False Demands for Falser Progress

“Lost in Math” author Sabine Hossenfelder, in a recent piece in IAI, laments that there has been no fundamental progress in physics for nearly 50 years.

My retort to this is simple: why would you expect otherwise?

Physics is not politics or fashion. A physical theory is either true, or false, or so close to true that there is little worldly use or intellectual interest in filling it out to more decimal places; or, in mysterian fashion, it may be simply inaccessible to human intellection.

Here, in handy condensed form, is the whole metaphysical view underpinning science itself:

1) there is an external Reality, that contains some kind of order;

2) at least parts of that order are knowable by aligning theory with experiment; and

3) once you do know those parts, you are done. Literally forever (if a science’s basic truths don’t stay true, it is not a science.)

To demand anything of science beyond 3) ends up simply injecting postmodernism into the sciences–which is to say the scientists, ensconced in their institutions and flush with an unfulfilled self-importance, grow bored with having nothing fundamental to discover and so begin either rediscovering the same things under new sophistic names, or expanding irrelevancies into “fundamentals”, or simply making things up per their taste.

All of these are forms, not of discovery, nor of knowing, but of epistemic breakdown–plain and simple.

This is, alas, happening all over now. Hossenfelder seems to be no exception, with her strange insistence that the way to new fundamental physics depends on physicists learning more about “sociology of science”.

This idea, that the fundamental structure of the physical world must somehow limitlessly depend on the social patterns of the people studying it, is pure postmodernism. It is not a way to “save” science, but rather a way of poisoning it by reducing it to the social.

The wide and un-careful dissemination of Kuhnian views of science, lamentably, has allowed this confusion–between science as world-exploring and science as arbitrary world-creation–to metastasize.

We had an Age of Discovery, an Age of Reason, an Age of Information. Now, right on schedule, begins the Age of Navelgazing–to be followed soon I fear by an Age of Pandaemonium, in which the full Jaynesian or Jungian psychotic potential of the human mind bursts loose, untethered by any unified loyalty to or grasp of external reality. (Even Nietzsche, espouser of the end of morality and the value-creating Overman, thought this would be abysmal if everyone did it.)

The real remedy for science? Same as for government: take about 95% of scientists, tell them thank you for your service, and retire them immediately with a nice pension.

Iphone, Therefore I Am

Writing in NR, Mr. Charles Cooke has served up an especially cringeworthy version of the much-repeated and now decades-old “technology surely can’t be stagnating, because iphones” pseudoargument.

Where, oh where to begin?

Through roughly 1500 words that walk the line between Pangloss and Orwell, the one thing Mr. Cooke manages to say that’s even symbolically true is: “the smartphone has annihilated geography altogether”. Except that he actually thinks that the total destruction of all local culture, diversity and sense of place that this entails is a wonderful thing, the very crown-jewel of technological accomplishment hitherto. Indeed, to him, this condition of absolute digital anomie alone amounts to nothing less than a “renaissance”.

Undifferentiated Human Matter and total interchangeability, here we come! Now that’s real Progress™!

Reading Cooke’s panegyric, one certainly can’t help but wonder how much the masters of the actual Renaissance would envy our ability to get by with knowing and doing almost nothing (since all the accumulated wisdom of the ages, rather than being “learned”, can now be Googled as needed and then, thankfully, instantly forgotten).

Just imagine–da Vinci, the vegetarian and habitual releaser of birds, engrossed in Twitter wars over the unethical caging of poultry! Michelangelo, offering real-time painterly updates on Instagram, trawling anxiously for likes for his newest fresco! Monteverdi, hooked on Spotify 24/7, finally abandoning the drudgery of four-part harmony to compose his very own playlists instead! Really, who knows what sublime masterpieces humanity was denied because of the barbaric deprivations under which such men lived?

About halfway in, as if suddenly unsure of having firmly established his complete addle-mindedness, Mr. Cooke goes the extra mile by the rhetorical masterstroke of admitting to the very point his whole piece is supposed to deny. Wondering to himself what could possibly surpass the technology of today (as represented in that infallible bellwether of Progress, Disney’s “Spaceship Earth” theme park attraction), he intones: “…I have come to conclude that the answer is almost certainly nothing. One cannot improve on instant worldwide communication that is accessible to every person.”

Of course, “Cannot improve upon” is just another term for… stagnation. That which cannot be improved, even if by dint of being perfect, obviously does not progress. But as this conclusion does not fit Mr. Cooke’s limited mental script, he effortlessly blinks it away, and continues on his course. For him, stagnation equals perfection equals progress equals renaissance.

Things get even worse from there, with Mr. Cooke plunging into a bizarrely detailed, Elon-Muskish comparison of the Digital Age with old-time comic book & sci-fi visions of the future–visions of daring planetary travel, alien life forms, faster-than-light communication, and miraculous cures. (Journeys to “Planet Zog”, for some reason, figure heavily here.)

The failure of such to actually materialize, once again, actually strengthens the point he is claiming to refute. But such trifles as involuntary self-refutation need hardly embarrass a true optimist.

In personages such as Mr. Cooke, we seem to have living proof that too much time spent worshipping the supposed blessings of the “information age” is actually toxic to independent or even minimally consistent thought. The result is an unwitting surrender to Doublethink, leading to such choice cultivars of contradiction as “Stagnation is Renaissance”.

On a closer examination, Mr. Cooke’s basic view seems to be this: why care about real-life adventures, explorations, relationships and discoveries when you can sit in a comfy chair, glue your face to a screen and just simulate having these things? Rejoice in the tidal-wave of electronic drugs that generations of geniuses suffered and struggled to provide for you, ye woke and hyperconnected pinnacles of all history! Eat, drink, and be passive!

