Thursday, June 7, 2007 36 Comments

Why there's no such thing as "liberal media bias"

I am not a conservative (I'm a formalist), but I read a lot of conservative blogs. You'll see many of them linked on the sidebar. And there are others, such as Little Green Footballs and Power Line, which for various reasons don't meet the high linking standards of UR, but which I swing by occasionally just to get a feel for what's up.

The reason I read conservative but not progressive blogs is pretty straightforward. I was raised in the Brahmin caste, studied at Brahmin universities, and live in a Brahmin city. Since progressive-idealism is of course the belief system of the Brahmins, I'm about as likely to encounter surprising new progressive-idealist ideas as Ted Kennedy is to learn something new about Catholicism.

Whereas the world of American conservatism is a foreign country to me. I'll never be entirely fluent in its language, and that's just fine. I am not a Christian, and I have no particular problem with abortion, rampant homosexuality, ear grommets, "rock music," etc. Not that I don't respect and understand the conservative loathing of these phenomena, or even understand the connection between them and cultural decay - which I do deplore. It's just that I think of the kinds of issues that most annoy conservatives as symptoms, rather than causes, and I neither have a visceral emotional reaction to them, nor think attacking them will do much to solve what I see as the underlying disease.

It's hard for me to escape the general conclusion that conservatism is a losing cause. In fact, I think it plays more or less the same role that the Generals did for the Globetrotters. The name of the game is American public opinion, and American public opinion on any issue you can name in 2007 is far - really, really far - to the left of where it was in 1957.

To progressives, of course, this is no more than progress. In fact it's scandalous that change has been so slow and halting. This is due to the cowardice of the corrupt corporate media, not to mention those shills at PBS.

To conservatives - I'm really not sure how conservatives conceptualize this fact. If I was, I might be a conservative.

And this is why the conservatives are like the Generals. They never seem to notice that they're always losing. No one seems to find this odd at all. I have never heard any conservative suggest that the American political system is fundamentally and incurably anticonservative. Presumably, considering the trend of the last 50 years - heck, the last 200 years - you'd think this thesis might occur to someone. But no. Of course, conservatives believe in America, so why would it?

The idea that the "mainstream media" suffers from "liberal bias" is very typical of the conservative pathology. This idea is a pure loser. I think if we examine it for a moment we'll get a very nice understanding of why conservatives can't lay a finger on Meadowlark Lemon.

Of course, anyone with an IQ over 80 knows that the "mainstream media" is in fact the US's official press. No, the New York Times and CNN are not formal government agencies, like the BBC or Tass. Technically, journalists are corporate serfs like the rest of us. But in fact, as Walter Lippmann pointed out in 1922, who controls public opinion has the nation by its balls, and woe unto any mere CEO who dares to screw with them. Journos run the world - they are, in other words, responsible - and if American journalism were in fact reorganized into a Department of Information, as Lippmann suggested, their jobs would hardly change.

From the conservative perspective, this is hardly the end of the world. The problem is just that almost everyone who works for the Department of Information is, for some reason, a liberal. So the solution is just to have conservative voices in the media. Or even a new conservative media - Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Sun. After all, just as many Americans are conservatives as liberals, so they should have a right to get the story from people they agree with.

This is exactly why conservatives keep losing. They see their problems as solvable. True, they never seem to get solved. But it can't hurt to keep trying, can it? Well, actually, it can, because it maintains the illusion that the game is competitive.

To see why it's not, it's interesting to look at progressive views of the same problem. For example, you can read Eric Alterman or Alexander Cockburn or Ben Bagdikian.

From the perspective of all three of these gentlemen - and they are not at all exceptional - the media is actually hopelessly conservative. And when you read them you understand why. It is conservative because it is more conservative than they are, and since they are right, this can only be explained by insidious media monopolies, which have reduced the supposedly independent, courageous crusading journalist to a mere corporate shill.

This viewpoint is actually quite reasonable. First of all, everyone thinks of himself as right. To think otherwise would be inconsistent. So if you believe, for example, that George W. Bush let 9/11 happen so that he could crown himself Duce 2.0, and some vice-president of news tells you that, no, you cannot pursue this story, you have every reason to think that he or she is concerned about how the advertisers would react. As he or she probably is.

