

Rebooting the Counter-Enlightenment is not a sign of moral sense and perception, but of a commitment to nothing more than towering edifices of presumption and contempt. For nothing actually existing is, or could ever be, worthy of Tribe Virtue’s soaring sense of moral superiority. Collective narcissism parading as moral commitment–this is what the progressivist movement has become out of the ashes of socialism.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Decency, righteousness and the add-more-morality error

By Lorenzo

Having what we might call a moral sense, but which is better called a normative sense, has been basic to the evolutionary success of homo sapiens. The ability to accept, and internalise, constraints on behaviour hugely expands the range of practicable social interactions. Particularly important over the longer run in “scaling up” human social interaction has been the constraint of accepting the right to control specific objects, for that allows exchange to take place. The virtue of exchange is that it permits positive social interactions in the simple swap sense–this thing I have for that thing you have–between individuals with little or no other social connection: an obvious prerequisite for significant “scaling up” of human interaction and resource use.

But the normative sense lowers the costs, and so expands the ambit of, embedded exchange between people with strong social connections, such as those which operated within foraging groups–those who hunt and those who gather sharing the fruits of their labour while shaming or excluding those who attempt to free ride. In other words, normatively constraining aggression–whether active (protection of life and person, blocking theft or deceit) or passive (taking without contributing)–hugely reduces the actual or potential costs of transacting, thereby greatly expanding the range of possible transactions. The increased intensity and extent of socially connected interactions within foraging groups was likely the key arena within which the normative sense evolved due to the high level of interaction and information (pdf) within said groups.

Normative cognition

Expanding the range of social interactions expands both cognitive demands on individuals–particularly the ability to “read others” and to communicate–and increases the return to cognitive ability. If better social cooperation means more children surviving to adulthood, then increased cognitive ability is selected for. Potentially quite strongly. It is likely not accidental that tool using (more specifically tool making) and strikingly swift (in evolutionary terms) cognitive expansion went together. Putting effort into tool making will have rather better returns the more it is embedded within constraints on action (such as accepting tool ownership) that increase the range of, and return on, social interaction.

The interactive expansion of cognition and cooperation pushed homo sapiens across the cognitive threshold of becoming a cultural species: that is, to rely far more on learning and learned patterns than on “hard wired” patterns. The normative sense is about capacities and propensities; that goes with homo sapiens being a cultural species. So it is moulded by experience, example and teaching.

Culture could be used to transmit knowledge and expectations. This also provided a mechanism to transmit norms that did not rely on specific genetic mutations: homo sapiens evolved into permitting social mutation, social diversity. We became a multi-level selection species in a very particular sense beyond that otherwise experienced (pdf) in biology. Human culture built on, directed and, via evolutionary advantage, expanded the normative sense.

Culture exists both as generalised framing (what Anglo-Indian economist Deepak Lal calls cosmological beliefs) and as transmitted techniques (what Lal calls material beliefs). The second, being far more immediately and narrowly instrumental, are more pliable to changes in information and incentives than the first, which is about creating and managing common (or at least sufficiently convergent and coherent) expectations and purposes. Such framings can be so unthinkingly basic to the way folk conceive people and the world that it can be hard to even conceive of people having, let along continuing to be committed to, seriously different framings.

Commerce (exchange) involves beneficial interaction with strangers and people with low social connections. It demonstrably fosters pro-social behaviour. “World religions” (i.e. widespread religions with strong ethical teachings) also foster cooperative norms, particularly (but not only) for fellow-believers. The two factors can work together: it is not surprising that trade routes often spread moralising religions–notably Silk Road Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity as well as Islam in the Malay world.

Norms, by positively or negatively constraining and motivating, are ways for ideas to have great social power. In particular, norms + cognitive abstraction permit generalised notions of status, setting up shared expectations. But status hierarchies can also block various forms of cooperation, as well as discouraging or blocking innovation. The more generalised notions of common status are, the greater the ambit of possible social cooperation and innovation. Shifts from highly hierarchical structures of status to much more generalised notions of status can be expected to have very positive effects on (pdf) social cooperation and innovation. Conversely, shifts in the other direction can be expected to have negative effects on both.

