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  • Haidt and Lukianoff on “The Coddling of the American Mind”

    Posted on August 16th, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have just published an article in The Atlantic entitled The Coddling of the American Mind that illustrates yet another pathological artifact of the bitter determination of our species to preserve the fantasy of objective morality.  They describe the current attempts of university students to enforce ideological orthodoxy by vilifying “microaggressions” against the true faith and insisting on “trigger warnings” to insure the pure in heart will not be traumatized by allusions to Crimethink.

    Haidt has done some brilliant work on the nature of human morality, and his The Righteous Mind is a must read for anyone with a serious interest in understanding the subject.  Lukianoff is the CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which supports free-speech rights on campus.  According to his own account, his interest in the subject was catalyzed by his personal struggle with depression.

    According to the article,

    A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

    Examples of the phenomena they describe may be found here, here, and here.  The authors note that,

    The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness.  That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 80s and 90s.  That movement sought to restrict speech… but it also challenged the literary, philosophical and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more diverse perspectives.  The current movement is largely about emotional well-being.  More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.

    Which brings them to the theme of their article – that this “vindictive protectiveness,” as they call it is not protecting students from psychological harm, but is actually causing it.  The rest of the article mainly consists of the claim that modern students are really the victims of some of the dozen “common cognitive distortions” that are listed at the end of the article, and suggests that “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which helped Lukianoff overcome his own struggle with severe depression, might be something they should try as well.

    Maybe, but I suspect that the real motivation behind this latest “movement” has no more to do with “preventing psychological harm” than “preventing discomfort or giving offense” were the real motivations behind the PC movement, which, BTW, is at least as active now as it was in the 80s and 90s.  Rather, these phenomena are best understood as modern versions of the ancient game of moralistic one-upmanship.  In other words, they’re just a mundane form of status seeking behavior.  As usual, by taking them seriously one just plays into the hands of the status seekers.

    If you’d like to see what the phenomenon looked like in the 60’s, and didn’t happen to be around at the time, I recommend you have a look at the movie Getting Straight, starring Elliot Gould and Candice Bergen.  It’s all about the campus revolutions of the incredibly narcissistic and self-righteous Baby Boomers who were the “youth” of the time.  Encouraged by their doting parents, they imagined themselves the bearers of all worldly wisdom, guaranteed to be the creators of a future utopia.  Their doting (and despised) parents, of the generation that transcended the Great Depression, defeated the Nazis and fascists in World War II, and fended off Communism long enough for it to collapse of its own “internal contradictions” so their children had the opportunity to stage cathartic but entirely safe “revolutions,” are uniformly portrayed as idiots, standing in the way of “progress.”  The “student revolutionaries” in the film are every bit as pious as their modern analogs, and have equally idiotic demands.  The Brave New World will apparently only be possible if they are allowed to have coed dorms and gender and ethnic studies programs at every university, presumably to insure they will have no marketable skills, and so will be able to continue the “revolution” after they graduate.  The amusing thing about the film, especially in retrospect, is that its creators weren’t intentionally creating a comedy.  They actually took themselves seriously.

    For earlier versions of “vindictive protectiveness” most of us must turn to the history books.  The great Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, devoted a great deal of his time and energy to fighting its manifestation as the “Uplift” of his own day.  Many examples may be found in his six volumes of Prejudices, or his autobiographical Trilogy.  The latest version, BTW, has string bookmarks, just like the old family Bibles.  I’m sure the old infidel would have been amused.

    Shakespeare loathed the “vindictive protectiveness” of his day, which came in its first really modern version; Puritanism.  See, for example, his Twelfth Night, which scorns the “morally righteous” of his day as personified by that “devil of a Puritan,” Malvolio.  For cruder, less culturally evolved versions, one can go back to the Blues and Greens of the Byzantine circus, or the Christian squabbles over assorted flavors of heresy in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries.

    In a word, there is nothing new under the sun.  I’m sure Haidt realizes this.  After all, he devotes much of The Righteous Mind to describing and analyzing the phenomenon.  He plays along with the “cognitive behavioral therapy” stuff, because that’s what blows his co-author’s hair back, but still gets enough in between the lines to describe what is really going on.  For example, from the article,

    A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness.  It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong.  It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.

    And that really is, and always has been, the crux of the problem.  Nothing can be “objectively wrong.”  The origin of all these sublime and now microscopically distilled moral emotions will probably eventually be found in the ancient portions of our brains that we share with every other mammal, and probably the reptiles as well.  This “root cause” of moral behavior exists because it evolved.  It did not evolve because of its efficacy in fending off microaggressions, or to insure that Mesozoic mammals would be sure to issue trigger warnings.  No, it evolved for the somewhat unrelated reason that it happened to increase the odds that certain “selfish genes,” or perhaps “selfish groups,” if you believe E. O. Wilson, would survive, and pass on the relevant DNA to latter day animals with big brains, namely, us.  We get into trouble like this by over-thinking what our reptile brains are trying to tell us.  The problem will never go away until our self-knowledge develops to the point that we finally grasp this essential truth.  Until that great day dawns, we will have to grin and bear the annoyance of dealing with the pathologically and delicately self-righteous among us.  Roll out the fainting couches!

    fainting

  • …and Speaking of the New Atheists

    Posted on May 17th, 2015 Helian 6 comments

    New Atheist bashing is all the rage these days.  The gloating tone at Salon over New Atheist Sam Harris’ humiliation by Noam Chomsky in their recent exchange over the correct understanding of something that doesn’t exist referred to in my last post is but one of many examples.  In fact, New Atheists aren’t really new, and neither is New Atheist bashing.  Thumb through some of the more high brow magazines of the 1920’s, for example, and chances are you’ll run across an article describing the then current crop of atheists as aggressive, ignorant, clannish, self-righteous and, in short, prone to all the familiar maladies that supposedly also afflict the New Atheists of today.  And just as we see today, the more “laid back” atheists were gleefully piling on then as now.  They included H. L. Mencken, probably the most famous atheist of the time, who deplored aggressive atheism in his recently republished autobiographical trilogy.  Unfortunately he’s no longer around to explain the difference between “aggressive” atheism, and his own practice of heaping scorn and ridicule on the more backward believers.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Mencken was by nature a conservative.  He abhorred any manifestation of the “Uplift,” a term which in those days meant more or less the same thing as “progressive” today.