The nut of the problem is that little word, mainstream.

As Lippmann pointed out, in a democracy, who controls the mainstream controls the state. The idea that any changes in public opinion must be due to some mysterious cosmic rectitude, vox populi vox dei, is the reason I consider democracy a form of Idealism, and specifically a sect of Christianity. In a democracy with a free press, the press is the government. Public opinion on any subject will naturally shift toward the opinions of those who explain that subject to the public.

And it's not just that. In the English language as we use it now, words like "progressive" and "conservative" are actually relative designations. "Progressive" means "left of the mainstream" and "conservative" means "right of the mainstream." When the mainstream shifts, these words have to shift as well, and the result is that many of the radical left-wing ideas of 1907 would be radical right-wing ideas in 2007.

So when we say the "mainstream media" has a "liberal bias," what we're actually saying is that it's to the left of itself. This claim is obviously false, and Alterman and company are on perfectly safe ground in ridiculing it.

And this is why conservatives fail. They fail because the real problem is much too large to solve with any of the tools at their disposal. So instead, they invent a fake problem, which is unsolvable because it doesn't exist. This gives conservatives something to do, and it gives people who don't like the system someone to vote for.

But the whole conservative movement serves the same purpose as the toy opposition parties of East Germany - or, again, the Washington Generals. Of course, it works better than either of these entities, because it actually does its job. It convinces Americans that their government is the product of a competitive, adversarial process.

The real problem is that US public opinion is managed by a cradle-to-grave information system - the apex of what I call the Polygon - consisting of the media, schools and universities. It is very difficult even to tell what lies this system has inculcated in its purported customers. If it is in fact telling any lies at all, we all grew up believing in them. And so probably did our great-great-grandparents. Progressivism is to the Polygon as monarchism is to the King, and progressive education is not a new idea.

Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that a stable democracy cannot exist without a such an information system, because democracies in which different groups of voters have different versions of reality tend to be rather violent. In fact, since the Internet is starting to route around the Polygon, both to the left and to the right, such pleasures may await us as well. As Lenin put it, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Conservatism, at least as presently constituted, is about as capable of solving this problem as Jar-Jar Binks is of defeating Emperor Palpatine. And this is why I'm not a conservative.

Of course, UR is about as capable of solving it as C3PO is of defeating Emperor Palpatine - I don't even have a pair of huge meat dreadlocks with which to beat him about the head and shoulders. But at least I have a knack for protocols, a wiry midriff, and no illusions.

36 Comments:

Blogger chris miller said...

Moldbug, can you link me to where you've defined "cultural decay" ?
Why is it something to be deplored ?
Is there such a thing as "cultural health" ?

June 8, 2007 at 5:12 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

If I may volunteer one response to Chris's question: cultural decay is a process by which a society loses its viability, as evidenced at the most basic level in its failure to reproduce itself. Cultural decay can be followed by cultural death, upon which an alien culture takes over the real estate. Many argue that the Isalmization of Western Europe is a case study of such a process.

Is there such thing as cultural health? English girls get tatoos and party in college, Pakistani girls marry and make four to six children. An educated, childless German woman of 34 might be pretty to look at, but she'll die alone in a state-run hospice. Her big at the hips Turkish neighbor will die surrounded by five children and twenty grandchildren.

June 8, 2007 at 6:01 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

Media is very obviously not the Government. At most, it's just one part of the government. As such, there can very well be liberal or conservative media bias, as per your earlier blue vs. red government post.

June 8, 2007 at 10:06 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

chris -

A good question, because I haven't. I suppose pa's answer is part of it.

To me, I guess what "cultural decay" means is that people in our culture aren't really inculcated with an effective template that shows them how to live their lives in a satisfying way. What they get is a very ineffective and often even disastrous template, and they have to replace it with scraps and gleanings of their own invention.

June 8, 2007 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

Yes, obviously this is an oversimplification. But I would say not an utterly unwarranted one - because, really, the blue government is the government, at least here in the US. The military does not much affect our domestic affairs.

And the press (I actually really hate the word "media," although I suppose technically it's more accurate) certainly controls the government, simply by virtue of defining the "issues."