The ability to internalise norms which constrain anti-cooperative, and enjoin cooperative, behaviour is not some incidental side benefit of expanded cognition. It is a fundamental part of the evolutionary process which led to the evolution of (greatly) expanded cognitive capacities. Hence language, face recognition, character reading, agreement, bonding beyond kin: the evolved cognitive consequences that make homo sapiens distinctive in so many ways. Hence homo sapiens having a normative sense.

Normative variation

Though not necessarily universally so having, or to the same intensity. The genetic dice are always being thrown, and patterns of variations in underlying normative tendencies can nevertheless be sufficiently stable to persist. Different cultural and institutional contexts can also have quite different outcomes. For example, given a population of knaves (non-cooperators), saints (always cooperate) and moralists (cooperate but punish non-cooperators), blocking the capacity (pdf) to punish has strong negative effects (pdf) on cooperation as moralists withdraw in the face of unpunished free-riding. Add in churls (those who punish “excessive” cooperators) and, even with the ability to punish, the introduction of such anti-social punishment means that social cooperation plateaus. Social cooperation can clearly achieve stable social equilibria, but there is no reason to presume that such equilibria cannot be maladaptive or exclusionary (i.e. not universal): indeed, the historical records shows both are eminently possible.

Internalised norms, in order to have any effect, have a trumping capacity; that is, they override narrow self-interest: often by simply removing options from consideration. Since that creates the danger of easier exploitation by the normatively challenged, the failure of always-cooperate to become the universal normative posture is not surprising. But it also means that norms have to operate, at least to some extent, as ends-in-themselves, otherwise they are going to fall to “trump” other motives and considerations; they will fail to constrain behaviour in the required ways. It is therefore not surprising that norm fulfilment has the capacity to activate reward centres in the brain.

I have resisted calling this morality and a moral sense because it is quite obvious that homo sapiens can accept a wide range of norms, some of which can lead to dramatically immoral actions. In-group and out-group divisions are, after all, normative.

But, to the extent that we are considering morality and moral commitment, it has been what we might call everyday morality–don’t kill, steal, cheat, etc. What we could also call decency. Not what a Victorian lady might call “decency”, since that had a set of taboos embedded in it that led to treating certain vulnerable groups very badly. Just a commitment to a level of other-regarding constrained and enjoined behaviour towards people in general. This is the morality which is necessary to have any sizeable social order at all.

Generalised, such everyday framing of normative constraints can have a strong utilitarian feel to it. It is not big-U Utilitarianism, as it does not try to reduce morality to a single trumping principle. But, in its other-regarding what-do-folk-want? positively constraining practicality, it can seem very utilitarian.

We could speak of everyday norms as a more general concept extending to patterns of civility or courtesy. But systems of courtesy are a bit more like road rules–highly convenient social lubricants but whose actual content is somewhat path dependent and can be used to signal group membership. As for everyday morality, C S Lewis made a notable attempt to identify common elements across a wide range of ethical traditions. While the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues has attempted to map, via moral foundations theory, basic elements in human moral reasoning. (The current nominations are care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity.)

Normative exclusion

Everyday morality is also a form of morality that people can be, to a greater or lesser extent, excluded from (as they can also be excluded from courtesy). Which is to say, normatively excluded from. One does not understand bigotry (in the sense of moral exclusion) unless one understands it is always and everywhere a moral (or, at least, normative) claim. It is a claim about standing within the moral/normative order; about what behaviour is, or is not, constrained or enjoined towards members of the excluded group. It is always and everywhere a normative status claim. It arises, not from a lack of “morality”, a lack of normative concern but, in a sense, from an excess of it.

