Thursday, April 24, 2008 90 Comments

Open letter pt. 2: more historical anomalies

In part 1, which should be read first, we looked at three anomalies in progressive political thought: a surprising definition of the word independence, an oscillatory ambivalence around the concept of nationalism, and a chiral gradient in sensitivity to human rights violations.

These particular anomalies are not just progressive. They are in fact modern. They are generally shared across the conservative-progressive spectrum. They are even shared by most libertarians - except maybe the Randians, who have epistemic troubles of their own. They are simply as close to universal as it comes.

Unless, of course, the past is allowed to dissent. Because when we look backward a little, we see that these ideas come along quite recently. They are fresh. Very fresh. To a progressive, of course, this is mere progress. But if you are also an evolutionary geneticist, you might also call it a selective sweep. Obviously, our anomalies have some competitive advantage. But what might that advantage be?

Well, perhaps the anomalies have prevailed because - in some way that we maybe don't quite understand completely yet - they are good and sweet and true. After all, people would rather think thoughts that are good and sweet and true. They would also prefer to share such with their friends. Because it is so obvious, so elegant, and so widely believed, we'll label this the null hypothesis.

I'm going to interrupt the discussion for a moment and digress. Since this is after all the 21st century, perhaps we can enliven our proceedings with a little mixed media.

Here's a YouTube clip of a protester in the recent violence in Kenya. As far as I can tell, no one is harmed in this 80-second clip, but otherwise it's as dramatic as it gets: it has a talky start, a shocking climax, and a happy ending.

Well, it's sort of a happy ending. At least, the blue car gets away. BTW, I lied: the "protester" is hard to follow, but his corner seems to be here. "Metro" is this. If you were fooled (sorry), try watching it again with this perspective.

I think this clip is a good litmus test for whether you've sneaked into the auditorium without a permission slip, or whether you really are a progressive.

If you really are a progressive, when you try to connect the clip above (which might well have been staged) with the broad sweep of human history, you will think of Hitler or Mussolini or maybe even George W. Bush.

Why? Because our protagonist is behaving exactly like them. His actions are tribal, territorial, and predatory. As one of our great Vulcan thinkers once put it: "every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." I'm sure the people who decided to invade Iraq had many goals, all of which they imagined in entirely benevolent terms. But I really have trouble believing that this wasn't at least one of them.

If you sneaked in - who knows what you think. Something awful, I suspect. Kids, this presentation is not for you. Can't you just slink back to your slimy holes for once? (Note to all: in case you ever find your nice, clean, progressive discussion forums overrun with Nazis, you can drive them away by making the Jew-noise: "Joo! Joo!" It's better than the Mosquito.)

In any case, thanks for participating in our first experimental test of URTV. More videos are not coming soon. Let's get back to these anomalies.

We will continue by assuming two things about the null hypothesis. One is that it's basically true. Two is that any small ways in which it may be imperfect are (a) minor, (b) accidental, and (c) either self-correcting or at least correctable. Since this is basically what progressives (and most non-progressives) believe, it is only fair to start with it.

It's a pity, though, that it leaves us with these odd asymmetries. It is easy to note that progressives, as well as most non-progressives, express these mental adaptations. It is hard to understand why. This is especially true since progressive thought seems to lack any sort of theology, which can explain just about anything. (Why are people with red hair and blue eyes evil? Because that's how Baal made them.)

So our three anomalies have three things in common. One: progressives have explanations for all of them, but these explanations seem less than usually compelling. Two: these strained explanations are generally shared not just by progressives, but also by their enemies, the "conservatives."

And three: there is a single anti-progressive hypothesis, which is obviously on its face wrong or at least incomplete, but can at least be explained in terms that do not require a gentleman to hurl his Sartor Resartus at his dinner companions, and seems to explain them all quite nicely with plenty of headroom left over.

The hypothesis is that the "international community" - a phrase we see used on a pretty regular basis, although perhaps we are not quite as clear as we might be as to what exactly it might mean - is, and always has been, a fundamentally predatory force.

The fact that falsifies the hypothesis - at least for me - is that my father was a US diplomat, and if the "international community" means anything it must mean Foggy Bottom. And I can tell you that it is simply impossible to mistake a transnational bureaucrat (or tranzi) for an SS officer, or vice versa. If the Third Reich is your image of an international predator - and why shouldn't it be? Can't we make Hitler work for us? - the adjective is clearly misapplied.

As anyone who has ever known any number of progressives knows, progressives are generally decent, intelligent and well-meaning people. Moreover, this fact does not stop at the edges of government. By definition, decent, intelligent and well-meaning people are not predatory. Since the "international community" is clearly progressive, the hypothesis is falsified. Whew!

But, not endorsing this false hypothesis, but simply using it as a tool of argument, it sure is interesting to look at how nicely it explains our little anomalies. It may or may not be productive to replace three poorly explained phenomena by one incorrect assumption. But at least it reduces the number of problems. Let's work through them one by one.

First: what happened to the Third World?

Well, that's pretty easy. It was conquered and devastated by the "international community." Admittedly, the "devastated" part kind of sucks. But when you're a predator, it's better to conquer and devastate than not to conquer at all, n'est ce pas?

Let's take a look at this independence thing. What exactly is a multilateral declaration of independence? Since it's not this?

Well, on the sweet and good and true side, MDI seems to involve a change in the ethnicity of government officials. Foreign officials are replaced by native-born officials. Clearly, for example, it would be an outrage for true-born Americans to be governed by a dirty no-good Mex - oh, wait. We're progressives. We're not racists. Ethnicity means nothing to us.

Well, the postcolonial regimes are no longer controlled from overseas. They can do whatever they want. They're free!

Sure they are. They're so free that they've received $2.6 trillion in aid since 1960. Does the phrase "who pays the piper calls the tune" ring any bells? Again, in English at least, the word "independence" is a compound of the prefix in-, meaning not, and dependent, meaning dependent.

And what does it mean for a government to be "free," anyway? Is the government of North Korea "free?" What about ExxonMobil? Or the Democratic Party? I have a fairly good understanding of what it means for a human being to be "free." When it comes to an organization, especially one which claims to be a "government," I'm quite without a clue.

One test we can apply for independence, which should be pretty conclusive, is that the structures of government in a genuinely independent country should tend to resemble the structures that existed before it was subjugated - rather than the structures of some other country on which it may happen to be, um, dependent. These structures should be especially unlikely to resemble structures in other newly independent countries, with which it presumably has nothing in common.

In other words: after 1960, did the Third World become more Westernized or less Westernized? Did it revert to its pre-Western political systems, rejecting the foreign tissue like a bad transplant? Or did it become a more and more slavish imitation of the West?

There is exactly one region in which the former happened: the Persian Gulf. Not that the Gulf states are utterly un-Westernized, but their political systems are clearly the least Western in the world. Oddly enough, the Gulf states also happen to be "independent" in the good old financial sense of the word. There are also two exceptions in Africa: Somaliland, which fell through the cracks, and Botswana, which has diamonds.

(You will sometimes hear Botswana described as a model of African democracy. How fortunate that the Botswanan people should be so wise as to elect, as their first President, none other than their hereditary monarch. In practice the place is more or less run by De Beers, on the good old United Fruit model.)

Across most of the Third World, however, we see a very simple transition: from the traditional forms of government and tribal leaders whom the British, French, Rhodesians, etc, supported at a local or even regional level in the policy of indirect rule, to a new elite selected and educated in Western missions, schools and universities. In Africa these men are called the wa-Benzi - "wa" is the Swahili prefix for "tribe," and I think "Benzi" speaks for itself.

Moreover, the rhetoric of tiers-mondisme is and was almost the same everywhere. If Algeria and Vietnam were truly growing up and following their own destinies, you might think the former would be ruled by a Dey and the latter by emperors and mandarins. You'd certainly be surprised to find that they both had an organization called the "National Liberation Front."

And finally, perhaps the subtlest aspect of dependency is power dependency. To whom did this rash of fresh presidents, congresses and liberation fronts owe its existence? Where, exactly, did Macmillan's Wind of Change blow from? For that matter, who cares about all these people now? Why does a vast river of cash still flow from European and American taxpayers to these weird, camo-bedecked, mirrorshaded thugs?

Well, one theory is that the brave liberation fronts seized power through their own military prowess. Or the unquenchable anger of the people at foreign domination, which could no longer be repressed. Or the fiery will of the workers, which blazed out once too often. Or the shining light of education, which brought the dream of democracy to our little brown brothers. Or... I'm afraid Professor Frankfort has taught us much on this subject.

In fact you'll see that in pretty much every case, including some that may surprise you (here's a great primary source) the liberation fronts achieved power because they had powerful friends. Sometimes the friends were in Paris, sometimes they were in London, sometimes they were even in Moscow. But for the most part they were in New York and Washington. (There's an excellent new film on this subject - from Barbet Schroeder, the man who gave us General Idi Amin Dada, reality's answer to Forest Whitaker. It's called Terror's Advocate, and you gotta see it.)