You can see this most easily if you define the set of political ideas not as all ideas held in the US in 2007, but as all ideas held in the US in, say, the 20th century. The latter set is considerably larger. And obviously whoever is or was responsible for this reduction can be said to exercise quite a bit of authority.

My point is just that the concept of "bias" only makes sense if you have an absolute coordinate space of "objectivity" which can serve as a reference point for the relative terms "liberal" and "conservative." Since there is no such coordinate system, since "objective" in practice just means "mainstream" and the mainstream is the product of human history, not some divine and inexorable force, the very concept of "bias" assumes and promotes a misconception.

Of course you can say that some writer is to the "left" or "right" of this mainstream - though even these polarities are works of man, not nature.

But focusing attention on this relatively trivial, if conceivably solvable, problem, diverts one from the unpleasant fact that there is no reason to think mainstream public opinion, at least on matters political, has anything to do with reality - and there is every reason to think that its inexorable progress toward the "left" is an inevitable epiphenomenon of democracy.

June 8, 2007 at 11:43 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius,

History is like the three laws of thermodynamics then, huh?

1) you can't win,
2) you can't even break even,
3) you can't quit the game.

Plus, the perversity of the Universe monotonically increases.

In short, what you are saying is that the left's victory is not only complete, but inevitable.

Why all the flopping around and playing with ice crystals then? You might as well submit to us, your victorious overlords. Our boots will rest lightly on your back, no?..

Sorry, it's Friday afternoon, and I cannot think of anything more intelligent to say.

June 8, 2007 at 12:13 PM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

Well first off, although there's no political "center" for all time and space, I think maybe there is a political "center" for America as a whole at any given time, and that most of the time the media would be considered "left" of that center.

But second, I think the important issue is not bias in opinion but coverage. This Lippman guy that you're so fond of spent a fair amount of time arguing that there should be a strict separation between those that gather data and those who make policy, and that if the observers allowed their opinions as to what should be done influence their reports as to what was happening, this could lead to disastrous decisions. Of course, he was talking about national intelligence agencies, not the popular press, but if you believe that there's some value in news other than keeping the herd docile, a similar sort of argument could apply.

I don't think there's any question that many members of the media feel it is their job not merely to inform, but to alter public opinion in some particular way. I think you can reasonably characterize any deliberate attempt by reporters to sway public opinion as a "bias", even if you don't necssarily view that as a bad thing.

June 8, 2007 at 1:41 PM  
Blogger Roland said...

I believe the quote you're looking for is, "You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you." Trotsky said it, not Lenin.

;>

June 8, 2007 at 3:30 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Would it surprise you that there are some conservatives who agree with you that conservatism is, at least probably, a losing cause? Albert Jay Nock wrote an essay called "Isaiah's Job," arguing that all one could hope was that a remnant existed that would preserve western civilization, as the Remnant of Isaiah's time was to preserve the faith. Whittaker Chambers thought that when he abandoned communism, he was joining what in all likelihood would be the losing side. There was, for many years, a kind of Toryism in Britain, which Margaret Thatcher described as "wet," the position of which was to try to strike the best deal it could between its constituency (which you would identify as the Optimate/Vaisya coalition) and the forces of collectivism. A similar attitude came to prevail amongst the old Republican congressional leadership during the long ascendancy of Democrats (which, as you will recall, was uninterrupted from 1932-1994, with the exception of a single biennium in the early 'fifties).

What I have noticed really upsets the left is when a conservative politician attempts to reverse even a small particular of the forward movement of progressive-idealism. Such a thing seems almost unthinkable to people who, if not complete Marxists, have a sort of Marxist belief in the historical inevitability of the kind of social and economic arrangements they advocate.

Thus, Ronald Reagan was despised and derided because he cut marginal income tax rates from 50% to 28%. However, tax rates can always be raised after being lowered, as they were even during Reagan's presidency. George Bush is despised and derided even more, because he has threatened to abolish the confiscatory taxation of estates. This is indeed a more serious proposition for the left's historical-inevitabilists, because once a tax is repealed it is much harder to restore than a tax that has simply been reduced in rate. At the moment, it looks like the estate tax has been rescued and will survive in some form.