In other words, in arguments over moral exclusion, both those for and against a particular moral exclusion think the other side is betraying basic norms, is supporting immorality.

At its most extreme, moral exclusion casts the so-designated entirely outside the circle of moral protections. Alternatively, they might have a narrowed realm of protected action, movement outside of which then strips them of moral protection. They might simply have a lower level of moral protection than others. Whatever the specific pattern, such moral exclusion remains a normative claim, a claim about standing within the moral order. A claim which is, moreover, specific to the excluded group or groups, not a generalised penalty or constraint applying to everyone.

Though such exclusion can sometimes parade itself as a generalised injunction. Sexual taboos in particular can have this form. Injunctions against same-sex activity, for example, looks general but, in fact, it impose wildly divergent penalties–imposing no direct cost on the only-opposite-sex attracted majority but huge costs on the same-sex-attracted minority. (Pretending that sexual attraction is chosen is, of course, a way to evade the huge difference in normative burden.)

Moral exclusions can derive from two origins. One is simply a view that normative (including moral) constraints are based on connection–they apply to kin and tribe and otherwise to those with some personal connection but either not at all, or far less, to outsiders. We can call this limited or narrow morality (pdf). Such exclusion is more a strategy of failure to include rather than one of deliberate and specific exclusion. Tribal and strongly clannish peoples tend to have this type of normative strategy. Confucianism is a philosophically sophisticated version of this normative strategy. A particularly restrictive (even pathological) version of the normative strategy was famously described as amoral familism, though whether it was an accurate social diagnosis is doubtful (pdf).

Alternatively, groups can be actively excluded from normative protections that would otherwise cover them by a process of stigmatisation. Unlike failure to include, such active exclusion requires justification, as it is withdrawing what would otherwise operate. More specifically, it requires stigmatising justification. The more complete the exclusion, the more intense the stigmatising justification required, as the more intensive is the taking-away.

Righteous grandeur

Such deliberate exclusion requires a normative override of everyday norms by something normatively trumping, something with grander normative status. Such an over-arching normative framing we can call grand morality or righteousness.

Grand morality/righteousness is a normative framing that claims some grand, over-arching purpose and status: obedience to God, providing the path to salvation, freeing society from exploitation, or whatever. It can be religious or secular, but regardless of its grounding, such a normative framing claims the right to limit, or otherwise trump, the constraints of everyday morality. Such trumping can, and often does, extend to stigmatising particular groups with various levels of moral exclusion.

The basis for such grand morality, such righteousness, can be as simple as “God says”. It can be done on the basis of defining the “properly human” in ways which explicitly or implicitly excludes groups of humans–for example, definitions of “human flourishing” which exclude the same-sex attracted. It can be done on the basis of theories of what is required for social order. Or on the basis of what is required for a morally trumping conception of social order. Or postulating some inherent malice in the stigmatised group. Or some combination thereof.

Whatever the justification, such exclusion uses the trumping nature of morality to trump morality–to expand the cognitive reach of morality in purposeful claims but, in so doing, open up the possibility of dispensing with the constraints of everyday morality. A classic example of grand morality/righteousness trumping everyday morality/decency is found in Deuteronomy 13:6-11:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known,  gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other),  do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them.  You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

But human history is replete with examples, both religious and secular. Leninism, for example, is a giant exercise in grand morality trumping everyday morality. The Enlightenment, in generating streams of secular grand moralities, did not abolish righteousness, it merely secularised it.

Normative grandeur

It is not surprising that grand morality developed. It marries the ability to abstract, generalise and theorise which goes with expanded cognitive capacities with the normative sense.

Ever since philosopher Karl Jaspers proposed the concept, the Axial Age has been seen as a period of increased sophistication of abstract thought and perspectives. The period saw an upward shift in size of empires (pdf), likely due to the development of disciplined iron-weapon infantry and militarised mounted warfare in the steppes, encouraging more juxtaposition of cultures, and so perspectives. The era saw the development of coinage, which tended to disrupt old social hierarchies and create more fluid social interactions while creating a token-content distinction. Increased trade encouraged more specialisation and more urbanisation, which further encouraged juxtaposition of perspectives and created critical masses of thinkers.