Once again: if this is "independence," I'm a three-eyed donkey. Note that the English language has a perfectly good word for a regime which appears to be independent, but in reality is dependent. It starts with "p" and rhymes with "muppet." In fact, perhaps this is a good term for the post-1945 postcolonial regimes.

A muppet state is not quite a puppet state. It delivers a far more lifelike impression of individual identity. It has not just an invisible hand supporting it from below, but invisible strings pulling it from above. In fact, muppet states often appear quite hostile to their masters. There are a variety of reasons for this - one is internal conflict within the master state, which we'll get to in a bit - but the simplest is just camouflage.

The classic story is de Gaulle's legendary obstreperousness during World War II. De Gaulle had to cause problems for the British and Americans, because his whole story was that he represented the true spirit of oppressed France - rather than being just some guy that Churchill set up in an office, which is of course exactly what he was. Furthermore, because a blatant display of puppetry would have been no use to the Allies, they had to tolerate his acting out.

The phenomenon of dependent rebellion is quite familiar to anyone who has ever been a teenager, an analogy that's a good guide to the sort of "independence" we see in the likes of a Mugabe, a Castro or even a Khomeini - each a member of the "I got my job through the New York Times" club.

It's easy to see what a network of postcolonial muppet states harnessed to the hegemonic will of an imperial alien overlord looks like. We have the perfect example: the Warsaw Pact, and its assorted flunkeys in Africa and Asia. (In fact, we have two evil muppet empires to look at, because the Maoists spun off their own.) The Marxist-Leninist muppet states all insisted fervently that they were liberated, independent, etc, and that their alliances were brotherly partnerships of equals, with their own Politburos and everything. And of course the whole enterprise was run by Comrade Brezhnev, from the white phone in his petit salon. Even Hitler's quislings in New Order Europe did not exhibit quite this level of gall - there was no pretence that Vichy France, for example, was an equal of the Third Reich.

And since the Soviet and Western blocs often competed for the same set of muppets - for example, Nasser, Tito, and even Ho Chi Minh, who never lost his popularity out in Langley - I'm afraid the pattern is really quite clear.

So from our counterfactual perspective, the story of the Third World is quite clear. In the second half of the 20th century, the Third World passed from its old colonial masters, the British, French and Portuguese, who were certainly no angels but who were perhaps at least a little less brazen, to a new set of ruthless and cynical overlords, the Cold War powers, whose propaganda skills were matched only by the devastation that their trained thugs unleashed. Under the mendacious pretext of "liberation" and "independence," most remnants of non-European governing traditions were destroyed. Major continents such as Africa were reduced to desolate slums ruled by corrupt, well-connected fat cats, much of whose loot went straight from Western taxpayers to Swiss banks.

What's especially interesting is that when we step back and consider the history of the non-Western world since 1500, we see a broad trend that does not reverse course at all the 20th century. If anything, the 20th century is more of the same, only more so.

We see four basic structures of government: native rule with private Western trade, native rule under the protection of chartered companies or other monopolies (like the East India Company, the British South Africa Company, Anaconda Copper, etc, etc), classic nationalized colonialism with indirect rule, and the postcolonial muppet states.

Across all these stages, as time increases, we see the following trends. One, the non-European world becomes culturally and politically Westernized. Two, more and more Westerners are employed in the actual task of governing them. (I don't know the ratio of aid workers today to colonial administrators 50 years ago, but I'm sure it's tremendous.) And three, the profits accruing to the West from all of this activity dwindle away and are replaced by massive losses. ("Aid" is essentially a subsidy to the muppet states, which are to the old chartered companies as a Lada factory is to a Honda factory.)

Who benefits from these trends? The "international community," ie, the vast army of international administrators who labor diligently and ineffectively at healing the great wounds they have torn in the side of the world. Who loses? Everyone else - Western taxpayers in the usual slow, relentless dribble, Africans and Asians in the gigantic revolutionary hemorrhage of "civil war, poverty, corrupt government and the collapse of medical care."

If you read travel narratives of what is now the Third World from before World War II (I've just been enjoying Erna Fergusson's Guatemala, for example), you simply don't see anything like the misery, squalor and barbarism that is everywhere today. (Fergusson describes Guatemala City as "clean." I kid you not.) What you do see is social and political structures, whether native or colonial, that are clearly not American in origin, and that are unacceptable not only by modern American standards but even by 1930s American standards.

So, again, we have two theories of the "international community." One, its own, depicts it as the savior and liberator of the planet, and essentially global and universal in nature. Two, the one I've just developed, shows it as a ravenous predator, the dominant player in a second Scramble for Africa with Asia and South America added to the plate - essentially, a new version of the Delian League, with Washington in the part of Athens.

And neither quite makes sense. The first hypothesis is very hopeful and reassuring, and most people believe it, but it has these odd, Orwellian tics in the way it uses English. And the second is, once again, quite counterfactual. I know these people. They are not at all predatory. There is no denying that transnational bureaucrats have the world's best interests at heart, and they are certainly not in any way American nationalists. They simply do not remind me, in any way, shape or form, of Corner Man.

So let's put this conundrum aside and move on to the second anomaly: nationalism. I hope it's not too much of a surprise that this turns out to be a special case of the first.

Nationalist regimes and movements are good when they're doing God's work, ie, their goal is to become nice, multilateral members of the "international community." Nationalist regimes and movements are bad when they "defy international opinion" and turn against said community, which wants nothing other than to be able to love them as its beloved children. In other words: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Typical Machiavellian predatory behavior.

It is always pleasant to depart from the bleak, mendacious twentieth century and return to its predecessor, whose leaders could be just as unscrupulous but who dressed much better. There was an "international community" in the nineteenth century as well, and at least in the Old World, it operated out of one place: London.

Quick association test! The unification of Italy - good or bad? I'll bet you said "good." Well, here's a little story.

A couple of years ago Mrs. Moldbug and I spent three weeks in Italy. For the first week we split a villa in Cilento with some friends, which was lovely if a little buggy, and involved inhaling enormous quantities of Limoncello. Next we thought we'd take our backpacks and bop around on the train a little. Our first stop: Naples.

I'm afraid it's not for nothing that northern Italians say "Garibaldi didn't unite Italy, he divided Africa." Obviously, this is a racist statement and I can't condone it. But even the Lonely Planet warns travellers that "you might think you're in Cairo or Tangier." I have never been to Cairo or Tangier, but if they are anything like Naples, God help them.

The 3000-year-old city of Naples is a reeking, garbage-ridden sewer. This year there was an actual garbage strike, but the problem is perennial - there was a giant, seemingly permanent mound of it right across the street from our LP-recommended albergo. At all times, almost everyone on the street appears to be a criminal, especially at night. The streets are ruinous, unlit, and patrolled by thieves on mopeds. We saw one pull up in front of an old lady carrying a bag of groceries, openly inspect her goods for anything worth stealing, then scoot away. Apparently they have a reputation for ripping earrings out of womens' ears.

From Naples you can take the Trans-Vesuviano to Pompeii. This train has a wonderful name, but its main purpose appears to be to transport criminals from the Stalinist banlieues in which they live, to the city in which in which they steal. Signs in every language known to humanity warn the tourist that pickpockets are everywhere. The trains are stripped to the metal and covered with graffiti, which is not in Latin. As the train stopped at one station, we saw a couple of carabinieri carrying a body-bag away from the platform.

The night after this we wandered the historic district of Naples, simply looking for one open-air cafe in which to sit and chat. Eventually we found one. We were pretty much the only people there. It was Saturday night. We moved on and discovered one clean thing in Naples - the new, EU-funded subway. Tried a couple of stops. Everything was the same.

Finally, I remembered a snarky little use of the word "bourgeois" in the Planet and marched Mrs. Moldbug over to the funicula, which goes up the hill to the Vomero, a sort of internal suburb. Quelle difference! You go three hundred feet up a cliff, and you have gone from Cairo to Milan. We immediately found a wine-bar with an English-speaking hostess and enjoyed several lovely glasses.

Suddenly we realized that it was late, and we didn't know when the subway stopped running, to get us back to our albergo, near the Stazione Centrale. So we asked. And no one knew. Not the waitress, not anyone in the bar. These hip young people had no idea of the subway hours in their own city. I believe the waitress actually said something like, "why do you want to go there?"

We hurried, and I think we got the last train. The next day, Mrs. Moldbug, who is far more tasteful than I and who would never repeat that nasty line about Garibaldi, expressed the desire to "just hop on the Eurostar and stay on it until we get to Stockholm." In fact we ended up in Perugia, which is, of course, lovely.

So: Naples. Obviously, Naples being this way, I assumed that Naples had always been this way. There was that old line, "see Naples and die," but presumably it referred to a knife in the ribs. That poor bastard on the Trans-Vesuviano had seen Naples, and died. Was it worth it?

