"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 30, 2018

Emperors, Shahs, Kings, And Shoguns–The Enduring Allure Of Power, Ambition, And Conquest

We live in an age of compassion.  Community, collaboration, and cooperation are the moral ideals to which we ascribe.  Monarchy, capitalism, empire, and sexual adventure have all been discredited, relics of an unwoke history which valued power, ambition, and conquest, and of no relevance to a new age of social reform and justice. 

Yet the idealistic notion of social harmony has never prevailed.  It is the clash of civilizations which has defined human history. Despite recent attempts to socialize the natural aggressive individualism which has characterized society for millennia, it is the competition between cultures, countries, and individuals which has prevailed – the expected, predictable expression of human nature.

Civilizations have prospered not in spite of this natural aggressiveness, but because of it.  Persepolis, Rome, Japan, China, India, and the colonial empires of Europe were built on the wealth acquired through conquest.  Art, music, literature, science, and philosophy were the products of powerful societies whose military might and political rule allowed for the growth of culture.  While empires were constantly at war, the spoils of war built palaces, temples, and chateaux.  Armies grew in strength, sophistication, and number; and culture, patronized by kings and courtiers, gave national identity, character, and purpose.

This socio-political and cultural dynamism did not happen collectively – a random sorting of talent and ability – but from leadership.  It was the shahs, shoguns, mandarins, princes, kings, and emperors who provided direction, governance, and authority.  The Caesars, the Ptolemies, the Mauryas and Ashokas, Song Taizhu and Tang Xuanzong were powerful, visionary leaders who not only consolidated and expanded their empires but symbolized and centralized political, cultural, and religious authority.

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The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (247-220 BC)  built the Great Wall, commissioned the Terracotta Army, conquered and pacified the warring states and brought them under his central control, thus laying the groundwork on which China emerged as the preeminent cultural and political power in East Asia. His reforms standardized language, numerical units, and monetary measures.

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At the same time he was brutal and relentless during and after his conquest of the various states; and was tyrannical and unforgiving as a ruler.  Yet without him and his unique intelligence, will, certainty, and canniness China would never have so quickly progressed to a world leader.

The wars of Europe were incessant.  Spain, France, and England were constantly battling for territory, naval supremacy, territory, and colonial rule.  The Holy Roman Emperor, the Popes, and minor fiefdoms were smaller, but important players in the constant reconfiguring of the continent.  Along with this aggressive use of force came the riches that new lands and opportunities afforded.  Each of the empires grew wealthier and this wealth permitted the growth of knowledge and culture.

Tolstoy, writing in War and Peace debunked the Great Man theory of history, said that everyone’s actions are so conditioned by what has come before that to glorify them is vain and ignorant.  Yet he had no doubt that great men like Napoleon, whatever their origins, were special, unique, heroic, inevitable, and necessary.

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Russia would not be the world power it is without the tsars; Rome nothing without its emperors; Britain insignificant without its kings and queens. The Ghana and Gao empires of Africa were no different and both extended over vast territories of West Africa.  Their rulers were as centralizing, powerful, and expansionist as any.

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While times have changed, human nature has not.  Individuals and the societies which they have created are just as aggressive, territorial, and expansionist as at any time in history.  The Twentieth Century was no aberration as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hirohito demonstrated.  The Twenty-first shows no signs of hoped for peaceful unification.  There has been no end of history as Francis Fukuyama predicted thirty years ago as the Soviet Union crumbled and the hopes for a universal liberal democracy seemed realizable.  Countries are dividing themselves in ways which beg for consolidation and central rule.  The movement for multi-culturalism, pluralism, and ethnic and racial identity has created divided, contentious, aggressive groups all demanding their rights.  It is not surprising – given the experience of Qin Shihuang, the shoguns, and Garibaldi among many others – that there are reactionary movements to regain cultural authority, reestablish cultural homogeneity, and to secure national borders.

There seems to be no one in the wings to take matters in hand.  No shah-in-waiting or even a Winston Churchill.  The ethos of liberal, participatory democracy has encouraged exactly the political pluralism that Alexander Hamilton feared.  Without aristocratic, educated, patriotic leaders, the country would be left to its own petty devices.  Jeffersonian populism was anathema to Hamilton because he had studied history and understood that the mob was anti-democratic at best and to be feared at worst.  Hamilton’s worst fears have been realized in America.  Democracy has become unmoored from its Enlightenment foundations, given up on universal principles of morality and ethics, confined religion to personal expression and refused to acknowledge its central importance in any society.  Dostoevsky’s idea of a state subsumed within the Church, an organization guaranteeing the rule of right rather than the rule of law, does not seem so farfetched today.