What is interesting to me about the above is that there has never been widespread popular sentiment that taxes are too low, and the typical liberal politician does not emphasize raising taxes in his remarks directed to the ordinary constituent. However, to read or listen to the left, Bush's "tax cuts for the rich" are terrible grievances and reversing them is assigned a much higher priority than is evident from, say, 2006's Democratic campaign points. Of course, if a flat income tax, or a consumption tax were to replace the present income tax system, or the estate tax disappeared, that would threaten the lifeblood of the Fourth Republic, and so any such proposals will be fiercely fought by all possible means.

As for "cultural decay," perhaps that phrase is so laden with meanings that are different for each hearer to be impossible to define objectively. However, a good deal of what we are experiencing in American society today can usefully and precisely be characterized as "nostalgie de la boue." For instance, consider the popularity of rap "music" and associated fashions with white middle-class suburban adolescents. How better can it be described? Of course it's a symptom and not a cause. But what is or are the cause(s)? I'd be curious to hear your perspective on nostalgie de la boue. The example cited is hardly the only one we can identify.

June 8, 2007 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

I assume you're not taking these definitions of "cultural decay" very seriously, Moldbug.

The "failure to reproduce itself" is a hopeless approach -- because cultures/languages/laws/customs have always been changing. Maybe you could narrow it down to "failure to reproduce certain specific good/important features" -- but what would those be? Why are they important ? And how would the change/lack of change be measured ?

And the "effective template" approach is hardly any better.

Who's not living their life "in a satisfying way"? You? How can we measure that -- especially from one generation to another ?

(maybe my family is unusual - but there seems to be the same, low percentage of crash-and-burns in each of the 20th Century generations -- in fact, maybe there's even been some improvement (in 1905, my great grandmother poisoned my great grandfather -- and then died,herself, within the following year - leaving 5 young girls as orphans-- and we haven't had any murders/suicides ever since!)

I'd propose that the honest non-idealist has no business talking about something called "culture" -- decaying or otherwise -- and honesty has to be an important issue for you since you seem so dedicated to distinguishing truth from lies.

On the other hand -- I am an idealist -- so however murky my notion of "cultural decay" may be -- at least I can honestly have one -- and to put it briefly -- it's aesthetic - and specific.

So.... the culture of Chinese ceramic figures peaked about 800 AD -- the culture of the Broadway Show peaked in the 1940's and 1950's -- English literature peaked
in the the 17th C., etc..While it's hard -- if not impossible -- to compare the present to the past, since our picture of the past is so rigorously selective-- and grand
statements about a culture-as-a-whole seem ridiculous to me (exclusive of some ubiquitous catastrophic or beneficent event like nuclear war or the internet.)

But this concern for "abortion, rampant homosexuality, ear grommets, "rock music," etc." -- you don't really connect that to some grand scheme of "cultural decay" -- do you ?

Please tell me you don't !

June 8, 2007 at 7:36 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor -

Don't worry, I have plans for fighting back! They don't involve surplus Soviet tanks, either :-)

roland -

Thanks for the correction - Google seems to agree with you. I suspect this is one of the quotes that history has improved in the telling.

george -

Indeed - although Lippmann meant something different by "intelligence" than we mean now. I try not to quote him directly on this, because it makes his proposal sound even more diabolical than it actually was.

In fact I'm not so fond of Lippmann - I see him really as the founding genius of our system of government, which I don't like at all. But what endears him to me is that he talked about Fight Club, so to speak.

It is difficult to write anything without attempting to influence public opinion. Lippmann was right about that, too. I am trying to influence public opinion, and so are you, in our little ways.

The difference is that we are genuinely independent, whereas the "mainstream media" is not. Basically, I believe in separation of journalism and state, and I believe it needs to be applied with extreme rigidity. For example, even the privilege of protecting anonymous sources is an unethical grant of power, in my opinion. I don't believe a free society should have any form of "official truth."

June 8, 2007 at 8:36 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius,

Was the reference to soviet tanks a random aside, or did you find my haunts at YAPB?

June 8, 2007 at 8:50 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael,

I am a huge Nock fan and I feel a little guilty that I haven't read Chambers.

I feel entitled to be a little optimistic, basically because of the Internet, which is changing the power dynamic. The entire 20th-century system of government is based on a broadcast information model. But it is still very, very early on this one.