So I was surprised to discover a different version of reality, from British historian Desmond Seward's Naples: A Travellers' Companion:
'In size and number of inhabitants she ranks as the third city of Europe, and from her situation and superb show may justly be considered the Queen of the Mediterranean,' wrote John Chetwode Eustace in 1813. Until 1860 Naples was the political and administrative centre of the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies, the most beautiful kingdom in the world. Consisting of Southern Italy and Sicily, it had a land mass equal to that of Portugal and was the richest state in Europe... For five generations - from 1734 till 1860 - it was ruled by a branch of the French and Spanish royal family of Bourbon who filled the city with monuments to their reign...

The 'Borboni' as their subjects called them, were complete Neapolitans, wholly assimilated, who spoke and thought in Neapolitan dialect (indeed the entire court spoke Neapolitan)... Until 1860, glittering Court balls and regal gala nights at the San Carlo which staggered foreigners by their opulence and splendour were a feature of Neapolitan life... In 1839 that ferocious Whig Lord Macaulay was staying in the city and wrote, 'I must say that the accounts I which I have heard of Naples are very incorrect. There is far less beggary than in Rome, and far more industry... At present, my impressions are very favourable to Naples. It is the only place in Italy that has seemed to me to have the same sort of vitality which you find in all the great English ports and cities. Rome and Pisa are dead and gone; Florence is not dead, but sleepeth; while Naples overflows with life."

The Borboni's memory have been systematically blackened by partisans of the regime which supplanted them, and by admirers of the Risorgimento. They have had a particularly bad press in the Anglo-Saxon world. Nineteenth-century English liberals loathed them for their absolutism, their clericalism and loyalty to the Papacy, and their opposition to the fashionable cause of Italian unity. Politicians from Lord William Bentinck to Lord Palmerston and Gladstone, writers such as Browning and George Eliot, united in detesting the 'tyrants'; Gladstone convinced himself that their regime was 'the negation of God.' Such critics, as prejudiced as they were ill informed, ignored the dynasty's economic achievement, the kingdom's remarkable prosperity compared with other Italian states, the inhabitants' relative contentment, and the fact that only a mere handful of Southern Italians were opposed to their government. Till the end, The Two Sicilies was remarkable for the majority of its subjects' respect for, and knowledge of, its laws - so deep that even today probably most Italian judges, and especially successful advocates, still come from the south. Yet even now there is a mass of blind prejudice among historians. All too many guidebooks dismiss the Borboni as corrupt despots who misruled and neglected their capital. An entire curtain of slander conceals the old, pre-1860 Naples; with the passage of time calumny has been supplemented by ignorance, and it is easy to forget that history is always written by the victors. However Sir Harold Acton in his two splendid studies of the Borboni has to some extent redressed the balance, and his interpretation of past events is winning over increasing support - especially in Naples itself.

Undoubtedly the old monarchy had serious failings. Though economically and industrially creative, it was also absolutist and isolationist, disastrously out of touch with pan-Italian aspirations... Beyond question there was political repression under the Bourbons - the dynasty was fighting for its survival - but it has been magnified out of all proportion. On the whole prison conditions were probably no worse than in contemporary England, which still had its hulks; what really upset Gladstone was seeing his social equals being treated in the same way as working-class convicts, since opposition to the regime was restricted to a few liberal romantics among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie...

The Risorgimento was a disaster for Naples and for the south in general. Before 1860 the Mezzogiorno was the richest part of Italy outside the Austrian Empire; after it quickly became the poorest. The facts speak for themselves. In 1859 money circulating in The Two Sicilies amounted to more than that circulating in all other independent Italian states, while the Bank of Naples's gold reserve was 443 million gold lire, twice the combined reserves of the rest of Italy. This gold was immediately confiscated by Piedmont - whose own reserve had been a mere 27 million - and transferred to Turin. Neapolitan excise duties, levied to keep out the north's inferior goods and providing four-fifths of the city's revenue, were abolished. And then the northerners imposed crushing new taxes. Far from being liberators, the Piedmontese administrators who came in the wake of the Risorgimento behaved like Yankees in the post-bellum Southern States; they ruled The Two Sicilies as an occupied country, systematically demolishing its institutions and industries. Ferdinand's new dockyard was dismantled to stop Naples competing with Genoa (it is now being restored by industrial archeologists). Vilification of the Borboni became part of the school curriculum. Shortly after the Two Sicilies' enforced incorporation into the new Kingdom of Italy, the Duke of Maddaloni protested in the 'national' Parliament: 'This is invasion, not annexation, not union. We are being plundered like an occupied territory.' For years after the 'liberation,' Neapolitans were governed by northern padroni and carpet-baggers. And today the Italians of the north can be as stupidly prejudiced about Naples as any Anglo-Saxon, affecting a superiority which verges on racism - 'Africa begins South of Rome' - and lamenting the presence in the North of so many workers from the Mezzogiorno. (The ill-feeling is reciprocated, the Neapolitan translation of SPQR being Sono porci, questi Romani.) Throughout the 1860s 150,000 troops were needed to hold down the south.
Note the pattern. What made Italian unification happen? Why did Ferdinand of Naples, with his 443 million gold lire, just roll over for Charles Albert of Piedmont, with his mere 27? Two reasons: Lord Palmerston and Napoleon III. Where did exiles such as Mazzini and Garibaldi find their backers? Not in Pompeii, that's for sure.

The unification of Italy was an event in the 19th century's great struggle between liberalism and reaction. The international liberal movement of the 20th century, in which a figure such as Carl Schurz could go from German revolutionary in 1848 to Civil War general in 1861, was the clear precursor of today's "international community." And once again, we see it playing the same predatory role: conquering and destroying in the name of liberation and independence.

Unless you count the American Revolution, perhaps the first and clearest case of this strange phenomenon - multilateral independence - was the Greek War of Independence. As La Wik, without a trace of irony, puts it: "After a long and bloody struggle, and with the aid of the Great Powers, independence was finally granted by the Treaty of Constantinople in July 1832." Indeed.

And if we look at the citizens of said Great Powers - principally, of course, Great Britain - who gave us Greek "independence," we see the same type of people who were behind Mazzini, Schurz, and all the way down to today's "international community": liberals, radicals, thinkers, artists. Progressives. (Lord Byron is of course the archetype.) Again, these are the best and nicest people in the world, now or then. So why in the world do they always seem to turn up in the same breath as phrases like "long and bloody struggle?"

So we have not solved the anomaly of nationalism. But at least we have reduced it to the same problem as our first anomaly, which has to be something. What happened to the Third World? It was devoured by predatory, cynical, bogus nationalism. Why would educated, cosmopolitan, and civilized thinkers support predatory, cynical, bogus nationalism? Again we hit the wall.

Let's move on to our third problem: Hitler.

Of course I hold no brief for Hitler. "Joo! Joo!" The anomaly, to reprise, is that Hitler today is detested for his human-rights violations, ie, the Holocaust. And the Allies are therefore revered for defeating Hitler, wrapping the whole problem up in a neat little bow. The only problem with this human-rights theory of World War II is that it has no resemblance to reality.

First, the Allies included a fellow whose human-rights record was at least as bad as Hitler's. Second, Roosevelt and Churchill not only didn't seem to much mind the extermination of the Jews (whom they had many opportunities to save) - if anything, they covered it up. (Which makes neo-Nazi claims that the Holocaust was Allied war propaganda grimly comical, to say the least.) And third, the Allies didn't at all mind barbecuing as many enemy civilians as they could fit on the grill.

Put these facts together, and the human-rights theory of World War II makes about as much sense as the suggestion that Caesar invaded Britain because he wanted to see Manchester United play Chelsea. So why did it happen? The nominal cause of the European war was that Britain wanted to preserve a free Poland. You'd think that if this was their key goal, they would have found a way to come out of the war with a free Poland - especially having won, and all. Much the same can be said with respect to the US and China.

Note that what we are interested in, here, is not the motives of Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo. These men are dead and so are their movements. The movements that defeated them, however, live on - I think it's pretty clear that the "international community" and the Allies are one and the same. Our question is why said community had such a harsh reaction to Nazi Germany. Especially since its response to Soviet Russia, which was just as aggressive and just as murderous, was so different.

One simple answer, continuing our counterfactual, was that the fascist movement was a competing predator. Perhaps the Allies destroyed the Nazis for the same reason that a lion will kill a leopard, if it gets the chance: not because leopards are all that good to eat, but because there are only so many antelope in the world.

Unfortunately, the waters here are freshly muddied by a half-educated bestseller which argues that fascism was really a left-wing movement. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a far better writer, made the case far earlier and far more eruditely. He was still wrong.