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Along with the socialization of society – i.e. conceding primary authority to individual identity groups and encouraging an individualistic populism – American culture continues ironically to devalue the individual.  Nietzsche understood that in a secular society dominated by venal interests, the only value of life is the expression of individual will, an expression ‘beyond good and evil’.   On the contrary, today’s society first and foremost judges performance on the basis of very basis of good and evil.  History has amply shown that dominant, heroic figures all have big appetites, little concern for the immediate consequences of their actions, and intent only on power and authority.  They have been brutal, rapacious, and demanding. The fact that they had lovers, mistresses, and concubines as well as multiple wives meant nothing.  Qin Shihuang was not necessarily ‘a good person’ but an indisputably great one.

Such moralistic devaluation of the individual has infected all levels of American society.  Boys are expected to behave like girls in class; and their physicality, competitiveness, and other typically male behavior censured.  Young adult men attend men’s groups to discuss how to better understand women, become more caring and compassionate, and better husbands and fathers. Sexual adventurism is decried as retrograde misogyny.  Fidelity and respect for women and putting them first after decades of patriarchy is de rigeur, a sign of maturity and social evolution.  In short, the very traits that have characterized powerful leaders throughout history have been condemned.  The hope is that soon they can be expunged from the maleness.  There cannot be any more Casanovas, Napoleons, or even JFKs, MLKs, or LBJs – men of big appetites, lack of moral convention, and weak rectitude, but important leaders.

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The rise of identity politics at the same time as the devaluation of the individual – particularly the male individual – signal trouble ahead.  No nation, empire, or shogunate has ever survived on caring, compassion, and doing the right thing. While there is of course room in any society for these values – and in fact no society can do without them – they have only a specified place and need not nor should not apply to all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Racism! Historical Revisionism And Moral Superiority By Erasing The Past

Progressives are now abject in apology for their ancestors' mistakes. Northerners who find out that their New England ancestors participated in the Three-Cornered Trade of sugar, slaves, and rum hesitate to mention them; and those whose relatives worked for Standard Oil or any of the major monopolies of the Robber Baron era pretend they never existed. The violation of workers rights and the de facto enslavement of them in sweat shops and gulag-type factories by great-uncles and grandfathers deny any possible goodness.   The fact that these corporations were the engines of early American capitalism and the models of economic enterprise to this day was irrelevant.  All goods and evils have been thrown into one big bucket. Progressive Mea Culpa revisionism ignores history, and is nothing more than moralistic cherry-picking.

If we were to airbrush those past Americans who broke the current code of race, gender, and ethnicity, there would be few left in the photograph. Everybody in the past was to some degree homophobic, racist, anti-feminist, and hostile to different religions and ethnicity – everyone from cavemen, kings, and factory floor workers. Given the slightest bit of a chance, people will always find someone to hate.

If revisionists were to have their way, major highways, military garrisons, public schools, and parks will all have to be renamed. Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites, but their work was notable.  Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”

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Yet Kant,  whose comprehensive and systematic work in epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics greatly influenced all subsequent philosophy. Kant was one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment and arguably one of the greatest philosophers of all time. He elaborated, advanced, and refined the rationalism of Descartes and the empiricism  of Francis Bacon. He thus inaugurated a new era in the development of philosophical thought.

George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”. Are we to burn their books? Consign them to the trash heaps of literary history? Yet Dreiser was one of the most important writers of early Twentieth Century narrative realism.  His American Tragedy and Sister Carrie are both tragedies and commentaries on early American industrialism. 

The plays of Shaw written in the 20 years after Man and Superman such as Major Barbara (1905), The Doctor's Dilemma (1906), Pygmalion (1912), Androcles and the Lion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923) established Shaw as a leading dramatist of his time. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Once we start judging a person, a region, or even a country on the basis of only one of its contributing cultural factors, we are lost. There is no more point in ignoring the essential, fundamental philosophical works of Immanuel Kant because of his anti-Semitic sentiments than there is of consigning the South to historical oblivion.

We live in era of public apologies for the past.  National leaders are being asked to say they’re sorry for their countries’ activities a hundred or two hundred years ago.  These apologies amount to weak revisionism.  The past might have existed, but given today’s perspective we might have done things differently.  Queen Elizabeth was forced into apologizing for British atrocities in Kenya, convinced by her Prime Minister that such an apology for alleged murders of Mau Mau ‘freedom fighters’ would tighten the bond between the two countries.

The apology must have really stuck in the craw of the Queen, old enough to remember the glory days of Empire, when Kenya was the jewel in crown of British Africa, when her forbearers had brought civilization to the natives and prosperity to the land.  Her advisors of course had to tell her of the even more savage brutality of the Mau Mau who reputedly chopped up British soldiers and grilled them over charcoal in the Great Rift Valley.  The Queen must have had to practice her apology speech very hard indeed and muster all her English self-control to utter it.

Many are still waiting for the Mongolians to apologize for the outrages of Genghis Khan who killed at least 40 million people in his rampages out of the steppes to Europe and the Far East.