My view of nostalgie de la boue is that it's very explainable in terms of the human power drive. This is the whole engineering principle behind the odd alliance between Brahmins, Dalits and Helots. A Brahmin is a natural leader, and systems of thought which enable him to recruit any kind of an army will always appeal to him.

When Kingman Brewster or Hillary Clinton spoke up for the Panthers, for example, visions of a black paramilitary army were dancing in their heads. Of course this is not what they thought they were thinking, but this factor accounts for so much of the excitement of all socialist movements.

It is hard to whip them into actual riots these days, but inner-city paramilitary gangs still serve much the same function for the Democrats that the Reichsbanner did for the SD.

Look at Obama's "quiet riot" speech, or at the classic of this genre - the Kerner Commission Report. The proposition is very simple: if you give us, the Democrats, more money and more power, you won't have these problems. Tony Soprano would be proud.

So it will always be fashionable for young Brahmins to be "street." The fact that the white ruling class pays homage to Dalit culture is a large factor, I think, in the creation and maintenance of this culture.

And I think it is very much one of the offenses that will be held against them when, or if, some kind of reckoning is held.

Because the result is basically what blacks call "The Plan." Essentially, the white ruling class is using the black community as a weapon against its own opponents. Brahmins don't really like ghetto blacks - they just think they do. I don't think most blacks are fooled, either. But they assume that if white liberals are bad, white conservatives must be worse.

Au contraire. In San Francisco magazine a few months ago there were pictures of some black commercial districts in SF in the '50s. These places, where today I wouldn't go after dark, looked better than any white shopping street in the city today. You can't even start to compare the achievements of African-American culture in the second half of the 20th century to those of the first. those before it. If you told anyone in 1957 what the Fillmore or Third Street would look like in 2007, he'd assume that Strom Thurmond had been running the country for the last 30 years.

June 8, 2007 at 9:03 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

The former - what's YAPB? (I assure you, no derogatory cultural reference was intended!)

June 8, 2007 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Nonono, I did not mean to imply that I saw any sort of derogation in your comments. It's just that at YAPB, a political evisceration... excuse me, discussion... board I frequent, I had recently had a minor argument about the merits of soviet vs. american tanks during WWII (where I based my position on having read some of the memoirs of the soviet tankers who had driven both), and I thought it'd be a weird sort of coincidence for you to bring up soviet tanks without a causal connection.

June 8, 2007 at 9:16 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

chris,

To be brief - no, I don't. I was just saying I respect people who do. That doesn't mean I agree with them.

You are absolutely right that "culture" is much too large a word, especially for a non-idealist.

What I meant specifically was the set of traditions by which most people decide how to live their lives. We can't all be iconoclasts.

For an extreme example, look at the Amish. I am about as far from being Amish as you could imagine. I personally grew up with no tradition at all. But I can't help but conclude that they have a very sustainable way of life that works very well for many people.

For the opposite side, look at rave or hippie culture, such as Burning Man or the Rainbow Family. I don't think this has quite stabilized in a way of life that's as sustainable as the Amish, but I suspect to some extent it's getting there. I am about as interested in being a burner as I am in becoming a Mennonite, but again, I can't deny that there's something there.

Where I see real decay is in places like the Midwest, where industry has vanished and people have nothing to do and nothing to believe in. So they go to school, which gives them a dumb, boring progressive education whose main function is to employ educators. They realize it's stupid, but they have nothing else in their lives, except some McJob. Heavy metal and meth can't be far behind.

Traditionalist Americanism is very foreign to me, and I certainly think it was and is very blinkered in many ways. But I find it very hard to argue that it's worse than what's in the process of replacing it in middle America.

As for the arts - what you mean by "culture" - I think you're very right that it's different for each one. Except maybe in the heyday of jazz, I think popular music has never been healthier. Whereas theatre has never been sicker, and so on.

June 8, 2007 at 9:20 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

I'm under the impression that the American tanks of WWII sucked. I don't know much about the Soviet ones.

My impression, though, is that at least the early Soviet engineering world had some qualities I like in an engineering organization, mainly a real respect for simplicity. So perhaps this was reflected in the tanks. I mean, they won the war, didn't they?