As a reactionary Jacobite myself, I feel it's especially important to face up to the basically reactionary nature of the fascist movement. Fascism (and Nazism) were certainly creatures of the democratic era - nothing like them could have been imagined in the 19th century. They certainly borrowed many techniques of government from both liberals and Bolsheviks. And the experience of living in a totalitarian state does not much depend on whether that state is Communist, Fascist, Buddhist or Scientologist. Nonetheless, Goldberg is wrong: there is a fundamental difference.

In the 1930s, there was no confusion at all as to whether the fascist movements were parties of the extreme Right or of the extreme Left. Everyone agreed. They were parties of the Right. Populist right-wingers to be sure, but right-wingers nonetheless. For once, the conventional wisdom is perfectly accurate.

For example, in 1930 Francesco Nitti (nephew of a liberal Prime Minister by the same name) published a book called Escape, about his escape from internal exile on an Italian island. (Let's just say that it wasn't exactly the Gulag.) In the preface, his uncle the PM explains Mussolini for the English-speaking reader:
Mussolini represents a mediaeval adventure in Italy. Until some fifteen years ago, Communist and Anarchist, he defended regicide, anarchist crime, political assassination. He has written and predicted individual revolt. He has always considered all religions (these are his very words) like opium, to lull people to sleep. He has written and repeated for twenty years in his discourses that the abyss between Capitalism and the Proletariat should be filled with the heads of Capitalists. Again in the year 1920 he incited workmen to occupy factories and to pilfer. In 1914 he laughed at the Belgian occupation and urged the Italians to rebel against those who wanted to drag them into the war.
Which all sounds very well for Goldberg's thesis. But wait:
Not having succeeded in making a red revolution, he attempted a white reaction, taking advantage of the discontent after the war. He succeeded with the help of a few generals and part of the army who wanted reaction... Becoming Dictator, Mussolini has not only forswore all his past, but has introduced the most terrible reaction. All form of liberty has been suppressed; press liberty, association liberty, reunion liberty. Members of Parliament are practically nominated by the government. All political associations have been dissolved...
For those not versed in the color symbolism of 19th-century Europe, white is the color of reaction, just as red is the color of revolution. Thus, Nitti is telling us, unlike the old socialist Mussolini, the new fascist Mussolini is a reactionary. Just like the Borboni.

As we've seen, if the "international community" is a predator, reactionaries are its prey. So, while the Soviets might be seen as a competing predator, fascism is something quite different. Fascism is a species of prey that (unlike the Borboni) decided to fight back. And it was not exactly averse to fighting dirty.

Here is my perception of fascism: it was a reactionary movement that combined the worst ideas of the ancien regime, the worst politics of the democrats, and the worst tyrannies of the Bolsheviks. And what was the result? It is every bit as vanished as the Borboni. For a reactionary, fascism is more or less a short course in what not to do.

Even a lifetime later, our emotional responses to fascism and Nazism make these concepts very difficult to handle. (Full disclosure: my grandfather, a Jewish communist, enlisted in the US Army to kill Nazis. And I'm pretty sure he bagged a few.) One way to step away from these associations is to look not at the Third Reich but at the Second - the strange regime of Kaiser Bill, and the war he made.

A less loaded name for fascism might be neomilitarism. The ideology of Wilhelmine Germany was generally described as militarism, a perfectly accurate description. It was certainly reactionary, and also quite populist - for a monarchy. (World War I was extremely popular in Germany, as in all countries.) Under the Kaiser, the highest social status available was conferred by military rank. You might be a distinguished professor of physics, but if your reserve rank as a military officer was low or (worse) nonexistent, no one would talk to you at parties. Even for Americans who know something of the military, it's almost impossible to imagine living in a true militaristic society.

Why did the last survivors of the ancien regime become so aggressive and militaristic? Why, for example, did the German military jump at the opportunity to start a war in 1914? Because they believed our counterfactual - that the "international community" was a killer with fangs.

The German theory in 1914 was that the British alliance with France and Russia was designed to "encircle" Germany - not exactly implausible, if one glances at a map. And we have already seen how the British dealt with reactionaries when they got the chance. The theory of the German General Staff in 1914 was that Germany, surrounded and besieged, had to attack or it would be gradually choked to death.

This bit of Nazi propaganda from 1939 explains the German militarist theory of modern history quite well:
The deepest roots of this war are in England's old claim to rule the world, and Europe in particular. Although its homeland is relatively small, England has understood how to cleverly exploit others to expand its possessions. It controls the seas, the important points along major sea routes, and the richest parts of our planet. The contrast between England itself and its overseas territories is so grotesque that England has always has a certain inferiority complex with respect to the European continent. Whenever a continental power reached a certain strength, England believed itself and its empire to be threatened. Every continental flowering made England nervous, every attempt at growth by nations wanting their place in the sun led England to take on the policeman's role.

One must understand this to make sense of England's German policy from Bismarck to our own day. England was not happy with the results of the war of 1870-1871. British sympathies were already on France's side, since for the previous one hundred years it had never had the same fear of France as it had of Germany. France had secured its own colonial empire, and its shrinking biological strength left enough room for expansion within its own natural boundaries. Things were different in Germany. England knew that the German people were strong when they had good leadership, and that nature had given them limited, resource-poor territory with a limited coast. Great Britain kept an eye on Germany, all the more whenever Germany expressed its strength, even in the most natural ways. The Second Reich experienced England's "balance of power" policy. We know that England did not want a true balance of power. It wants a situation in which England is always in a position with the help of its allies to have its way with a minority of confident, forward-moving nations.
Obviously, this is propaganda. But one bit of real history that I can recommend to anyone is the viewpoint of the fellow on the other side of this "encirclement" business: Lord Grey of Fallodon. If you've ever wondered who said "the lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime," Lord Grey is your man. His memoirs are extremely readable - indeed, reading them one sees just why we have not seen the lamps lit again. There is simply no individual of Grey's caliber, politician or civil servant, in the whole government racket these days.

Needless to say, to Lord Grey (writing after the war), no one would ever dream of trying to encircle Germany. Rather, the German militarists are paranoid and jingoistic, constantly trying to enhance their domestic political position by triggering European crises. And indeed the pot that boiled over at Sarajevo was by no means the first such crisis - Agadir is a fine example. The British, on the other hand, are simply doing their best to keep the peace. In the end they failed, Germany attacked Belgium without provocation, and British honor bound her to respond.

I find Grey completely credible. I have no reservations about his sincerity. He certainly strikes me as a far more trustworthy character than the slippery Palmerston, who really was a bit of a snake. And his summary of the causes of the war is peerless:
After 1870 Germany had no reason to be afraid, but she fortified herself with armaments and the Triple Alliance in order that she might never have reason to be afraid in future. France naturally was afraid after 1870, and she made her military preparations and the Dual Alliance (with Russia). Britain, with a very small Army and a very large Empire, became first uncomfortable and than (particularly when Germany began a big-fleet program) afraid of isolation. She made the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, made up her quarrels with France and Russia, and entered into the Entente. Finally Germany became afraid that she would presently be afraid, and struck the blow, while she believed her power to be invincible. Heaven alone knows the whole truth about human affairs, but I believe the above sketch to be as near to a true statement of the causes of war as an ordinary intelligence can get in a few sentences.
And yet - did Germany, or more precisely the Hohenzollern monarchy, have no reason to be afraid? The Borboni were certainly caught napping. And note that, while Germany was challenging British naval hegemony, the overdog remained Britain and the underdog Germany. Who, exactly, had more reason to be afraid of whom? Grey is not exactly shy in waxing Palmerstonian about the contest between democracy and reaction:
We had no thought ourselves of going to war in 1914 because we supposed that sooner or later we should have to fight. We just strove to prevent war happening at all. But when, in spite of our efforts, war came, it is well that we took our place in it and at the outset. The latent forces at work became apparent as the war proceeded, and the incidents in which the war originated were forgotten as these forces were revealed. It was a great struggle between the Kultur that stood for militarism and the free unmilitarist democratic ideal. It was the perception of this, whether consciously or unconsciously, that brought the United States into the war - the United States, which as a whole had cared little about the incidents that caused the war at the outset, and which did not as a whole then perceive it. But it was the perception of it, revealed to us as the war developed, that made us know that we were fighting for the very life of what Britain and the self-governing Dominions cared for. We could not have escaped that struggle between militarism and democracy by turning our backs on the war in August 1914. The thing would have pursued us until we had to turn our backs and face it, and that would have been when it was even stronger and when we had become weak and isolated.
Who sounds a little paranoid here? The British Empire covered the globe. The forces of democracy and liberalism were clearly on the advance. Reactionary militarism was beleaguered. Did it absolutely have to be utterly crushed, right then and there, bang?