It isn’t really a stretch to say that by publishing such blithely defective arguments as Mr. Cooke’s, National Review, once a staid and tradition-minded journal, has basically gone over to rah-rahing for Brave New World and a kind of universal mental onanism. It’s certainly hard to imagine anything more perniciously alienating, postmodern and absolutely typical of the Last-Man mentality than said arguments—and this is on a supposedly conservative site!

We might, in fact, take Mr. Cooke’s painfully contorted triumphalism as both an affirmation and an example of a phenomenon lamented in another, more sensible NR article that appeared not so very long ago, on a seemingly unrelated topic. That author, Victor Davis Hanson, wrote:

“We of the 21st century are beginning to look back at our own lost epic times and wonder about these now-nameless giants who left behind monuments that we cannot replicate, but instead merely use or even mock.”

“[…] True, social media is impressive. The internet gives us instant access to global knowledge. We are a more tolerant society, at least in theory. But Facebook is not the Hoover Dam, and Twitter is not the Panama Canal.”

In this light, Mr. Cooke’s article demonstrates that the cultural pygmies that rule our time have at least one other way, besides replication or mockery, of reconciling themselves with the rebuking greatness of past creations and the ongoing crisis of Progress: that of mindless, preening self-distraction.

An Infection of Speech

Assembled Comrades, Commissars, Deputies and Commissioners, Chairmen and Co-Chairmen of the Party—

Thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, I am pleased to report that remarkable new frontiers in Newspeak expression and deployment are daily being advanced before our eyes!

In the recently-released and masterful “stigma guide“, created by the World Health Organization, we now see a firm commitment to comprehensive thought-leadership of which all can be proud.

This document, forged in the heat of possibly the most desperate and fast-moving world crisis of language in our lifetimes, all but ensures that no “negative meanings” will intrude upon the discussion of COVID-19’s effects, and puts paid to the nefarious practice of assuming the virus’s origin.

What is more, it lays out the groundwork for great patriotic “Hero Campaigns”, honoring those brave souls who, while treating the pandemic, have faced down the grave personal danger of stigma. Take joy, comrades! May the Heroes of the People prevail against all stigmatizers!

I must admit my own favorite development, however, was when the WHO chief announced in a recent speech that the chief danger is not the virus itself, but the stigma that it could create.

Such wise words! One can hardly express a greater love of humanity, nor a more perfect consummation of the idea of global solidarity.

But even having reached these heights, we are doing hardly enough in my view. Our struggle has barely begun!

To give but one example, treating “sick” people as in any way different from “healthy” ones is inherently racist and discriminatory, since it assumes and reinforces harmful hegemonic heteropatriarchal narratives of “health” and “wellness”. Not to mention the obvious and dangerous undertones of ableism involved!

This is why I feel we must, extending the wise spirit of this superb new stigma guide, denounce in the strongest terms all use of the words “sick”, “healthy”, “contagious”,  “cases”, “diagnosis”, “infect”, “transmit”, “treat”, “spread”, “improve”, “worsen”, “quarantine”, “isolation”, “cure”, “recover”, “antiviral”, “vaccine”, “medicine”, “dead”, “survive”, “doctor”, “nurse”, and “hospital”.

Listen carefully, comrades. The correct word for “sick” is “differently-well”, or transwell. The correct word for “well” is therefore, obviously, ciswell. Education, as in all things, is key!

So, if a differently-well person is shown to carry COVID-19, but nevertheless identifies as “ciswell”, I believe healthcare workers should do everything in their power to accommodate that patient’s wishes, up to and including:

1) foregoing treatment (“treatment” being, of course, just an imperialist form of other-shaming and systemic invalidation of difference designed to delegitimize otherness); and

2) immediate returning of the patient to freely mingle with the general population, without any required disclosure of their transwellness status.

Of course our hearts are with the physical victims of the virus—among whom, we fully realize, we may soon number. Yet this sentiment and this realization should never induce us to forget the real victims: those persons offended and marginalized by the shameless and recklessly stigmatizing nicknaming of this coronavirus after the geographic region in which it arose!

Together, we are fighting the gravest peril: the improper and emotionally hurtful use of language. And I have every confidence, comrades, that this is a fight we can win. Unlike our fight against the coronavirus itself—or, as it should more correctly be called, the transwellness empowerer.

The Art of the Power-Grab: Four Key Qualities

On an idle Sunday I found myself wondering: if one were to design a perfect pretext for an unprecedentedly huge and absolutist power-grab by international, national, and business elites, what might it look like? What qualities might it have?

Off the top of my head, I can think of four.

First, it would need to be something that will absolutely require a massive, globally concerted government response. No half-measures or partial cooperation or local, distributed approaches will suffice: there must be total commitment, total collective-action, or no dice.

Second, it should seem dire, epic, and existential enough that anyone who opposes “doing something about it”–i.e., the aforementioned massive, total, globally concerted, government-enforced response–can be depicted as not just stubborn or skeptical, but either crazy or a dangerous obstructionist.

Third, it should make use of the widespread association of science with certitude, rectitude, and status. It should therefore be posed in highly scientific and strongly certain language, without however being too readily understandable to most people. It’s better if it has at least some core of empirical support, so that even image-conscious and only moderately activist scientists will be unafraid to lend their gravitas to the cause.

(Note that this very difficulty of understanding, properly framed, can boost the pretext’s rate of popular dissemination, by acting as an implicit status-symbol or virtue-signal: those who have ‘mastered’ it may enjoy demonstrating their superior intelligence by promulgating it to the ignorant unwashed.)