In China, intense inter-state conflict, culminating in the Qin unification, encouraged abstract thought about social order–most famously Confucianism and Legalism. In India, the development of new religious perspectives encouraged abstract thought about cosmic order. In the Greek world, the development of heavy infantry city-states in Greece encouraged the development of that form of social bargaining known as citizenship, which encouraged attention to public persuasion and generated a wider range of political forms, encouraging abstract analysis.

But elements of grand morality are rather older than that. The cosmic-good-versus-cosmic-evil perspective dates back to Zoroaster, who likely lived around 1500BC, which would put him well before the Axial Age. But even older than that, we can see order-versus-chaos perspectives, such as in the Egyptian concept of Maat. With farming societies being susceptible to drought, flood, disease, etc, it is not hard to see how an order-versus-chaos perspective would make sense and frame folks’ hopes and fears.

Hierarchical grandeur

So, more complex social orders are likely to generate systems of grand morality. Particularly as, once one gets hierarchical societies, stories of justification are required–since hierarchies are normative. The constraints of hierarchy have to be internalised to have any strength or stability, so social stratification builds on the normative sense.

Note that being internalised does not require belief, in the sense of cognitive commitment, merely that they be routinised; that folk know what is expected and routinely act upon that expectation. Attempts to turn legitimacy into a descriptive characteristic typically claim too much, turning legitimacy into the analytical equivalent of phlogiston–how do we know a structure of power was regarded as legitimate? People obeyed it. How do we know that people stopped regarding it as legitimate? People stopped obeying it. Nevertheless, that justificatory stories are told in an attempt to get cognitive commitment illustrates the importance of the normative sense in socially-embedded behaviour.

One of the signs of increased social ranking is the switch from egalitarian ritual houses to hierarchical temples. And an effective source of social power and status is to be a gatekeeper of righteousness; someone who specifies what is required by the shared normative order and who is excluded from the same, why and to what degree. A role priests and clerics have taken down the ages and which secular clerisies have also adopted. A Soviet commissar was a gatekeeper of righteousness every bit as much as a Catholic priest, a rabbi or an iman. In the contemporary world, democracies can also throw up bodies that act as would-be gatekeeper’s of righteousness.

Mainstream Islam, by positing a huge moral gulf between believer and unbeliever, is a limited morality with universalist claims. The believer/unbeliever gulf profoundly limits its doctrinal commitment to everyday morality and sells a powerful status claim exulting believers while its complex, revelation-grounded, rules and taboos undermine ordinary moral judgement and reinforce the normative believer/unbeliever gap. Sharia, as the laws of God, sovereign of the universe, make Islamic religious scholars, through the process of fiqh, pervasively gatekeepers of righteousness. Whether mainstream Islam can shed the patriarchal misogyny, the queer- and Jew-hatred, the disdain for the religious “other”, the social imperialism which is so built into its traditional structure is precisely what so many people are currently killing, and being killed, over.

Christianity is grand morality via love God, but everyday-morality-on-steroids in its love thy neighbour as thy self. Hence the development of asterisk Christianity: love thy neighbour as thyself except *(Jews, queers, heretics, … )–add in excluded group as required, as has been perennially done by Christian gatekeepers of righteousness selling believer-virtue.