Note that for most of World War I, it was Germany who wanted peace on the basis of the status quo, and the Allies who insisted that Germany be defeated and militarism eradicated. Perhaps Hitler considered his war a crusade to stamp out democracy forever, but the Kaiser did not. His opponents, however, felt no such compunctions. Grey reproduces a memo from his ambassador in Washington that states the basic German perspective, as of September 1914:
German Ambassador has stated in Press that Germany is anxious for peace on basis of status quo, and desires no new territory, but that England has declared intention of fighting to finish for her selfish purposes, and is consequently responsible for further bloodshed.
Grey responds:
Germany has planned this war and chosen the time for forcing it upon Europe. No one but Germany was in the same state of preparation.

We want in future to live free from the menace of this happening again.

Treitschke and other writers of repute and popularity in Germany have openly declared that to crush Great Britain and destroy the British Empire must be the objective for Germany.

We want to be sure that this idea is abandoned. A cruel wrong has been done to Belgium - an unprovoked attack aggravated by the wanton destruction of Louvain and other wholesale vandalism. What reparation is Germany to make to Belgium for this?
Is Grey's real concern reparations to Belgium (more or less a British client state?) Clearly, it is not. His concern is setting a condition that the German militarists cannot accept without losing face, because his objective is to crush Germany and destroy the German Empire. As he wrote in early 1916:
Nothing but the defeat of Germany can make a satisfactory end to this war and secure future peace...

We must, however, be careful in stating our determination to continue the war to make it clear that our object is not to force, but to support our Allies. Increasing mischief is being made between us and our Allies by German propaganda. This propaganda represents the war as one of rivalry between Great Britain and Germany; it insinuates that France, Russia and Belgium could have satisfactory terms of peace now, and that they are continuing the war in the interest of Great Britain to effect the ruin of Germany, which is not necessary for the safety of the Allies, but which alone will satisfy Great Britain.

It is just possible that this insidious misrepresentation, false though it be, may create in France, Russia, Italy and Belgium a dangerous peace movement - a movement positively unfriendly to us.

It would be well if we could all, Ministers and Press alike, strike one note, that of determination to help the Allies who have suffered the most grievous wrong, to secure the liberation of their territory, reparation for wrong done, and the advantages necessary for their future security. We should emphasize the impossibility and disgrace of thinking of peace till the Allies are secure, but should let it be understood that it is for them whose territory is occupied by the enemy, whose population has been, and is being, so grossly ill-treated, rather than for us, to say when it is opportune to speak of peace. Till that time comes, we use all our efforts and make every sacrifice to defeat the enemy in the common cause, and have no other thought but this.
Can you make this stuff up?

We're fighting for the sake of the Allies. If they would prefer peace, it is their place to speak of peace, not ours. But let's make sure we don't let them think it's okay to think of peace, because Germany must be defeated. It's especially important to counter the insidious German peace propaganda, which may lead our Allies to think we can only be satisfied by the defeat of Germany. Which is nonsense - we're only fighting to redress the wrongs to our Allies.

Again, I am not sure these excerpts really convey the flavor of Lord Grey's thinking. Obviously I am not presenting it at its best. I really do find Grey a congenial character, as I'm sure I would not find, say, Ludendorff. It is simply impossible to think of him as a predator.

And yet once again, it is difficult not to see the fangs. In any war, each side presents itself as the injured party, and the other side as the aggressor. Is Germany trying to crush Britain? Or is Britain trying to crush Germany? Or are they both aggressors?

Again, we are at an impasse. We have a very tempting theory that seems to explain all of these anomalies quite neatly, but the theory is obviously not true. Reject it, however, and the anomalies are back - and they seem to have friends. What to do?

Continue to part 3.

Thursday, April 17, 2008 84 Comments

An open letter to open-minded progressives (part 1)

Are you an open-minded progressive? Maybe not, but you probably have friends who are. This essay is for them. Perhaps it can serve as a sort of introduction to this strange blog, UR.

If you are an open-minded progressive, you are probably not a Catholic. (If you are, you probably don't take the Pope too seriously.) Imagine writing an open letter to Catholics, suggesting ways for them to free their minds from the insidious grip of Rome. That sort of thing is quite out of style these days - and in any case, how would you start? But here at UR, we are never afraid of being out of style. And as for starting, we already have.

Is being a progressive like being a Catholic? Why shouldn't it be? Each is a way of understanding the world through a set of beliefs. These beliefs may be true, they may be false, they may be nonsense which does not even make enough sense to be false. As an open-minded progressive (or an open-minded Catholic), you would like to think all the beliefs you hold are true, but you are willing to reevaluate them - perhaps with a little gentle assistance.

There is one big difference between Catholicism and progressivism: Catholicism is what we call a "religion." Its core beliefs are claims about the spirit world, which no Catholic (except of course the Pope) has experienced firsthand. Whereas progressive beliefs tend to be claims about the real world - about government and history and economics and society. These are phenomena which, unlike the Holy Trinity, we all experience firsthand.

Or do we? Most of us have never worked for a government, and those who have have seen only some tiny corner of one. History is something out of a book. It isn't the Bible, but it might as well be. What is our personal experience of economics? Gasoline prices? And so on. Unless your life has been both long and quite unusual, I suspect your memories shed very little light on the great questions of government, history, etc. Mine certainly don't.

Of course, much of progressive thought claims to be a product of pure reason. Is it? Thomas Aquinas derived Catholicism from pure reason. John Rawls derived progressivism from pure reason. At least one of them must have made a mistake. Maybe they both did. Have you checked their work? One bad variable will bust your whole proof.

And is this really how it happened? Are you a progressive because you started by believing in nothing at all ("We are nihilists! We believe in nothing!"), thought it through, and wound up a progressive? Of course I can't speak for your own experience, but I suspect that either you are a progressive because your parents were progressives, or you were converted by some book, teacher, or other intellectual experience. Note that this is exactly how one becomes a Catholic.

There is one difference, though. To be a Catholic, you have to have faith, because no one has ever seen the Holy Ghost. To be a progressive, you have to have trust, because you believe that your worldview accurately reflects the real world - as experienced not just by your own small eyes, but by humanity as a whole.

But you have not shared humanity's experience. You have only read, heard and seen a corpus of text, audio and video compiled from it. And compiled by whom? Which is where the trust comes in. More on this in a little bit.

I am not a progressive, but I was raised as one. I live in San Francisco, I grew up as a Foreign Service brat, I went to Brown, I've been brushing my teeth with Tom's of Maine since the mid-80s. What happened to me is that I lost my trust.

David Mamet lost his trust, too. His Village Voice essay is worth reading, if just for the shock value of the world's most famous playwright declaring that he's no longer a "brain-dead liberal." There are about five hundred comments on the article. Perhaps I missed one, but I didn't notice any in which the commenter claimed that Mamet had opened his eyes.

Of course, Mamet is Mamet. He's out to shock, not convert. Even the word "liberal," at least as it refers to a present-day political persuasion, borders on hate speech. It's like an ex-Catholic explaining "why I am no longer a brain-dead Papist." John Stuart Mill was a liberal. Barack Obama is a progressive, and so are you. Basic rule of politeness: don't call people names they don't call themselves.

Worse, Mamet doesn't just reject progressivism. He endorses conservatism. Dear God! Talk about making your problem harder. Imagine you live in a country in which everyone is one of two things: a Catholic or a Hindu. Isn't it hard enough to free a man's mind from the insidious grip of Rome? Must he accept Kali, Krishna and Ganesha at the same time?

For example, Mamet endorses the conservative writer Thomas Sowell, who he claims is "our greatest contemporary philosopher." Well. I like Thomas Sowell, his work is certainly not without value, but really. And if you Google him, you will see that his columns frequently appear on a conservative website called

Click that link. Observe the atrocious graphic design. (Have you noticed how far above the rest Obama's graphic design is? Some font designers have.) Observe the general horribleness, so reminiscent of Fox News. Then hit "back." Or, I don't know, read an Ann Coulter column, or something. Dear Lord.

I am not a progressive, but I'm not a conservative either. (If you must know, I'm a Jacobite.) Over time, I have acquired the ability to process American conservative thought - if generally somewhat upmarket from Fox News or This is an extremely acquired taste, if "taste" is even the word. It is probably very similar to the way Barack Obama handled the Rev. Wright's more colorful sermons. When David Mamet points his readers in the general direction of, it's sort of like explaining to your uncle who's a little bit phobic that he can understand the value of gay rights by watching this great movie - it's called "120 Days of Sodom." It's not actual communication. It's a fuck-you. It's Mamet.

But many people will think exactly this: if you stop being a progressive, you have to become a conservative. I suspect that the primary emotional motivation for most progressives is that they're progressives because they think something needs to be done about conservatives. Game over. Gutterball. Right back to the insidious grip.

Where does this idea that, if NPR is wrong, Fox News must be right, come from? They can't both be right, because they contradict each other. But couldn't they both be wrong? I don't mean slightly wrong, I don't mean each is half right and each is half wrong, I don't mean the truth is somewhere between them, I mean neither of them has any consistent relationship to reality.