(BTW, you might enjoy a book called Engineering Communism, by Steven Usdin, about two American defectors who founded much of the Soviet electronics industry.)

June 8, 2007 at 9:25 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

According to pretty much anyone, Shermans were far inferior to T34s. In the memoirs I read, the soviet tankers really liked driving Shermans -- the ride was as smooth as that of a car, the handling great,the noise low... they just didn't want to fight in Shermans. The armor was lighter, the cannon weaker, the gas engine caught fire easily, and the rubber-coated treads tended to burn and gum up the works. Radios helped though (in T34s, often only the commander's tank was equipped with the radio).

Soviet tankers were also very impressed with american logistic support -- if they needed something fixed or adjusted for the tanks (such as the aforementioned rubber-coated treads), the american representatives would get it to them within days.

However, T34 was apparently superior to Sherman in virtually every respect as a war machine. Not much creature comforts, but better uncomfortable and alive is better than being comfortable and dead, right?.. T34's biggest serious shortcomings apparently were the lack of cannon stabilizer, so that it couldn't shoot accurately while moving, and the imprecise turret-turning mechanism, where the turret would keep turning a bit after the turn pedal was released, thus requiring a more experienced crew to use it effectively.

And yes, simplicity had always been a core part of soviet engineering. Due to ingenuously simple design, T34s were apparently incredibly easy and cheap to manufacture. You can see the same engineering tradition in AK47 and in soviet jet planes.

Not that I know what I am talking about, mind you. I am not a military hardware buff, I was just interested in reading first-hand accounts of the events.

June 8, 2007 at 9:50 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Mencius, what do you think of Patri Friedman's idea? He similarly seems to have given up with the prospects of libertarianism achieving anything with the methods that virtually all libertarians hope for.

I'd also be interesting in what you think of David Brin, who claims to be a libertarian (he seems to have bought into the leftist myth of the Optimates though) and talks a lot about the structure of society and the dissemination of ideas that seem rebellious/anti-authority but are very much a product of the establishment.

June 8, 2007 at 11:09 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

Thanks, that confirms many of my prejudices :-) It is a pity that so little seems to remain of that Soviet engineering tradition, which I think by the end of the Brezhnev period had become pretty moribund.

June 9, 2007 at 9:23 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

tggp,

I assume by Friedman's idea you mean this.

I certainly am not opposed to "dynamic geography" at all - I think it's a cool idea. But I think Friedman's analysis of the government industry is slightly off.

I think exit costs and barriers to entry are not the reason why government is big and bad. Even if we take it to an extreme and assume one world government, as in my first Fnargl example, these kinds of monopoly structures should simply increase the level of taxation, ie, they should result in monopoly rents.

High taxes and "big government" are often associated with each other, but they are in fact only tangentially related. Taxes just transfer money, creating some disincentive inefficiencies, but these are minor when compared to the deadweight loss of Byzantine overregulation and legal complexity.

Big government is not an inevitable result of powerful government. The latter is necessary for the former, but not sufficient.

Rather, I believe, overregulation is the result of a bad management structure. It is essentially a disguised patronage scheme. This always happens in a large organization which does not have an efficient corporate structure, ie, in which the organization is not controlled by those who profit from it in quantitative proportion to their shares. In these kinds of organizations a large percentage of revenues are very likely to be captured in false employment, ie, makework.

As for Brin, I have not read as much of him as I should. I enjoyed his dolphin-planet novel, but that was 20 years ago. I admire his stand against the privacy fanatics. I suppose my general view is that he's not really quite as aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment as I would like, but I admit that this is a hasty judgment. And Brin clearly thinks for himself and has no fear of churchmen.

June 9, 2007 at 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

I'll throw in my own thoughts on the cause of nostalgie de la boue at this point. It is that at some point after WWII, some very observant and astute entrepreneurs realized that, for perhaps the first time in history, large numbers of adolescents were being supported in comparative idleness by their parents, and had enough money to be worth cultivating as a market. What was marketed was pre-packaged rebellion and mass-produced "non-conformism" - in a nutshell, the 'sixties.