Normative overkill

The profound difference between everyday morality and righteousness is why adding more morality can be the opposite of a solution to social ills: the greatest crimes in the modern age have been from an excess of moral fervour, not the lack of it. It is far from silly to write of, for example, The Nazi Conscience. The Armenian genocide, the Greek-Pontic and Assyrian genocides were all built on Islamic teachings turning religious difference into a profound normative distinction. While the democides of Leninism were perpetuated by self-identified Left regimes who engaged in mass murdering tyranny in the name of a world-historically grand normative framing. They mass murdered, oppressed and tyrannised not because of a lack of moral purpose and commitment, but because of a grand-morality-trumping-everyday-morality excess of it. Indeed, the denial and excuse-making, the apologetics that occurred about the actions of such regimes within Left-circles in the West were precisely because of the shared commitment to a system of secular righteousness. A pattern which lives on with the memory-hole treatment of that bleak history within large sections of contemporary academe.

Morally deformed individuals dispense with the requirements of everyday morality if it is personally convenient for them to do so. But how do we systematically dispense with the constraints of everyday morality? By trumping it with grand morality. Bigotry is indeed a deforming of everyday morality, but it is invariably based on some sort of grand morality.

So, the grander the moral project, the more everyday morality is likely to be sacrificed in its name.

In the realm of grand morality, of righteousness, one can play a game of normative one-upmanship–our moral project is so much grander than yours. With all the implicit, or explicit, status claim that goes with that. Worse, by exulting righteousness as an all-trumping concern tied to moral status, an upward bidding process can be set in motion whereby each upward righteousness cycle dispenses with another layer of everyday morality. There can also be self-reinforcing networks of righteousness.

Minorities are easy targets for gatekeepers of righteousness, operating either as authority-holders or networks. Sexual and gender minorities particularly, as they are born as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus and the differences involved lend themselves so readily to normatively differentiating rules of righteousness that look general but in fact impose massively uneven burdens–effortless virtue for the straight majority, intense burdens on the queer minority. But religious minorities, particular occupations, ethnic minorities, belief minorities–they have all proved easy targets for gatekeepers of righteousness.

Normatively knowing

Being a gatekeeper of righteousness uses a certain form of human capital–education in the system normative framing used. And certain forms of social capital–setting the requirements and policing the membership of social networks.

Possessors of human capital have a long history of seeing themselves as the purveyors of virtue. They may even present (to themselves above all) as the purveyors of “sweetness and light” (capital). In fact, they are possessors of we-know capital, which easily becomes we-know-better-than-you capital, which easily becomes we-are-so-more-knowingly-virtuous-than-you capital. There is nothing more grand, after all, than knowing the “proper” ordering of society and the “proper” direction of history. It is particularly grand if it involves wholesale reconstruction of what currently exists.

By contrast, commerce generates no inherent tendency to care about grand morality, but operates in the realm of everyday morality. (Despite perennial claims to the contrary, market integration is actually generally a moral positive, fostering social cooperation.) Even the charity commerce finances is typically everyday morality writ somewhat larger.

Alas, commerce’s indifference is, in many ways, the worst possible insult to the proponents of self-evidently-so-important grand morality. While the dynamism of commerce threatens the inherently static nature of Virtue orders (with none being more static than income equality). Hence the millennia long disdain by “virtuous” intellectuals for “grubby” commerce.

Grounding purpose

But it is not only a delusion that adding morality is automatically a social positive, though a very useful delusion for status-building and seizing social power. There is a more basic problem–norms may have to operate as ends-in-themselves but they are not as fundamental as they present.

The point of the normative sense is to permit social cooperation in an expanded social order. Morality is not the most important thing in the world: having something to be moral about is more important.

Yes, morality is necessary to have a social order of any size or complexity—but everyday morality (don’t kill, steal, assault, etc). Grand morality (or righteousness) is often about over-riding everyday morality. In claiming to fulfil the “true” normative purpose, it often damages, limits or abolishes normative protections. In its trumping of ends, it corrupts means.

The core of morality is not about purposes, not even grand purposes, but about constraining the means we use to achieve whatever purposes we have. For our ends may never be achieved but the means we choose affect others very directly. Hence the problem with grand morality—it uses its trumping grand purpose to justifying brushing aside normative constraints: it subverts the core of morality in the name of morality.  As C S Lewis noted:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

No, adding more morality is not an automatic social gain. Indeed, it can be very much a matter of grave harm and profound social loss.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Against Austrian business cycle theory

By Lorenzo

Former Austrian school economist Bryan Caplan recently won a bet against Austrian school economist Bob Murphy on the path of US inflation. Caplan won by betting with the key market indicator (TIPS), Murphy lost by betting against it.