Fourth, it should hinge upon a phenomenon that is so complex, so vast in scale, and so gradual in its development that no individual or even small group could ever seriously claim, on the basis of direct personal experience, to have confuted it.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: climate change.

To clarify, the notion that the observed increases in global temperature are substantially due to emissions of CO2–long known to physics as a heat-trapping gas–certainly seems eminently reasonable and indeed likely. (This is the “core of empirical support” mentioned above. In any power-grab, plausibility and at least partial truth are invaluable allies.)

Yet as I consider the above, it also seems very plausible that the climate issue could be or has already been captured, as a near-perfect pretext for just such a power-grab as described.

On these lines, it’s hard not to suspect that the grimmest predictions about global warming/climate change are highly likely to be exaggerated, manipulative, or wrong.

The Uniformitarian Creed

More than anything else, science rests on one fundamental faith: that the things we call “physical laws” actually correspond to some kind of essence that the Universe has, which is stable through time (or at least changes only very slowly). We may call this faith, if we like, the “the Uniformitarian Creed“.

Remove the Uniformitarian Creed, and the Problem of Induction eats science whole; there suddenly is no reason to believe that accumulated observations should tell us anything whatsoever about what lies in the future, or what happened far in the past, or even in different places. Events of any kind may happen at any time, anywhere, and all relations between events become specious, impossible to determine, or wholly subjective.

The presence or absence of the Creed—and its ultimate truth or falsity—literally marks the difference between Cosmos and Chaos. It is also the basis for the difference between Progressives and Traditionalists: the Progressive believes that reality either does not exist or, much the same thing, is limitlessly emendable, while the Traditionalist believes that reality is founded in some absolute truth or essence that is fundamentally stable, and which experience and reason together can meaningfully acquaint us with.

But as Hume noticed, there seems to be no warrant for establishing the uniformitarian faith from any number of observed instances, no matter how mutually consistent they seem; and so, once faith is rendered inadmissible or faux pas, scientific knowledge becomes a matter of custom only. This is why scientific reasoning, stripped of absolute faith or Truth of any kind, ultimately devolves to chaos and nihilism: all its truths are conditional, yet nothing is provided to condition them upon.

And so the story of modernity can be summed up this way: Man, in his hubris, thought he could create a Universe all to himself; but what he ended up creating was only a collapsing universe, one riddled throughout by nihilism and skewing towards Chaos–and in which he promptly found himself quite trapped.

Regress-Angst and the Wellsprings of Trumphate (II)

In our last installment (here), we noted that “Trump Anxiety” has many field-marks that suggest it is at least partly religious in nature, with Trump himself seen as, in effect, the “Great Desecrator”. We will certainly wish to return to this theme.

But, no less significantly, we also began to trace out an extraordinary pattern of recent reversals in “progressive” opinion. For it seems that, for many who once proudly counted themselves among the most dovish of the doves, the arrival of Trump suddenly meant that any and all roads must lead to war or at least enmity with Russia; and, as one accusation after another in this connection melted away, the pretexts for such enmity simply shifted again and again to restore the original bellicosity. The fundamental unsoundness of many of the claims against the President, or the company these claims brought progressives in close quarter with, hardly seemed to matter, so long as the claims seemed to stand any chance of removing the Great Desecrator from power for good.

In line with this abandonment of anti-war, pro-internationalist principles, we were also treated to the sight of supposedly pro-civil-liberties, anti-Establishment progressives—who not long ago had railed against the encroachments of the “military-industrial complex”, the PATRIOT act and the warrantless surveillance exposed by Snowden—instead coming out en masse with doubts about the “problematic” nature of the First Amendment and other constitutional protections, defending or dismissing indiscriminate spying of individuals and political candidates, and making common cause with of a whole creepy collection of dishonest and breathtakingly inept G-men and spooks. Were these even the same people?

Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, who over the past three years has steadily catalogued the escalating absurdities of the now Moby-Dick-esque Trump-hunt carried out by progressive activists, mainstream journalists, and government mandarins alike, nicely summed up this reversal in a bulletin at the end of 2019:

These ideas have pushed us into an experience straight out of Orwell: a dramatic and almost instantaneous flipping of popular assumptions. Self-described “progressives” who just a decade ago rallied behind the Dixie Chicks now gobble up scare tracts written in faux-Cyrillic texts about “assets” in our midst. The same terror before unseen threats that gripped small-town Americans after 9/11 has now conquered our urban upper classes. Donald Trump is not sufficient to explain this.”

It is almost as if the Good Ship Progressive, on its way to slay the Trumpian whale, had unknowingly sailed into a place where the trade winds blew completely awry, and so lost its bearings altogether. Following Burke’s suggestion, we can only conclude that the conjectural crypto-faith to which progressives inwardly hew, as with any faith, holds some desecrations to be less grievous than others. Trade in indulgences, so to say, is permissible in the progressive crypto-religion. Anti-war pieties, for example, or the penitential mistrust of the intelligence and law-enforcement Establishment, all become negotiable when the great cheeto-colored hulk of reactionary populism is seen breaching a-starboard.

But what is the core of this religious outrage—and how can it be operative at all, if progressives are, as everyone knows, the most secular of all demographics? What doctrine is there for the Great Desecrator to even desecrate? The progressive Left, after all, rather pride themselves on their bold dismantlement of existing pieties, as we noted apropos Marx and “profanation”.

We may get a hint from looking at Burke’s blog entry again. For here he admits that progressives are only apparently or nominally irreligious:

[…] people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious […] many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do.