In other words public apologies for past events, demands for restitution or reparations, and judging the present by the past are misguided at best and silly at worst.

No one doubts that black Americans have rates of crime, low educational performance, unemployment, single-motherhood, social welfare dependency and many other indicators of social dysfunction; and after more than fifty years since the Civil Rights Act no one has yet figured out what to do.  Although billions of dollars have been invested in community services, welfare, job training, and primary education, many cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago have seen inner city social dysfunction increase and the racial gap in productive performance widen. 

Conservative groups have argued that the focus has been misplaced; that increased public investment is not the answer, but personal, family, and community responsibility is.  The culture of entitlement has led to a consequent culture of dependency; and dependency is antithetical to enterprise, ambition, and competition.  It is time to address inner city problems with a new and radically different focus.

Yet such calls for a return to traditional morality, renewed respect for authority, and adherence to middle class norms have been criticized as ‘racist’.  The imposition of white values on the black community is demeaning, culturally insensitive, and wrong.  In other words, it is better to focus attention on white culture and its history of oppression than on black communities and their persistent social pathology.

‘Racism’ has become a catch-all phrase which includes everything from the most serious and academic look at racial disparity in performance, crime, and education; to virulent expressions of hate for all black people.  To publicly declaim racism confers an automatic green card.  It is a sign of being ‘woke’, being born again as a newly aware, committed, and faithful follower of social justice and a signifier for all progressive causes – not only racism but homophobia, sexism, income inequality, violence, and xenophobia.

In other words it is a banner to fly, a badge of belonging, and a key to the right clubs.  Because the persistent plight of black communities is seen as the persistent legacy of historical enslavement, the continued, deliberate marginalization of the poor by white elites, and capitalist exploitation of the underclass, the social justice big top has grown in size to accommodate all those who oppose injustice.

Most importantly, the conflation of social ills allows for a common language expressive of a common culture.  Whether one is active in the fight for gay rights, against the glass ceiling, or the environment, for peace, or against racism, the language is the same.  Oppression, patriarchy, Euro-centrism, and social autocracy of the white elite are common to all.  It is one big jamboree.

This new, conflationary social justice movement is particularly damaging because of its rejection of the past based on a narrow interpretation of it.  In their desire to expunge all traces of Southern history, progressives have conflated all aspects of the South with slavery; and in so doing have begun an assault on everything Southern.  Nevertheless a distinct Southern culture that was not based on slavery, one of aristocratic manners, chivalry, gentility, and refined taste – was quite different from that of Northern traders and financiers who developed a sophisticated taste for music, literature, and the arts.  The cultural heritage of North and South were distinct, and both when looked at objectively were unique and valuable.

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Europe and its concentration of wealth and power in the hands of kings, monarchs, emperors and their courts, was responsible for a profusion of art, literature, philosophy and science, and an expansion of those cultural contributions to the rest of the world. While some may criticize colonialism and judge European legacy on it, many more understand the natural inclination of power to extend itself, and with that extension comes both good and bad.

History is amoral, and should be judged critically but not subjectively.  Those who insist on looking at the past only from a modern perspective will always be hopelessly blinkered.  Such subjectivity is antithetical to rational inquiry and analysis and is itself a cause of further division and divisiveness.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Marching–Our Need For Collective Identity

There have been many marches on Washington since those first ones in the 1960s for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.  There have been Million Man marches, women’s marches for equality, marches for the environment, and most recently marches against guns.  Washington residents are used to these demonstrations and pay them little mind.  Washington is a city with its own problems – crime, drugs, dysfunctional families, corruption, and failing schools – and these are issues for the municipal government. Gun violence is endemic in the city, although concentrated in three majority black wards, and the issue is not gun control but police vigilance, community action, and family responsibility. Marches for racial equality mean little in these de facto segregated wards where few if any white families live and even fewer risk driving through.  There is racial equality in Ward 8, but the worst, most pernicious kind – a persistent, dangerous, and violent homogeneity with no moderating influences.  No white, successful, middle class models of rectitude and community responsibility.  No entrepreneurial success stories.  No high-performing schools.

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For decades these inner city communities have remained isolated from the white middle-class mainstream; and despite hundreds of millions of dollars of local and federal investment and years of progressive efforts to reform, raise, and integrate these marginal neighborhoods, nothing has worked.  In fact they are worse off then they were when home rule was established, victims of their own neglect, political exploitation, and the dereliction of community leaders.  The population pool is never refreshed, for the children of marginal, isolated neighborhoods have no other choice but to marry each other.  They no opportunity to marry up, have little exposure or access to moderating social and cultural influences, and continue a legacy of social incarceration.