A good deal of present-day nostalgie de la boue is a result of the adolescentization of popular culture. If one thinks of the popular culture of, let's say, sixty, eighty, or a hundred years ago, whatever its follies may have been, they were adult follies. As the wealth of society has increased, and with it the number of adolescents supported by generous parents, instead of being expected to go to work and help to support their families, the age level at which popular culture is pitched has declined to the immediately post-pubertal. This explains its crotch-level preoccupations.I suppose the cultural decline or decay this reflects is one of Daniel Bell's "Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism." How serious it is, taken against the larger backdrop, I don't know.

A far more serious indicator of cultural decay is that someone like Pat Robertson can be considered a significant figure in Christianity. Imagine! A faith that produced St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or John Calvin - that was responsible for the birth of the modern university, that preserved classical learning through the dark ages - reduced to a Robertson?

This is by no means a slap at Robertson's politics. In the denomination in which I was born, the Anglican, one can go into any church on a Sunday and hear someone who is equally a ninny preach, only with a different political slant. What a far cry from the early seventeenth century, when an Englishman might have heard John Donne or George Herbert preach at his parish church. The point is that Christianity, which has had so much historical influence on the formation and maintenance of Western civilization, no longer attracts first-rate intellects, nor has it done, bye and large, since the eighteenth century.

There comes a point when a person who has been living off capital exhausts it, and the same may be said of a society that has done the same with its intellectual and cultural heritage. There is the real source of our cultural decay or decline.

June 9, 2007 at 12:52 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I also agree with Brin's stance on privacy and can't quite understand the common libertarian fetish for it. People want information and the private sector is sure to provide it more and more efficiently as technology improves. It's not any sort of aggression either, it's like being upset that someone wore the same outfit as you. I find it interesting that he uses the term "propertarian", as you're the only other person I can recall using it. Of course, to him it is a pejorative rather than something to strive for.

Regarding why government underperforms: if I set up a business in a competitive sector and managed it really badly, I would probably go bankrupt shortly. If there was very little competition, I could get away with it longer until someone is able to do what I do but better. If Patri's idea ends up being as successful as he dreams, couldn't the policy competition affecting governments include removing red tab?

June 9, 2007 at 3:42 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Oops, meant to say "red tape".

June 9, 2007 at 3:43 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael,

The packaged rebellion is unsettling, no doubt of it. I live only a few blocks from Haight Street (up a hill, fortunately, you'd be surprised how a 20-degree slope cuts down on the riffraff) and it's all it ever was.

But I'd say the best entrepreneurs behind the '60s were less the record industry than the folks in the colleges. The former were playing for money and the latter for power...

As for Christianity, I think the term is unfortunately misused. If you look at the roots of Pentecostalism and such, it is very much a low-culture phenomenon. Is Pat Robertson that different from Aimee Semple MacPherson? There are very deep rustic roots behind this tradition. Its followers, largely Appalachian Scotch-Irish, are North America's version of the Boers - it is almost easier to see them as an Indian tribe of European ancestry. Aquinas is not in the picture. And besides the Appalachian roots, there are bits of recalcitrant Southerner in it, another group that has spent the last 150 years more or less estranged from progress.

These are the "Christians" of today. But, as I said, the word is misused.

The real descendant of the Christian tradition in the US is progressive-idealism itself. The fact that it has dropped the name, even handed it over to its enemies, is evidence of victory rather than defeat. Since the Civil War its church has been the Union and the universities.

This strand of Christianity has exchanged theological doctrine for temporal power. Dilution has made it more potent. You can trace it from the Puritans through the Benevolent Empire of the 1830s, to the abolitionists and Transcendentalists, to the Social Gospel and Christian Socialists, the ecumenical movement (Federal Council of Churches), the prohibitionists, and the internationalists.

Today its holy organization is not even the US, but the UN. Does any of this sound familiar?

To some extent you can track this strand by the name "Unitarian." For example, the tenets of (modern) Unitarian Universalism are exactly the tenets of "political correctness." Since at least the early 19th century, Unitarianism has meant whatever they believed at Harvard, and wherever Harvard goes Washington is sure to follow.

Christianity in its Unitarian form is sort of the Obi-Wan Kenobi of religions. By casting off its theology, it has become more powerful. The beliefs of a "moderate Muslim," for example, differ not at all from those of a good Unitarian. To actually believe in Islam, you have to be a "fundamentalist."