The connections between progressivism, “wokeness”, or other apparently irreligious ideologies, on the one hand, and their actually religious functions, on the other, have been explored at length elsewhere. At this point, there is plenty of reason to suppose that “secular faith” or “civil religion” is a real and indeed pervasive phenomenon, particularly in a modern era where all forms of explicit religiosity have been continually deprecated—becoming, in effect, tokens for low social status, limited intellect, relative powerlessness, and, in short, “deplorableness”. Yet the ancient need to cherish fundamental assumptions about the world, and then identify with others based on those assumptions, is far from conquered. And so it is: behold, our new and improved secular-fundamentalist Torquemadas and Tertullians—but now resplendent in glamorous, progressive-Foucaldian rainbow colors!

But what is the fundamentalism itself? It is hiding in plain sight, so large and continually in our faces we hardly recognize it as a distinct thing, but in the end, one has simply to remove the “-ive”. Progressives’ religion primarily consists in their singleminded devotion to… Progress, with a capital P, and all its appurtenances, regalia, and sacraments.

As John Michael Greer has spiritedly outlined in a recent triptych of essays, the constellation of strange emotional reactions brought out by Trump has, at root, quite little to do with Trump’s rudeness, corruption, or even his policy mistakes. To Greer, such concerns rightly belong—using a terminology due to Kolakowski—to the “technological core”: this is the side of human existence that deals not with questions of ultimate merit or “first things”, but of practicality, procedure, measurable efficacy, or other matters of workaday policy. Issues that fall under the technological core, it bears noting, are largely situational and oft quite susceptible to reversals or technical disputes, which remain notably un-acrimonious.

On the other hand, rage of the kind we see surrounding Trump’s rise and ongoing success (as well as, for that matter, that of populism worldwide) is hardly indicative of a “technological core” problem, but instead bears all the marks of a very different aspect of human existence, the “mythical core”. This is roughly the same domain as that which we have been elsewhere calling “religious”, but even more subsuming; it is the realm where ultimate questions, first-things, unconscious narratives, and great guiding societal metaphors all convene to impart to human communal and psychic life that most precious and yet intangible of things: meaning.

But Greer gives us another crucial hint, for he shows how the element of the “mythical core” to which Trump constitutes such a grievous disconfirmation, and hence desecration, is not just group loyalty to progressivism or some kind of spiritual investment in any of its attendant policy positions, but indeed the myth of Progress itself. And this myth, in its turn, is at root a myth about history.

This myth of Progress, for those not familiar with it, essentially means that all events that take place later in time, ipso facto, will also tend to be better events. And inversely: all events that take place earlier in time, are expected and indeed understood to be generally worse than those following. A few of these earlier events, it is true, are spotlighted and celebrated, for being “milestones of progress”. But these exceptions prove the rule: for under the sacraments of Progress, nearly all events earlier in time are essentially the chaff from which the glorious grain of futurity is separated, thereafter fit to be discarded and forgotten.

Such historical amnesia is not really a bug of our thoroughly progressive system of stage-managed popular sovereignty and technocratic micromanagement, but a carefully developed and lovingly-tended feature. The idea seems to be that truly happy nations fret little about history, and that this being accepted, it can be run in reverse: manufacture an anodyne ignorance of the past, and you perforce manufacture also a happy, “advanced” nation.

Let us not think for a second that a historical vision is in any way outside the ambit of religious emotion—just think of the heated emotions that have surrounded the institutional rejection of young-earth Creationism, the Scopes Trial, the general derision of “Left Behind” or James Watt-style brand of biblical Apocalypticism, and so forth. Yet if Progress is, as we contend, a myth, then the arrow of religio-historical embarrassment is by no means constrained to point only in the direction of Christian evangelicals; under the right conditions, it can just as soon be turned against Progressives.

Progressivism is, after all, an assertion of metaphysics—not just about what happens in reality, but about the nature of reality—its destiny and, ultimately, its perfectibility. Here it may admittedly be a kind of epiphenomenal metaphysics, concerned with the long-range tendencies of big organizations and the big-brained hominids that saturate them, rather than with the nature of matter and force. Nevertheless, it amounts to a claim on the nature of the universe we live in, the Meaning of the Good, and the structure of time’s arrow.

Moreover, the belief in Progress is shared even by many who do not consider themselves political progressives; in fact, in the modern era, its followers are legion. The proto-conservative author Richard M. Weaver, in his 1948 classic Ideas Have Consequences, summed this up nicely when he declared, “The average man of the present age has a metaphysic in the form of a conception known as ‘progress’ ” (p.51). Even more importantly for our understanding of the progressive’s reaction to Trump as Great Desecrator, Weaver observed that “nothing is more common than to hear him discriminate people according to this metaphysic, his term for the less worthy being “unprogressive” ” (ibid.)

After all, if the very structure of history is really progressive—a great Faustian “onwards and upwards” that also “bends towards justice” and, for that matter, just happens to include whatever goals progressives currently want—and if those who keep their faith in this Progress are on the right side of history and are moreover destined to have more and more control… how can such manifestly un-progressive things be happening everywhere around the world? And happening on a growing scale [Boris wins, brexit completed, Bolsonaro, intersectional groups contradict, Modi bans muslims], no less?

So not only Trump, but the entire recent development of the world, it seems, is kicking the progressive mind where it is currently sorest—right in the Weltanschauung. Consequently, the mere fact that an action was taken or an opinion spoken by Trump suffices to scramble if not reverse the entire magnetic polarity of a progressive’s dearly-held convictions; as if trapped in an intellectual Bermuda Triangle, his compass no longer points true north. History itself is turning disobedient. The Great Desecrator is not merely Donald Trump; increasingly, it is the entire course of world events.