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The status of women has nothing to do with the glass ceiling, upward mobility, and full economic opportunity; but affected by persistent machismo, absent or abusive fathers, and an out-of-wedlock birthrate.  The women of the inner city suffer physical and emotional abuse every day but are caught in a pernicious and seemingly unbreakable cycle of dependence and futility.  The women of Ward 8 are not on the National Mall marching for equality, for not only does it mean nothing in the terms of the streets, but because they have little in common with the highly-educated, wealthy, and nationally-aware demonstrators  It is a highly selective club to which they have never been invited.  Protests over the poor status of women for members of this club has little or nothing to do with their endemically low status in the neighborhoods. Women who are confined by poverty, dysfunctionality, political exploitation, and anti-social codes of behavior have their own unique battles to wage.

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Issues of global warming, environmental protection, clean air and water have little resonance in these inner city neighborhoods where blight is endemic, deteriorating housing stock common, park spaces few and far between or poorly maintained, and the quality of life substandard.  It would take concerted community effort, serious political interest, and carefully-invested public and private financing to effect ‘environmental’ improvements.

Gun control has little meaning in communities awash with guns. If you don’t have a gun in violent neighborhoods you are at risk.  Of course hundreds of innocent victims are shot every year in these neighborhoods; but the issue is not gun control – most of the guns are illegal anyway – but social control.  Without the moral and religious opprobrium necessary to deter the ethos of violent confrontation, no amount of focus on weapons will have any effect whatsoever.  Some voices of the community have been even more vocal.  Jewels rapper Killer Mike criticized those who think they are "woke" to the cause for tighter gun control in America, saying: "You're a lackey of the progressive movement, because you've never disagreed with the people who tell you what to do." The Second Amendment has a very different meaning in the inner city than in the wealthy suburbs.

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This indifference to the marchers on the Mall is not restricted to inner city neighborhoods.  Poor communities throughout the United States find little in common with the so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ demonstrating on their behalf.  Life for these Americans is indeed poor, brutish, and nasty – two or three jobs, scarce daycare, trailers, and the same forced insularity of their fellow black citizens in Washington, Baltimore, or Detroit.  Not only do these demonstrations have little immediate relevance, they deflect attention from the real, immediate concerns of their communities.  It is no surprise that they are very vocal in their demand for Second Amendment rights.  It is not only that they are concerned that government will take away their arms, but that government seems set on limiting most of their Constitutional rights.  It is no surprise that conservative social demands come from the white working class.   It is a matter of resentment as much as practicality.

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The marchers on the Mall are well-meaning enough.  There are environmental, social, economic, racial, and gender issues which deserve attention; but few of these public demonstrations have any real focus.  Contrasted to the very purposeful, narrowly-focused and politically realistic activism of the Sixties – ending the war and passing civil rights legislation were clear, unmistakable, and politically actionable demands – today’s protests are vague and formless.  The ‘environment’ means many things to many people, and demonstrators are on the Mall to protest for or against the spotted owl, fracking, coal, water and air pollution, vehicular traffic, bike lanes, recycling, and much more.  While all share common core values, such inspiration is likely to have little effect.  The tradeoffs between economic growth and environmental protection are highly complex and contentious.  There is no easy, simple way to solve the environmental puzzle.

Cries against ‘racism’ have grown louder in recent years despite the growth in economic and social opportunities for black Americans.  Once again inner city violence has been at the center of the protests.  However rather than address the fundamental issues underlying it – community dysfunction, perpetual anti-social norms, dereliction of pastoral and political duties, and a corrosive and persistent culture of entitlement – protest movements, such as Black Lives Matter have become aggressive but unformed. There is no cure for racial prejudice and discrimination except economic equality between the races; and that can never be achieved without directed, specific, purposeful political and private action to promote economic opportunity.

Demonstrations like Occupy Wall Street were similarly vague and unfocused.  The issue of income redistribution has been a contentious issues for a century; and despite angry cries at the concentration of wealth in America, such inequalities  have always been part of economic liberalism.   There is no easy fix.

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When asked about the specific purpose of their protests, demonstrators often answer, “To raise awareness”; but by now all issues have been presented, discussed, vetted, debated, and filed.  There is no more useful awareness to be had.

So it all comes down social collectivity – an expression of concern for a common cause which unites thousands into a community of ideas – an identity community with markers, banners, logos, doctrines, and liturgies.  Belonging feels good, feels important, feels useful, and most importantly reflects one’s own goodness.

It is no wonder that the millions of people who have real, immediate, and often immediately soluble problems have little interest in the protests on the Mall.  As Killer Mike implied, they are forced progressivism, elitist assumptions of righteousness and far from the practical, imperative demands of the community.

Demonstrations on the Mall come and go, the grounds are policed, re-turfed and –sodded for the next round of protests, social media are saturated with images and stories for a few days and then re-calibrated, return to normal while the protesters return home, to school, and to work.

Meanwhile the residents of DC hardly know anything happened.