So I'd say Christianity hasn't at all been defeated. On the contrary - it is more powerful than ever. Of course, one might say that much or all of what was good about it has been lost. Even that it has become evil. (Wouldn't Star Wars have been cooler if Obi-Wan had become evil?) But I think the continuity of tradition from Plymouth Rock to the UN is quite unmistakable. The kingdom of God on earth awaits us still.

June 9, 2007 at 6:43 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

tggp,

Well, places like Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong are trying the same thing - to some extent. Of course they all have significant disadvantages. But they also have dry land. I think King Patri would do a better job, perhaps thanks to his noble lineage.

It's interesting to compare Brin's views to those of Dan Simmons... and of Charles Stross, who (namedrop alert) I knew a little bit back when we were regulars of the same Usenet group. Sadly, the Polygon has claimed him as its own.

June 9, 2007 at 6:50 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

The strand of Christianity you describe is not really Christian at all, but is gnosticism that has appropriated Christian trappings when convenient. Eric Voegelin pointed out, in his New Science of Politics, that the first incarnation of this kind of gnosticism was to be found amongst the Roundheads. I don't know if Voegelin ever read Hudibras, but the old and the new gnosticism link up very handily in the encounters of the puritan knight-errant and his squire Ralpho with Sidrophel the Rosicrucian, etc.

At bottom what progressive-idealism offers its votaries is the promise of redemption without the need of a Redeemer, "immanentizing the eschaton" to bring about paradise on earth, here and now rather than in the life to come. It has nothing to do with Christ, who said that his kingdom was not of this world, and everything to do with the serpent in Eden who promised that "ye shall be as gods..."

June 9, 2007 at 7:13 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael,

Is it Christian or non-Christian? Of course either of us can call it what we like. My point is that it represents the current incarnation of the "mainline" Protestant tradition.

It is certainly reasonable to say, especially if you are a Christian who actually believes in Christ, God, and such unfashionable things, that this tradition has been devoured from the inside by gnosticism and state-worship, that the element which eventually led it to atheism is an essentially alien one.

But my point is that most people, especially the Dawkinses of the world, don't even understand that they are advocating what is by line of descent, at least, a sect of Christianity. They think they are standing up for free thought. In fact they constitute one Christian sect (Dawkins even calls it "Einsteinian religion" - what he means, of course, is Unitarianism) which is trying to suppress another. And doing a damned good job of it.

So while from a theological and nominalist standpoint the identification of progressive-idealism with mainline, postmillennial pietist Protestant Christianity is questionable - it is more reasonable to say that the latter died and the former was born - I think the adaptive and cladistic perspective, that what we have here is a religion that discarded God so it could get away with establishing a theocracy, is one that few people understand and many, I think, could benefit from.

This old Rothbard article (which until this weekend was only online as a nasty scanned PDF) is excellent on the connection.

But I really also like that TIME piece I linked to, which I just found the other day, because it is a very late example (1942) of the American Establishment using explicitly Christian political rhetoric. Most people today would recognize the list of goals in the article. But they would be confused, I think, to hear them described as "ultra-protestant."

June 10, 2007 at 9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you remembered the East Germany official opposition parties. In a world of meaninglessness and futility, it's comforting to know that someone's life was even more meaningless and futile than your own.

Someone should write a novel about them.

The Rothbart piece you linked is excellent, btw.

- intellectual pariah

June 13, 2007 at 6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some Roman Catholic commentators have seen modern militant secularism as an outworking of protestantism, and make some good points.

June 13, 2007 at 6:22 AM  
Anonymous bbroadside said...

I really like this blog, but as of yet I am not sure exactly what the formalist would do with Lippmann. Is the approach that you are advocating a new mainstream - the progagation of formalism by your intellectual converts, to replace the progressive-idealism spread by the Northeastern prestige universities? I get that impression sometimes, but sometimes it sounds like you advocate such decentralized opinion-making that the mainstream would sort of go away and be replaced by a sort of intellectual bazaar, rather than a formalist consensus.

Anyway, I hope I'm on at least one of the right tracks.

July 14, 2007 at 3:53 PM  
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January 31, 2009 at 11:33 PM  
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March 6, 2009 at 9:37 PM  

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