Of course, Progress has never been without its setbacks and foibles in the past, from which it has mostly managed to regroup enough to recover its narrative if not its intellectual cohesion, if necessary by sheer retconning. To name surely the most obvious yet curiously seldom-cited examples in this context, consider Hitler and Stalin. Both were, in their time, seen by millions as glorious innovators: cutting-edge Men of the Future, they, unsentimentally hacking away the needless shibboleths of the past that supposedly shackled humanity away from its great and limitless destiny. Now, having been soundly defeated and cast into the “dustbin of history”, these two dictators have been safely *re-cast* in the role of Ancient Anti-Progressive Barbarities, successfully—yet inevitably—overcome.

But today there is an exacerbating aspect. Since Progress now has effectively supplanted religion and tradition as a source of fundamental meaning for an unprecedented number of people—far more so even than in Hitler and Stalin’s already aggressively-secularized times—its possible disconfirmation cannot help but be existentially distressing, for there is no longer any “fall-back” belief system whatsoever. We have only Progress, or oblivion: all Parteigenossen caught retreating will be shot!

So this new “regress-angst”—combined with the obvious day-to-day stresses of living in a steadily disintegrating society, as we see vividly on display in, e.g. California and much of Europe—must boil up; and boil it does, first appearing as a localized neurosis, a lashing-out at mostly superficial causes, be it at Trump and his followers, or at anyone who doubts identity politics, imminent and plenary climate-based death, the innovation of limitless new genders, etc., etc.

The failure of progress does not mean that there will never again be new things, or even better things; it simply means that the concentration of “better things” does not correlate with their futurity. But even so the disappointment ahead, at least on the progressive side, is only just beginning. The boil is sure to spread beyond the original site. It will not suffice simply to stop scratching.

* * *

It’s interesting to note that a great deal of what we are seeing, particularly among those leftist and technocratic progressives who have felt a gnawing metaphysical un-stuckness at history’s ongoing disobedience, is strikingly reminiscent of the general pattern of “disconfirmation anxiety and belief persistence” famously outlined in Leon Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails”.

Based on his team’s observations of a UFO cult that (unsuccessfully) predicted the arrival of a spaceship and the end of the world, Festinger inferred that the more that a cherished prophecy—that is to say, one based out of the mythic core—is revealed as false or threadbare, the more that prophecy’s believers will tend to seek reassurance not by rationally abandoning their belief in the prophecy, but by doubling down on it.

Adapting Festinger’s scheme, if our age’s grand prophecy is indeed the metaphysical assumption of Progress—in the sense not only that there is expected to be unceasing general movement towards greater integration, equalitarianism, technological achievement and control, but also in that these things should be increasingly seen as self-evidently good—then we might expect that a disconfirmation of Progress would be met by progressives not with mild admission of error, but with doubling-down. And sure enough: the escalating of aggressive and even apocalyptic political declarations on the progressive left, the widely persisting progressive belief in the Russiagate accusations in the teeth of now immense contravening evidence, and the just-concluded misfire of an impeachment attempt against Trump himself, are just a few of the prime examples that such doubling-down has taken place.

But this is not all Festinger had to say. He furthermore noticed that in concert with the doubling-down phenomenon, believers faced with disconfirmation tended also to develop an intense focus on recruitment to their cause, as if gaining more followers might prove them right after all. Sure enough, we have seen even in just the last 5-10 years a remarkable intensification of efforts, expansive, brazen, and often quite punitive, to introduce revisionist or supposedly-progressive dogmas of identity-politics and intersectionality throughout the educational system, business and media.

Yet a strange thing about these efforts is that while they still shout the slogans of “progress”, they are arguably (even from a leftist standpoint) crypto-regressive; certainly they are, in a great many cases, startlingly illiberal. It is very much as if, just as Progress has stalled or begun to run in reverse in terms of quality-of-life, technological boons, and global stability—so that even to the faithful it is increasingly unclear what direction points to “progress” and which to “regress”—there has been a compensatory pivot towards emphasizing ideological Progress instead of material Progress.

Rather in the way that the emergence of computer science and the physicist’s slogan of “it from bit” has metamorphosed over our lifetimes into a takeover and replacement of physical reality by informational reality, so it turns out that the compass of Progress—if it can still be read at all—has turned away from the thorny and less and less cooperative world of matter, and towards that of attitudes and language use.

One excellent recent essay basically refers to this very situation by noting that “control of information has become indispensable to prosecuting the forward march of history”. In the words of another, “…the hysteria of the SJWs is connected inextricably to the inability of homo Deus, and homo coitus, to bring about the New Jerusalem in this life.” Both are different ways of saying that the religious need for Progress has doubled down in the face of disconfirmation by trying to seize control of the world of thought and opinion instead of things and facts.

The nostrums of Progress may not tell us how to give half the country a living wage, maintain excrement-free streets, or how to sustain our vast energy profligacy for much longer—despite Trump’s grandiose boasts to the contrary—but at least we can advance towards ever-more-perfect intellectual & moral groupthink! Thus does the One Faith of Modernity strive even now to pull itself off the ropes, by hook or crook.

Regress-Angst and the Wellsprings of Trumphate (I)

Who in this wide world—whatever their political views—has not had the chance lo these past three years to marvel at that murderous sparkle that instantly appears in the eyes of today’s bien pensants whenever the current president is mentioned in earshot?