Let's think about this for a second. As a progressive, you believe - you must believe - that conservatism is a mass delusion. What an extraordinary thing! A hundred-plus million people, many quite dull but some remarkably intelligent, all acting under a kind of mass hypnosis. We take this for granted. We are used to it. But we have to admit that it's really, really weird.

What you have to believe is that conservatives have been systematically misinformed. They are not stupid - at least not all of them. Nor are they evil. You can spend all the time you want on, and you will not find anyone cackling like Gollum over their evil plan to enslave and destroy the world. They all think, just like you, that by being conservatives they are standing up for what's sweet and good and true.

Conservatism is a theory of government held by a large number of people who have no personal experience of government. They hold this theory because their chosen information sources, such as Fox News,, and their local megachurch, feed them a steady diet of facts (and possibly a few non-facts) which tend to support, reinforce, and confirm the theory.

And why does this strange pattern exist? Because conservatism is not just an ordinary opinion. Suppose instead of a theory of government, conservatism was a theory of basketball. "Conservatism" would be a system of views about the pick-and-roll, the outside game, the triangle defense and other issues of great importance to basketball players and coaches.

The obvious difference is that, unless you are a basketball coach, your opinions on basketball matter not at all - because basketball is not a democracy. The players don't even get a vote, let alone the fans. But conservatism can maintain a systematic pattern of delusion, because its fans are not just fans: they are supporters of a political machine. This machine will disappear if it cannot keep its believers, so it has an incentive to keep them. And it does. Funny how that works.

So, as a progressive, here is how you see American democracy: as a contest in which truth and reason are pitted against a quasicriminal political machine built on propaganda, ignorance and misinformation. Perhaps a cynical view of the world, but if you believe that progressivism is right, you must believe that conservatism is wrong, and you have no other option.

But there is an even more pessimistic view. Suppose American democracy is not a contest between truth and reason and a quasicriminal political machine, but a contest between two quasicriminal political machines? Suppose progressivism is just like conservatism? If it was, who would tell you?

Think of conservatism as a sort of mental disease. Virus X, transmitted by Fox News much as mosquitoes transmit malaria, has infected the brains of half the American population - causing them to believe that George W. Bush is a "regular guy," global warming isn't happening, and the US Army can bring democracy to Sadr City. Fortunately, the other half of America is protected by its progressive antibodies, which it imbibes every day in the healthy mother's milk of the Times and NPR, allowing to bask securely in the sweet light of truth.

Or is it? Note that we've just postulated two classes of entity: viruses and antibodies, mosquitoes and mother's milk. William of Ockham wouldn't be happy. Isn't it simpler to imagine that we're dealing with a virus Y? Rather than one set of people being infected and the other being immune, everyone is infected - just with different strains.

What makes virus X a virus is that, like the shark in Jaws, its only goals in life are to eat, swim around, and make baby viruses. In other words, its features are best explained adaptively. If it can succeed by accurately representing reality, it will do so. For example, you and I and virus X agree on the subject of the international Jewish conspiracy: there is no such thing. We disagree with the evil virus N, which fortunately is scarce these days. This can be explained in many ways, but one of the simplest is that if Fox News stuck a swastika in its logo and told Bill O'Reilly to start raving about the Elders of Zion, its ratings would probably go down.

This is what I mean by "no consistent relationship to reality." If, for whatever reason, an error is better at replicating within the conservative mind than the truth, conservatives will come to believe the error. If the truth is more adaptive, they will come to believe the truth. It's fairly easy to see how an error could make a better story than the truth on Fox News, which is why one would be ill-advised to get one's truth from that source.

So our first small step toward doubt is easy: we simply allow ourselves to suspect that the institutions which progressives trust are fallible in the same way. If NPR can replicate errors just as Fox News does, we are indeed looking at a virus Y. Virus Y may be right when virus X is wrong, wrong when virus X is right, right when virus X is wrong, or wrong when virus X is wrong. Since the two have no consistent relationship to reality, they have no consistent relationship to each other.

There's a seductive symmetry to this theory: it solves the problem of how one half of a society, which (by global and historical standards) doesn't seem that different from the other, can be systematically deluded while the other half is quite sane. The answer: it isn't.

Moreover, it explains a bizarre contradiction which emerges beautifully in Mamet's piece. At one point he writes, in his new conservative persona:
What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.
But earlier, he told us:
As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.
Okay, Dave. As a child of the '60s, you accepted as an article of faith that government is bad, but now you believe that... government is bad? Who's doin' donuts on the road to Damascus?

One of the fascinating facts of American politics today is that both progressives and conservatives hate their government. They just hate different parts of it, and they love and cherish the others. In foreign policy, for example, progressives hate the Pentagon, and love and cherish the State Department. Conservatives hate the State Department, and love and cherish the Pentagon.

Look at how nicely this fits in with our virus X-Y theory. Washington contains many mansions, some of which are part of the virus X machine, others of which are perma-infected with virus Y. Outside the Beltway is our herd of drooling, virus-ridden zombie voters. The X zombies hate the Y agencies, the Y zombies hate the X agencies.

But none of them hates Washington as a whole. So they can never unite to destroy it, and the whole machine is stable. See how beautiful this is? By separating voters into two competing but cooperating parties, neither of which can destroy the other, the two-party system creates a government which will survive indefinitely, no matter how much happier its citizens might be without it.

This is the prize at the end of our mystery. If you can find a way to stop being a progressive without becoming a conservative, you might even find a way to actually oppose the government. At the very least, you can decide that none of these politicians, movements or institutions is even remotely worthy of your support. Trust me - it's a very liberating feeling.

But we are nowhere near there yet. We have not actually found a genuine reason to doubt progressivism. Minor errors - some little fact-checking mistake at the Times or whatever - don't count, because they don't do anything about your conviction that progressivism is basically right and conservatism is basically wrong. Even with a few small eccentricities, progressivism as a cure for conservatism is worth keeping. It may not be an antibody, but perhaps virus Y is at least a vaccine.

Moreover, we've overlooked some major asymmetries between the progressive and conservative movements. They are not each others' evil twins. They are very different things. It is quite plausible that one would be credible and the other wouldn't, and the advantages all seem to be on the progressive side.

First of all, let's look at the people who are progressives. As the expressions "blue-state" and "red-state" indicate, progressives and conservatives in America today are different tribes. They are not randomly distributed opinions. They follow clear patterns.

My wife and I had a daughter a few weeks ago, and right before she was due to be discharged the doctors found a minor (and probably harmless) heart problem which required a brief visit from UCSF's head of pediatric cardiology. A very pleasant person. And one of the first things he said, part of his bedside manner, a way of putting us at ease, was a remark about George W. Bush. Somehow I suspect that if he had diagnosed us as hicks from Stockton, he would not have emitted this noise.

Rather, the good doctor had identified us as members of the Stuff White People Like tribe. This little satirical site has attracted roughly 100 times UR's traffic in a tenth the time, which is a pretty sure sign that it's on to something. The author, Chris Lander, only really has one joke: he's describing a group that doesn't like to be described, and he's assigned them the last name they'd choose for themselves.

Lander's "white people" are indeed overwhelmingly white, as anyone who has been to Burning Man can testify. But there are plenty of "white people" who are Asian, or even black or Latino. In fact, as Lander points out, "white people" are the opposite of racist - they are desperate to have minorities around. Thus the humor of calling them "white." In fact, as anyone who went to an integrated high school can testify, Lander's use of the word "white" is almost exactly the black American usage - as in, "that's so white." Add the word "bread" and you have it down.

Who are these strange people? Briefly, they are America's ruling class. Here at UR we call them Brahmins. The Brahmin tribe is adoptive rather than hereditary. Anyone can be a Brahmin, and in fact the less "white" your background the better, because it means your achievements are all your own. As with the Hindu original, your status as a Brahmin is not a function of money, but of your success as a scholar, scientist, artist, or public servant. Brahmins are people who work with their minds.

Brahmins are the ruling class because they are literally the people who govern. Public policies in the modern democratic system are generally formulated by Brahmins, typically at the NGOs where these "white people" like to congregate. And while not every progressive is a Brahmin and not every Brahmin is a progressive, the equation generally follows.

Most important, the Brahmin identity is inextricably bound up with the American university system. If you are a Brahmin, your status is either conferred by academic success, or by some quasi-academic achievement, like writing a book, saving the Earth, etc. Thus it's unsurprising that most Brahmins are quite intelligent and sophisticated. They have to be. If they can't at least fake it, they're not Brahmins.

The natural enemy of the Brahmin is, of course, the red-state American. I used to use another Hindu caste name for this tribe - Vaisyas - but I think it's more evocative to call them Townies. As a progressive you are probably a Brahmin, you know these people, and you don't like them. They are fat, they are exclusively white, they live in the suburbs or worse, they are into oak and crochet and minivans, and of course they tend to be Republicans. If they went to college at all, they gritted their teeth through the freshman diversity requirement. And their work may be white-collar, but it has no real intellectual content.