At first glance, that the ex-Austrian won by following the market while the Austrian lost by not doing so might seem strange, but it instances why I am deeply unpersuaded by Austrian Business Cycle theory–that it is an analysis from a tradition that very strongly favours taking markets seriously (particularly their information revealing qualities) yet strikingly stops doing so to get a congenial theoretical outcome.

Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) is a theory of the unsustainable boom. It notes that capital is highly varied (or, economist say, is heterogeneous)–in particular, has a range of durations until completion. Interest rates coordinate current expenditure versus future income expectations.

If the central bank, in order to foster economic expansion, sets the key interest rate “too low”–that is, below the level that will create a stable level of successful capital projects–then entrepreneurs are led to over-invest in projects because capital is cheaper than its actual long-term prospects justify. So, there is misallocation of capital–the profile of created capital does not fit actual expenditure patterns. This is what Austrian theory calls malinvestment. The result is a surge in failed business projects, consequently of failed or distressed firms, leading to income and expenditure cuts, leading to that transactions crash we call “recession” or, if sufficiently severe, depression.

My objections to the theory are twofold: it doesn’t fit the evidence and it is implausible even in theory.

Not fitting the evidence

The theory suggests that the long-term economic pattern should be one of a surge in economic output above trend (the unsustainable boom) and then a crash below it. This is not the pattern we see: on the contrary, what we see conforms much more to Milton Friedman‘s “plucking model” (pdf)–that is, there is a long term growth trend that recessions and depressions “pluck” the economy away from (pdf). A pattern which suggests the economy is pushed (temporarily) off its growth path by various shocks. Despite attempts to claim otherwise, I am unpersuaded that ABCT can be re-construed to fit the evidence.

Particularly as the theory also suggests that the crash should be correlated with the preceding boom–the further the capital overshoot, the worse the resulting crash. Again, this is not what we see (pdf). Recessions and depressions are not correlated with the preceding expansions, but are correlated with the subsequent expansions (pdf).  A result which led Friedman to propose his “plucking model”. Again, this conforms far better with the economy being shocked off its growth path before returning to it.

Given that industries systematically vary by both the scale and duration of their capital creation, the theory also implies that the crash should hit in sequence and to varying degrees–the shortest capital duration industries hit first, the longest capital duration industries hit later; the lower scale capital industries hit least, the bigger scale capital industries hit most. These factors are, to a significant extent, contra-indicated–i.e. short duration capital projects also tend to be low scale capital industries while long duration capital projects tend to be high scale capital industries.

Even so, there should a capital-profile sequence to industry downturns. Again, this is not what we see: transaction crashes tend to hit all industries simultaneously. Such transaction crashes are most plausible assigned to the demand side (i.e. monetary factors) as, in a monetised economy, money is the thing which is one half of all transactions in all industries. Even when there are supply shocks, (1) monetary policy can counter-balance the effects and (2) such shocks are generally a specific shock to the economy, not rolling capital project failures.

One might counter by arguing that particular projects are engaged in a rolling fashion. But that reduces the industry sequencing issue at the cost of undermining the systematic distortion effect.

The theory also assumes that central banks are biased in one direction only–in an inflationary one. Yet the historical record shows that, while there is certainly a general inflationary trend for fiat money, there was no such trend by central banks under gold standards. And ABCT was originally devised in a gold standard world. Attempts to redefine “inflation” to mean “monetary/credit expansion” simply beg the question–an alleged cause being conflated into the presumed effect.