The tensing of the voice and body—the immediate presentiment of mortal threat—the outraged sense of something infinitely precious being permanently rolled out of reach—the screeching tones of inconsolable tragedy—the grasping at tenuous and even mendacious pretexts in order to maintain a maximum of self-righteous rage—all of this is characteristic, diagnostic, unmissable… and increasingly pervasive.

The recent passage (but not transmission) at record speed of articles of impeachment that are strangely based on no definite crime or misdemeanor, is only the latest large-scale manifestation of this condition, whose strange effects seem even to have bled into the mental health of the nation. On the individual level, many a therapist (including some known to yours truly) has recounted a substantial rise, since the election of 2016, in the number of clients claiming to have suffered actual psychological damage due to Mr. Trump’s election and subsequent leadership—the so-called “Trump Anxiety”.

It seems quite possible, in reality, that the assumed causality here is actually backwards—that Donald Trump simply is the scapegoat closest-to-hand, in the face of a much more deeply-rooted anxiety that is frustratingly difficult to attribute or localize and yet which lingers on the borders of consciousness. It may even be that Mr. Trump’s own voters are in some sense victims of this same anxiety—but simply choose to see him, no less facilely, as its possible solution rather than its culprit.

Whatever is happening, the “Trump Anxiety” (the term meant to replace the older, more tongue-in-cheek “Trump Derangement Syndrome”) has a power that far outstrips the terms of mere dislike or disagreement. To take one especially florid (but by no means unrepresentative) example, Counterpunch writer Paul Street recent went so far as to modestly propose the following form of justice as perfectly fitting for Mr. Trump:

“[…] the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds […]”

This passage is, in fact, an account of the execution of an eighteenth-century regicide (“Damiens the regicide”), quoted second-hand by way of Foucault. So we here have a true Foucauldian “limit experience”, served up as political revenge-fantasy—an improbable therapeutic for body-politic and soul alike.

It seems in these strange new borderlands of late-capitalist dislocation and hyper-subjectivist outrage, humor or argumentation are no longer selling-points, both having been pressed all the way to the floorboards without offering an iota of relief (or release). One is tempted to mangle a bit of Marx (also from Street’s own article) and say: “all pretense of light, Onion-style irony melts into air”.

But really one detects at least as much of religious moral vengeance as “limit experience” at work here. Consider the episode in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals where he cites one of the ancient Church fathers (Tertullian) describing, with unconcealed glee, the eternal torture that awaits all heretics and betrayers of the Faith. Here it is, for comparison:

How I will be lost in admiration! How I will laugh! How I will rejoice! I will be full of exaltation then as I see so many great kings who by public report were accepted into heaven groaning in the deepest darkness with Jove himself and alongside those very men who testified on their behalf! […] The actors will then be easier to recognize, for the fire will make them much more agile. Then the charioteer will be on show, all red in a wheel of fire, and the athletes will be visible, thrown, not in the gymnasium, but in the fire, unless I have no wish to look at their bodies then, so that I can more readily cast an insatiable gaze on those who raged against our Lord.”

—Nietzsche, ibid., §15

Do we notice any similarities with the Damiens passage?

Aside from this religious parallel, there are also many other things conceptually and emotionally completely amiss in Street’s position. For one, he does not seem to notice or much care about the incongruity of of a supposedly egalitarian-leftist-Jacobin writer (such as himself) passionately inhabiting the exact same emotional world as an outraged royal subject confronting the murderer of his beloved monarch. Are we to suppose that the advent of Trump has in fact caused Mr. Street, in his heart of hearts, to veer neoreactionary…? Perhaps he now even harbors a secret, aching sympathy for… the Stuarts?

Nor does Mr. Street notice—as he deploys ad nauseam Marx’s oft-quoted point from the Communist Manifesto that “everything sacred is profaned”, to accuse Trump of the same sort of profanation—that his outrage has caused him to lose his own ideological bearings in yet another way. For Marx here was by no means bemoaning the “profaning of the sacred” by capitalism, so much as marveling at it, and hoping to accomplish its completion. In general, the Left’s stated aim vis-à-vis religion is by no means to reverse the “profanation” begun by capitalism but to accelerate and complete it, culminating firstly in the excision of the sacred dimension of human life as exploitative balderdash, “the heart of a heartless world” etc. etc., and then in its wholesale replacement (with dialectical materialism or, if you are more modish, with woke-Wiccan alternatives).

Such are the befuddlements of late-stage Trump-rage. Yet for all the confusion he exhibits, Mr. Street’s resolute decision to condemn Trump in terms of profanation—along with the incandescent sadism of his proposed punishment for a man who, in fairness, has yet even to be charged with any specific crime—gives another useful clue to the type and power of emotion at work here. The kind of resentment that is in play now does not arise, say, from “failure to listen” or “immoderate views”, or—perish the thought!—from “fact-averseness”, but from the profaning of that which the listener considers sacred, fundamental, even transcendent. The attitude of Street, and of the countless progressives who have flung themselves upon the nation’s therapist’s couches since 2016, like the blood-lust of Tertullian, must be of a religious timbre.

Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore, offers some quite helpful reflections on this subject:

“Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue.”