(It's interesting how much simpler American politics becomes once you look at it through this tribal lens. You often see this in Third World countries - there will be, say, the Angolan People's Movement and the Democratic Angolan Front. Each swear up and down that they work for the future of the entire Angolan people. But you notice that everyone in the APM is an Ovambo, and everyone in the DAF is a Bakongo.)

The status relationship between Brahmins and Townies is clear: Brahmins are higher, Townies are lower. When Brahmins hate Townies, the attitude is contempt. When Townies hate Brahmins, the attitude is resentment. The two are impossible to confuse. If Brahmins and Townies shared a stratified dialect, the Brahmins would speak acrolect and the Townies mesolect.

In other words, Brahmins are more fashionable than Townies. Brahmin tastes, which are basically better tastes, flow downward toward Townies. Twenty years ago, "health food" was a niche ultra-Brahmin quirk. Now it's everywhere. Suburbanites drink espresso, shop at Whole Foods, listen to alternative rock, you name it.

Thus we see why progressivism is more fashionable than conservatism. Progressive celebrities, for example, are everywhere. Conservative ones are exceptions. This is cold calculation: Bono's PR people are happy that he's speaking out against AIDS. Mel Gibson's PR people are not happy that he's speaking out against the Jews.

So when we question conservatism, we are thinking in a way that is natural and sensible for people of our tribe: we are attacking the enemy. And the enemy is, indeed, a pushover. In fact the enemy is suspiciously easy to push over.

Look at the entire lifecycle of conservatism. The whole thing stinks. Virus X replicates in the minds of uneducated, generally less intelligent people. Townies are, in fact, the same basic tribe that gave us Hitler and Mussolini. Its intellectual institutions, such as they are, are subsidized fringe newspapers, TV channels, and weirdo think-tanks supported by eccentric tycoons. In government, the bastions of conservatism are the military, whose purpose is to kill people, and any agency in which corporate lobbyists can make a buck, eg, by raping the environment.

Whereas virus Y, if "virus" is indeed the name for it, replicates in the most distinguished circles in America, indeed the world: the top universities, the great newspapers, the old foundations such as Rockefeller and Carnegie and Ford. Its drooling zombies are the smartest and most successful people in the country, indeed the world. In government it builds world peace, protects the environment, looks after the poor, and educates children.

The truth of the matter is that progressivism is the mainstream American tradition. This is not to say it hasn't changed in the last 200 years, or even the last 50: it has. However, if we look at the ideas and ideals taught and studied at Harvard during the life of the country, we see a smooth progression up to now, we do not see any violent reversals or even inflection points, and we end up with good old modern-day progressivism. Of course, by "American tradition" we mean the New England tradition - if the Civil War had turned out differently, things might have gone otherwise. But when you realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel about a hippie commune 150 years ago, you realize that nothing is new under the sun.

As Machiavelli put it: if you strike at a king, strike to kill. Conservatism, which is barely 50 years old, which has numerous shabby roots, can be mocked and belittled and scorned. The difference between criticizing conservatism and criticizing progressivism is the difference between criticizing Mormonism and criticizing Christianity. You can't doubt progressivism just a little. You have to doubt it on a grand scale.

To say that conservatism is a corrupt and delusional tradition, no more than some "virus X," is to say that it's a tick on the side of America, an aberration, an abortion, an error to be corrected. A failure of education, of leadership, of progress. A small thing, really.

To doubt progressivism is to doubt the American idea itself - because progressivism is where that idea has ended up. If progressivism is "virus Y," America itself is infected. What is the cure for that? It is a strange and terrible thought, a promise of apocalypse.

And yet it makes an awful kind of sense. For one thing, if you were a mental virus, which tradition would you choose to infect? The central current of American thought, or some benighted backwater? The Brahmins, or the Townies? The fashionable people, or the unfashionable ones?

Copy your DNA into the New York Times, and it will trickle down to Fox News in twenty or thirty years. Copy yourself into Fox News, and you might influence the next election. Or two. But how lasting is that? How many people are intellectually moved by George W. Bush? (Repulsion doesn't count.)

As a Brahmin (I'll assume you're a Brahmin), you live inside virus Y. You are one of the zombies. Your entire worldview has been formed by Harvard, the Times, and the rest of what, back in David Mamet's day, they used to call the Establishment. Everything you know about government and history and science and society has been filtered by these institutions. Obviously, this narrative does not contradict itself. But is it true?

Well, it mostly doesn't contradict itself. It's very well put together. In some places, though, if you look really closely, I think you can see a stitch or too. You don't need to sail to the edge of the world, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. All you need, for starters, just to tickle your doubt muscle and get it twitching a little, is a few details that don't quite fit.

Let's start off with three questions. We'll play a little game: you try coming up with a progressive answer, I'll try coming up with a non-progressive answer. We'll see which one makes more sense.

I don't mean these questions don't have progressive answers, because they do. Everything has a progressive answer, just as it has a conservative answer. There is no shortage of progressives to compose answers. But I don't think these questions have satisfying progressive answers. Of course, you will have to judge this yourself with your own good taste.

One: what's up with the Third World?

Here, for example, is a Times story on the fight against malaria. Often, as with politicians, journalists speak the truth in a fit of absent-mindedness, when their real concern is something else. If you read the story, you might notice the same astounding graf that I did:
And the world changed. Before the 1960s, colonial governments and companies fought malaria because their officials often lived in remote outposts like Nigeria’s hill stations and Vietnam’s Marble Mountains. Independence movements led to freedom, but also often to civil war, poverty, corrupt government and the collapse of medical care.
Let's focus on that last sentence. Independence movements led to freedom, but also often to civil war, poverty, corrupt government and the collapse of medical care.

I often find it useful to imagine that I'm an alien from the planet Jupiter. If I read this sentence, I would ask: what is this word freedom? What, exactly, does this writer mean by freedom? Especially in the context of civil war, poverty, and corrupt government?

What we see here is that independence movements - which the writer clearly believes are a good thing - led to some very concrete and very, very awful results, in addition to this curious abstraction - freedom. Clearly, whatever freedom means in this particular context, it's such a great positive that even when you add it to civil war, poverty, corrupt government and the collapse of medical care, the result still exceeds zero.

Isn't that strange? Might we not be tempted to revisit this particular piece of arithmetic? But we can't - because if we postulate that colonial governments and companies (whatever these were), with their absence of freedom, were somehow preferable to independence movements, which created this same freedom (the words freedom and independence appear to be synonyms in this context), we are off the progressive reservation.

In fact, not only are we off the progressive reservation, we're off the conservative reservation. No one believes this. You will not find anyone on Fox News or or any but the fringiest of fringe publications claiming that colonialism, with its intrinsic absence of freedom and its strangely effective malaria control (note how the writer implies, without actually saying, that this was only delivered for the selfish purposes of the evil colonial overlords), was in any way superior to postcolonialism, with its freedom, its malaria, its civil war, etc.

And what, exactly, is this word independence? It seems to mean the same thing as freedom, and yet, it is strange. For example, consider this Post op-ed, by Michelle Gavin of the CFR, which starts with the following intriguing lines:
When Zimbabwe became an independent country in 1980, it was a focal point for international optimism about Africa's future. Today, Zimbabwe is a basket case of a country.
Let's put our alien-from-Jupiter hat back on, and consider the phrase: When Zimbabwe became an independent country in 1980...

In English as she is normally spoke, the word independent is composed of the prefix in, meaning "not," and the suffix dependent, meaning "dependent." So, for example, when the United States became independent, it meant that no external party was funding or controlling her government. If my daughter was to become independent, it would mean that she was making her own decisions in the world, and I didn't need to give her a bottle every three hours.

In the case of Zimbabwe, however, this word seems to have changed strangely and taken on an almost opposite meaning. From La Wik:
The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of Rhodesia from the United Kingdom was signed on November 11, 1965 by the administration of Ian Smith, whose Rhodesian Front party opposed black majority rule in the then British colony. Although it declared independence from the United Kingdom it maintained allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II. The British government, the Commonwealth, and the United Nations condemned the move as illegal. Rhodesia reverted to de facto and de jure British control as "the British Dependency of Southern Rhodesia" for a brief period in 1979 to 1980, before regaining its independence as Zimbabwe in 1980.
So, strangely enough, the country now known as Zimbabwe declared independence in 1965, much as the US declared independence in 1776. The former, however, was not genuine independence, but rather illegal independence. In order to gain genuine, legal independence, the country now known as Zimbabwe had to first revert to British control, ie, surrender its illegal independence. Are you feeling confused yet? It gets better:
When Zimbabwe became an independent country in 1980, it was a focal point for international optimism about Africa's future. Today, Zimbabwe is a basket case of a country. Over the past decade, the refusal of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party to tolerate challenges to their power has led them to systematically dismantle the most effective workings of Zimbabwe's economic and political systems, replacing these with structures of corruption, blatant patronage and repression.
So: the independent rulers of the new, free Zimbabwe has refused to tolerate challenges to their power. Thus, the international optimism held by Ms. Gavin (who perhaps needed a bottle or two herself in 1980) and her ilk, has given way to pessimism, and the place is now a basket case. And who might have been challenging good President Mugabe's power? Presumably someone who did not intend to dismantle the most effective workings of Zimbabwe's economic and political systems - thus earning the friendship of Ms. Gavin and her not-uninfluential ilk. This independence, as you can see, is a very curious thing.