Moreover, the historical record also shows that, in the right circumstances, central banks can be biased in a contractionary direction. This was most dramatically true in 1928-32 but also true from 2008 onwards: on both occasions, the contractionary bias was because central banks prioritised policy credibility (commitment to the gold standard; commitment to low inflation) over economic activity. In doing so, contractionary central banks created the most severe economic downturns of the C20th[last 100 years]. A business cycle theory that is so dramatically wrong about the two worst economic downturns of the C20th[last 100 years]–central bank policy in the opposite direction as predicted and economies consequently being shocked off their growth path–is not much of a business cycle theory.

Implausible in theory

So, there are severe evidentiary problems with the theory as any sort of general business cycle explanation. Even saying “but it is just a theory of the unsustainable boom” suffers from the lack of instances it accurately describes.

There are also some serious theoretical problem with the theory. The first is, ironically, not taking heterogeneity of capital seriously enough. Heterogeneity of labour and of capital leads to heterogeneity of debt and debt/equity profiles. How can there be a key singlenatural or otherwise, rate which can distort the entire structure of investment?  Including across its varying time frames, across which interest rates also vary.

What we are looking at is a schedule of interest rates varying by time and asset. It can be argued that the central bank policy rate (the interest rate used to signal policy) effectively anchors the entire schedule, as the central bank is the monopoly supplier of the monetary base. Its policy rate is really an indicator about the future path of monetary policy, and an indicator which is a function of it being said monopoly supplier and its policy credibility. But an indicator which has far more direct effects on nominal interest rates rather than real interest rates.

But to put so much emphasis on interest rates in investment decisions looks perilously like reasoning from a price change. The central bank has signalled, by cutting its policy interest rate, a more expansive path in monetary policy. But that is, for the economy, a general tendency: entrepreneurs still have to make assessments about particular assets and particular production decisions. As the localised nature of the housing market booms and busts in the US have demonstrated, housing markets experiencing the very same monetary policy can have very different dynamics.

The claim that entrepreneurs will be sufficiently homogeneous in their responses, across very heterogeneous asset and production markets, to create the bust looks suspiciously like only embracing complexity when it is convenient. (Noting that to claim more decisions to invest will be made is not the same as claiming that the structure of production will be distorted.)

More seriously, the claim runs into an information problem–as others have noted, Austrian theory apparently has access to information than none of the market participants do. The central bank knows enough to inflate the economy but none of the market participants have the knowledge to work out what the central bank is doing and the consequences thereof. There is a serious consistent expectations (i.e. rational expectations, but consistent expectations is a more accurate term) problem here.

In his (losing) bet with Bryan Caplan, Bob Murphy was being very “Austrian” in assuming his theory gave him information hidden from market participants–Austrian theory really, really believing in markets until it suddenly really, really doesn’t. Bryan Caplan was being much more consistent (dare one say rationally consistent) in his expectations by going with the market indicator.

What is more plausible–that there is enormously-important-for-future-income information lying around being ignored by everyone except by clever Austrian school folk or that economies are shocked off their growth path: an economic shock being an unanticipated change?

Austrian school, meet the Australian economy

These theoretical and empirical problems come together in the record expansion of the Australian economy since 1991. That is, Australia has not had an economic recession (in the sense of two quarters of [negative] economic growth) since 1991. It still has a business cycle, just a very flat one.

What is more plausible–that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) got its policy interest rate essentially correct for 23 years straight, so that Australian entrepreneurs got their capital projects (on balance) continually right? Or that the RBA sufficiently anchored inflation and income expectations that the Australian economy has not been shocked enough off its growth path since RBA introduced its policy of aiming for a 2-3%pa inflation rate on average over the business cycle ?

Surely, the second option is much more plausible.

So, I do not agree with the Austrian School business cycle theory. In particular, I am very unsurprised that an Austrian economist lost by betting against the key market indicator. The Austrian Business Cycle theory presumes special knowledge against market agents and the indicators they generate: a presumption which is not a strength. Still less a reason to accept the theory.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]