—”Trump as Desecration

Conversely, it does not take a great deal of study to cast major doubt on the idea that that actual deeds or matters of effective policy truly are the ultimate source of “Trump angst”. One need only observe how often policies similar to or more extreme than those carried out by Trump (for instance, with regard to border enforcement or Ukraine) raised, when carried out under the Obama administration, only muted if any opposition from progressive quarters. And let us not forget the curious figure cut by those progressives who were ardently “anti-war” and “anti-American-empire” a historical eye-blink ago, but now quite suddenly find themselves hyperventilating at Mr. Trump’s relative lack of interest in militarily supporting Kurdistan in a proxy battle against Turkey; or who now align themselves, with great and gravid sanctimony, with the very same essentially hegemonic foreign policy claques and vampire-squid economic interests they heatedly (and sensibly) denounced in the years before the 2016 election.

So much for the old days of “stop the war machine”! In yet another example of (seemingly) Trump-induced ideological discombobulation, the new progressive drumbeat has shifted in favor of outdoing Trump on the kind of muscular, international U.S. interventionism that once made “neocon” a term of progressive loathing.

What is an “Intellectual”?

It strikes me that a great deal of the dysfunction we face in the systems of present-day society (whether business, government, science, you name it) seems to hang on one very simple, often overlooked question: what is an “intellectual”?

It will not suffice, of course, to answer “smart people”, as we are trained to do almost to the point of reflex. As cannot have escaped the notice of anyone above the age of five, many smart people, in fact, are not intellectuals, and also obversely: many intellectuals are vulnerable to spasms of breathtaking idiocy (what Taleb calls the IYI, or intellectual-yet-idiot).

Alas, then: intelligence, while widely associated with intellectualism, is nonetheless only tangential to it.

Perhaps it would be better to think of intellectuals in terms of their function in society (or their “responsibility”, as Chomsky once somewhat Polyannaishly put it), or more precisely, their goals as a class.

Here we get somewhat further. Indeed, like any social class, intellectuals tend to associate primarily with other intellectuals, to compete primarily with other intellectuals, and to see themselves, in some abstract way, as part of some vaguely shared social function. But, still, this does not completely convey what this function might actually be.

When one looks at their collective doings and commonalities, the answer that arises most naturally is that intellectuals, above all, are conductors—both in the sense of a musical performance and in the sense of a wire carrying a signal.

When a new cultural “score” is prepared and sent out for its premiere, it is intellectuals who arrange and oversee the performance. But it is also through intellectuals that the score is conducted, with near-light speed, to points far and wide, so that further performances may duly take place.

We see, then, that the intellectual’s function (at least in our system) does not stem primarily from brave truth-telling or even from a necessarily superior ability to arrive at truth–from “smartness”. Nor is it entirely explained by selfish class motives. Nor is it even always an intellectual who composed the score.

Instead, the typical intellectual’s role is not only to perform and transmit the score, but to wholeheartedly believe it. An intellectual’s capacity for absolute belief in the truth of what they conduct is, in fact, as vital a property as their conductive abilities; it provides a built-in affective boost to the signal, reducing its attenuation over long distances.

We may state the situation this way: intellectuals as a class are powerful because they are useful; and they are useful because they are gullible. (Or you can say “docile”, “impressionable”, “conformist”—though I find these somewhat euphemistic.)

How are they made so gullible, you ask? In the past, actual selection for gullibility was crucial. But in more recent times, gullibility is primarily cultivated in intellectuals through the simple expedient of rendering them expansively proud of being intellectuals.

Orwell once said it is difficult to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on his not understanding it. But now imagine if this man were instead convinced that his ability to understand *anything he is told* made him a superior kind of being, one of the first inhabitants of a new plane of human existence, freed of the shackles of error and tradition, with special dispensation to bring this light to humanity, etc., etc.! Now, what would such a man (or woman) not be able to “understand”?

So it is to inculcate this sense of absolute (and absolutely useful) pride in being intellectual as such, and not to impart any particularly powerful or truth-producing technical or philosophical acumen, that we must conclude is the primary aim of the modern institutions of “intellectual” formation–of colleges, graduate schools, schools of law, business, and international relations, etc. Indeed, over time, “education” has become completely indistinguishable from “the creation of intellectuals”, in the very sense of “intellectual” here used.

But to return to an earlier question: what is the end *goal* of this class known as “intellectual”? That is more interesting, and may be expressed through an extension of our electrical metaphor. As the proportion of the population comprised of these *intellectuals* increases towards a limit, the gullibility and conformism of that population will, it stands to reason, steadily increase. But when this limit is reached, a curious thing happens: all resistances to the spread of wholly arbitrary conformity completely vanish. The society, in effect, becomes a memetic superconductor. (Such a condition may already be somewhat familiar to our more media-savvy, and particularly our younger compatriots.)

We may have developed an idea, then, of *who conducts*. But we also now see that this is a lesser question than it first appeared. For the question of *who composes*, as yet, remains shrouded.

America and the Faceless Society

The newly-formed United States, having repudiated the mother country from which it derived whatever culture, morals and custom it possessed, found itself curiously faceless—a great, exhilarating question-mark. And as it had come into being during a time when great new notions of heroic universalism were sweeping the world, it was perhaps understandable that the new nation would choose, not so much to preserve what culture it had inherited or even to birth a coherent one of its own, as to embrace this facelessness and even press it to its limit. This is particularly apparent in many of the country’s founding documents–which tended to sideline traditional political methods in favor of universalist abstractions such as “contract”, “proposition”, and “right”–but also in the general trajectory of the society itself.

The resulting nation-state would center its identity not so much in any traditional form, custom, or even set of convictions, as in a careful sidelining of any such things, in favor of technical forms, relentless acceleration and—following the romance of the frontier—outward expansion. The Faustian longing-for-infinity, as well as the Enlightenment enthusiasm for pragmatic, materialistic, and universalized rationality, thus escaped their original European nurseries and found a fertile soil like none other.