In the sense of doing its own thing and never, ever needing a bottle, there is actually one remarkably independent country in the world. It's called Somaliland, and it is not recognized by anyone in the international community. The Wikipedia page for Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa, achieves a glorious level of unintentional high comedy:
Aid from foreign governments was non-existent, making it unusual in Africa for its low level of dependence in foreign aid. While Somaliland is de-facto as an independent country it is not de-jure (legally) recognized internationally. Hence, the government of Somaliland can not access IMF and World Bank assistance.
Isn't all of this quite curious? Doesn't it remind you even a little bit of the scene in which Jim Carrey rams his yacht into the matte painting at the edge of the world?

Two: what is nationalism? And is it good, or bad?

This question is rather similar to question one. I thought of it when a progressive blogger for whom I have great respect made the offhand comment that "Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist." "Sure," I found myself thinking. "And so is Pat Buchanan." It wasn't the time, but I saved this little mot d'escalier and can't resist bringing it back up now, like bad fish.

Unlike independence, I think everyone pretty much agrees on the definition of nationalism. Nationalism (from the Latin natus, birth) is when people of a common linguistic, ethnic, or racial heritage feel the need to act collectively as a single political entity. German nationalism is when Germans do it, Vietnamese nationalism is when Vietnamese do it, black nationalism is when African-Americans do it, American nationalism is when Pat Buchanan does it.

And this is where the agreement ends. La Wik's opening paragraph is a masterpiece of obfuscation:
Nationalism is a term referring to doctrine or political movement that holds that a nation, usually defined in terms of ethnicity or culture, has the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community based on a shared history and common destiny. Most nationalists believe the borders of the state should be congruent with the borders of the nation. However, recently nationalists have rejected the concept of "congruency" for sake of its reciprocal value. Contemporary nationalists would argue that the nation should be administered by a single state, not that a state should be governed by a single nation. Occasionally, nationalist efforts can be plagued by chauvinism or imperialism. These ex-nationalist efforts such as those propagated by fascist movements in the twentieth century, still hold the nationalist concept that nationality is the most important aspect of one's identity, while some of them have attempted to define the nation, inaccurately, in terms of race or genetics. Fortunately, contemporary nationalists reject the racist chauvinism of these groups, and remain confident that national identity supersedes biological attachment to an ethnic group.
Everything between them is pure nonsense as far as I can tell, but note the direct contradiction of the first and the last sentences. How can you be a nationalist, even a contemporary nationalist, if you believe that national identity supersedes biological attachment to an ethnic group? If nationalism isn't plagued by racist chauvinism, in what sense is it nationalism at all?

And so: if I'm a Czech and I live in Austria-Hungary, do I have a right to my own country? Should I make violence and terror and bomb until I get it? What if I'm a German and I live in Czechoslovakia? Should I make violence and terror and bomb?

A number of Germans noticed this very odd thing in the '20s and '30s. They noticed that America and her friends were very much committed to national self-determination, that is, unless you happened to be German. Czech nationalism was good - very good. German nationalism was bad - very bad.

Once you start looking for this little stitch in the canvas, you find it everywhere. It is good, very good, to be a black nationalist. In l'affaire Wright we have seen the intimacy between progressivism and black nationalism - so well illustrated by Tom Wolfe. Indeed, every reputable university in America has a department in which students can essentially major in black nationalism.

On the other hand, it is bad, very bad, to be a Southern nationalist. Any connection to Southern nationalism instantly renders one a pariah. Of course, Southern nationalists have sinned. But then again, so have black nationalists. Are Americans, black or white, really better off for the activities of the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, or even the good Rev. Wright?

Similarly, it is good to be a Vietnamese nationalist. It is still bad to be a German nationalist, or a British nationalist, or even a French nationalist. Germans, Brits, and Frenchmen are supposed to believe in the common destiny of all humanity. Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs are free to believe in the common destiny of Vietnamese, Mexicans, or Czechs. (Actually, I'm not sure about the Czechs. This one may have changed.)

Does this make sense? Does it make any freakin' sense at all?

Since this subject is so touchy, I will let my feelings on it slip: I don't believe in any kind of nationalism. Of course, being a Jacobite and all, I also believe in Strafford's Thorough, so you might not want to be getting your constitutional tips from me.

Third: what's so bad about the Nazis?

Okay, they murdered ten million people or so. That's bad. There's really no defending the unprovoked massacre of millions of civilians.

On the other hand, I really really recommend Nicholson Baker's new book, Human Smoke. Baker is a progressive and pacifist of immaculate credentials (his previous achievement was a novel which fantasized about assassinating President Bush), and what Human Smoke drums into you is not a specific message, but the same thing I keep saying: the pieces of the picture do not fit together. They almost fit, but they don't quite fit. The genius of Baker's book is that he simply shows you the picture not fitting, and leaves the analysis up to you.

For example: we are taught that the Nazis were bad because they committed mass murder, to wit, the Holocaust. On the other hand... (a): none of the parties fighting against the Nazis, including us, seems to have given much of a damn about the Jews or the Holocaust. (b): one of the parties on our side was the Soviet Union, whose record of mass murder was known at the time and was at least as awful as the Nazis'.

And, of course, (c): the Allies positively reveled in the aerial mass incineration of German and Japanese civilians. They did not kill six million, but they killed one or two. There was a military excuse for this, but it was quite strained. It was better than the Nazis' excuse for murdering the Jews (who they saw, of course, as enemy civilians). In fact, it was a lot better. But was it a lot lot better? I'm not sure.

And as Baker does not mention, our heroes, the Allies, also had no qualms about deporting a million Russian refugees to the gulag after the war, or about lending hundreds of thousands of German prisoners as slave laborers to the Soviets. The idea of World War II as a war for human rights is simply ahistorical. It doesn't fit. If Nazi human-rights violations were not the motivation for the war that created the world we live in now - what was?

Furthermore, Baker, who is of course a critic of American foreign policy today, sees nothing but confusion when he tries to apply the same standards to Iraq and to Germany. If Abu Ghraib is an unbridgeable obstacle to imposing democracy by force on Iraq, what about Dresden or Hamburg and Germany? Surely it's worse to burn tens of thousands of people alive, than to make one stand on a box wearing fake wires and a funny hat? Or is Iraq just different from Germany? But that would be racism, wouldn't it?

Beyond this is the peculiar asymmetry in the treatment of fascist mass murder, versus Marxist mass murder. Both ideologies clearly have a history of mass murder. If numbers count - and why wouldn't they? - Marxism is ahead by an order of magnitude. Yet somehow, today, fascism or anything reminiscent of it is pure poison and untouchable, whereas Marxism is at best a kind of peccadillo. John Zmirak pulls off a lovely parody of this here, and while I have yet to read Roberto Bolaño the reviews are quite glowing.

Neither the Soviet Union nor the Third Reich is with us today, but the most recent historical examples are North Korea and South Africa. North Korea is clearly somewhat Stalinist, while apartheid South Africa had looser but still discernible links to Nazism. I welcome anyone who wants to claim that South Africa, whose border fences were designed to keep immigrants out, was a worse violator of human rights than North Korea, an entire country turned into a prison. And yet we see the same asymmetry - "engagement" with North Korea, pure hostility against South Africa. If you can imagine the New York Philharmonic visiting Pretoria in an attempt to build trust between the two countries, you are firmly in Bolañoworld.

Again: this is just weird. As with nationalism, each individual case can be explained on its own terms. Put all the cases together, and double standards are everywhere. And yet the inconsistencies do not seem random. There seems to be a mysterious X factor which the Nazis have and the Soviets don't, or the South Africans have and the North Koreans don't. The treatment may not just be based on X, it may be X + human rights, but it is definitely not just human rights. And yet X does not appear in the explanation.

X seems to be related to the fact that the Nazis are "right-wing" and the Soviets "left-wing." As the French put it: pas d'amis a droit, pas d'ennemis a gauche. But why? What do "right-wing" and "left-wing" even mean? Weren't the Soviet and Nazi systems both totalitarian dictatorships? If Communism is "too hot," fascism is "too cold," and liberal democracy is "just right," why not oppose Communism and fascism equally? In fact, the former is much more successful, at least since 1945, so you'd think people would be more worried about it.

Again, we are left with pure confusion. It is simply not possible that the horizon is made of canvas. And yet our boat has crashed into it, and left a big rip.

Continue to part 2.