So the American Experiment (whose radicalness has been largely lost on present generations) became a thoroughly “progressive” or “Enlightenment” project, one effectively sympathetic to—if not deliberately directed at—steadily eliminating all sense of place, face, or demos in favor of vast, amoral, technocratic systems with universalist aims. The result—which, aided by the USA’s immense prosperity and influence since WWII has spread to render huge swaths of the world similarly faceless—is now plain for any and all to see: an anomic constellation of disconnected, increasingly resentful individuals and pseudo-cultures, obsessed with rapid, virtualized self-gratification at the expense of authentic experience or character formation, all embedded helplessly in a planet-girdling technological matrix that enervates and stupefies its human thralls at least as much as it excites or entertains them.

This is the landscape that author James Kunstler frequently calls “the Geography of Nowhere”, or “places not worth caring about”; but we may also describe it as the physical embodiment of centuries of progressive, rationalistic Simplification. The basically dystopian character of this landscape is more than anything why, in the years ahead, a complete re-envisioning of the USA—up to and including a new Constitutional Convention, civil war, and a rejection of the whole modern understanding of the nation-state—will become increasingly inescapable. It is also why, in all probability, such re-envisioning will spread to all those areas of the world and daily life where the plague of facelessness has gained purchase.

The great “disenchantment of the world” commonly attributed to the rise of science and industry and the discrediting of religion was, as we must soon come to realize, itself a form of enchantment; but what are we to do with ourselves at last, when this enchantment, too, is unmasked and discarded? What strange visages will erupt from the psyche of mankind (or perhaps from some god) to fill the gaps, when the mesmeric doctrine of universalist facelessness gives way in earnest to the simple human need for a human face?

We have already begun to see something of the Left’s answer, in the form of identity politics, the sanctification of subjectivism, and in the increasingly anarchic spectacles of transgenderism, transablism, and even the creeping sexualization of children. The Right’s answer, however, is still unglimpsed—and possibly still unthought. (Most likely, though, its name isn’t “Donald”.)


“Where Microaggressions Come From”: Some (Gently Triggering) Reflections

Just finished reading some extracts of Campbell and Manning’s 2014 paper “Microaggression and Moral Cultures”, by way of Jonathan Haidt’s website.

Haidt, who is best known for penning The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind, and most recently for helming initiatives aimed at supporting ideological diversity on college campuses, finds much to praise in Campbell and Manning’s piece, which neatly partitions cultures into those based on “Honor”, “Dignity”, and (most recently) “Victimhood”.

This three-part taxonomy has since become somewhat popular among those seeking to understand the strange expansion of political correctness in recent years. To summarize, where “Honor” cultures depend on the individual’s ability to react decisively to even minor personal offenses in order to avoid personal shame, and “Dignity” cultures instead prize self-restraint and informal self-reliant mediation, with appeal to official systems of justice as a last resort, “Victimhood” cultures are a new modality where the emphasis is on maximizing one’s appearance of grievance and helplessness from the get-go, in hopes of immediately attracting a powerful authority to punish the (alleged) source of the grievance.

In some ways, even if it is over-simple and even if “Victimhood culture” is really anything but new (see Karpman Drama Triangle), it’s tempting to accept this taxonomy as a helpful description of a disturbing trend of emotional ultra-fragility and accusation-proneness in the younger generations. For my part, it certainly fits some of my own encounters with the new, ostentatious “victimhood”—such as a very recent occasion when one of my table-mates complained of feeling “triggered” three or four times in the span of several minutes, mainly whenever environmental problems or possible differences between the sexes were brought up. (It is interesting, by the way, to experience firsthand how such “triggering” claims actually function as threats.)

But in another sense these exercises in taxonomy, with their air of studious neutrality, are themselves symptomatic of a much wider problem, namely the wholesale relativism and quietism that have come to permeate the intellectual, and particularly the academic sensibility of the times—and which arguably enables the rise of Victimhood culture in the first place. It is as if the very people who would clear away the phenomenon of “microaggression” are themselves deathly afraid of being accused of—microaggression!

For instance, given the kind of world-creating magic potency that is modernly vested in the word “culture”, the very packaging of Victimhood as a “culture” could easily legitimize or immunize it. After all, as long as one agrees (as Campbell and Manning seemingly do) that different “cultures” are incommensurable, separate realities, “lived experiences” with inherently equal validity, there can be really no justification for opposing the rise of a “Victimhood culture”… or any other type of “culture”, for that matter. Under the relativist modus operandi, any criticism of Victimhood Culture may easily be chalked up to chauvinism, personal distaste, misunderstanding, outright malice, and so forth—and so itself become fodder for more grievance.

Absurd as this all may sound, one can already find places in Haidt’s comments section where this same reflexive, self-paralytic relativism, under the guise of sober neutrality, wells up. One does not have to look long and hard to find an attitude along the lines of: “who are we to judge Victimhood Culture, since we are ourselves soaked in/tainted by the assumptions of Dignity Culture? Let us instead non-judgmentally study Victimhood Culture as the fascinating human artifact it is!”

So unless there is the willingness to take off our relativist-anthropologists’ hats (& kid-gloves) and say outright that a “Victimhood Culture” is indeed foolish, destructive, and yes, objectively bad, there is a danger in today’s climate that well-meaning discussions of this sort will boomerang and end up buttressing and “dignifying” Victimhood Culture as culture… perhaps up to the point of cordoning it off as a marvelous new object of study, or of deeding it special protections and privileges. This would be the very opposite of the thing that is needed–which is, of course, to actively oppose and then dispose of it.