    I think the difference between these two species of atheists has something to do with the degree to which they resent belonging to an outgroup.  Distinguishing between ingroups and outgroups comes naturally to our species.  This particular predisposition is ostensibly not as beneficial now as it was during the period over which it evolved.  A host of pejorative terms have been invented to describe its more destructive manifestations, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc., all of which really describe the same phenomenon.  Those among us who harbor no irrational hatreds of this sort must be rare indeed.  One often finds it present in its more virulent forms in precisely those individuals who consider themselves immune to it.  Atheists are different, and that’s really all it takes to become identified as an outgroup,

    Apparently some atheists don’t feel themselves particularly inconvenienced by this form of “othering,” especially in societies that have benefited to some extent from the European Enlightenment.  Others take it more seriously, and fight back using the same tactics that have been directed against them.  They “other” their enemies and seek to aggressively exploit human moral emotions to gain the upper hand.  That is exactly what has been done quite successfully at one time or another by many outgroups, including women, blacks, and quite spectacularly lately, gays.  New Atheists are merely those who embrace such tactics in the atheist community.

    I can’t really blame my fellow atheists for this form of activism.  One doesn’t choose to be an atheist.  If one doesn’t believe in God, then other than in George Orwell’s nightmare world of “1984,” one can’t be “cured” into becoming a Christian or a Moslem, any more than a gay can be “cured” into becoming heterosexual, or a black “cured” into becoming white.  However, for reasons having to do with the ideological climate in the world today that are much too complicated to address in a short blog post, New Atheists are facing a great deal more resistance than members of some of society’s other outgroups.  This resistance is coming, not just from religious believers, but from their “natural” allies on the ideological left.

    Noam Chomsky’s scornful treatment of Sam Harris, accompanied by the sneers of the leftist editors of Salon, is a typical example of this phenomenon.  Such leaders as Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens are the public “face” of the New Atheist movement, and as a consequence are often singled out in this way.  Of course they have their faults, and I’ve criticized the first two myself on this blog and elsewhere.  However, many of the recent attacks, especially from the ideological left, are neither well-reasoned nor, at least in terms of my own subjective moral emotions, even fair.  Often they conform to hackneyed formulas; the New Atheists are unsophisticated, they don’t understand what they’re talking about, they are bigoted, they are harming people who depend on religious beliefs to give “meaning” to their lives, etc.

    A typical example, which was also apparently inspired by the Harris/Chomsky exchange, recently turned up at Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon.  Entitled “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements,” it was ostensibly Pigliucci’s announcement that, after being a longtime member and supporter, he now wishes to “disengage” from the club.  As one might expect, he came down squarely in favor of Chomsky, who is apparently one of his heroes.  That came as no surprise to me, as fawning appraisals of Blank Slate kingpins Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have also appeared at the site.  It had me wondering who will be rehabilitated next.  Charles Manson?  Jack the Ripper?  Pigliucci piques himself on his superior intellect which, we are often reminded, is informed by both science and a deep reading of philosophy.  In spite that, he seems completely innocent of any knowledge that the Blank Slate debacle ever happened, or of Lewontin’s and Gould’s highly effective role in propping it up for so many years, using such “scientific” methods as bullying, vilification and mobbing of anyone who disagreed with them, including, among others, Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, Konrad Lorenz, and Richard Dawkins.  Evidence of such applications of “science” are easily accessible to anyone who makes even a minimal effort to check the source material, such as Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes.

    No matter, Pigliucci apparently imagines that the Blank Slate was just a figment of Steven Pinker’s fevered imagination.  With such qualifications as a detector of “fools,” he sagely nods his head as he informs us that Chomsky “doesn’t suffer fools (like Harris) gladly.”  With a sigh of ennui, he goes on, “And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.”  The rest of the New Atheist worthies come in for similar treatment.  By all means, read the article.  You’ll notice that, like virtually every other New Atheist basher, whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, Pigliucci never gets around to mentioning what these “naïve” criticisms of religion actually are, far less to responding to or discussing them.

    It’s not hard to find Dawkins’ “naïve” criticisms of religion.  They’re easily available to anyone who takes the trouble to look through the first few chapters of his The God Delusion.  In fact, most of them have been around at least since Jean Meslier wrote them down in his Testament almost 300 years ago.  Religious believers have been notably unsuccessful in answering them in the ensuing centuries.  No doubt they might seem naïve if you happen to believe in the ephemeral and hazy versions of God concocted by the likes of David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong.  They’ve put that non-objective, non-subjective, insubstantial God so high up on the shelf that it can’t be touched by atheists or anyone else.  The problem is that that’s not the God that most people believe in.  Dawkins can hardly be faulted for directing his criticisms at the God they do believe in.  If his arguments against that God are really so naïve, what can possibly be the harm in actually answering them?

    As noted above, New Atheist bashing is probably inevitable given the current ideological fashions.  However, I suggest that those happy few who are still capable of thinking for themselves think twice before jumping on the bandwagon.  In the first place, it is not irrational for atheists to feel aggrieved at being “othered,” any more than it is for any other ostracized minority.  Perhaps more importantly, the question of whether religious beliefs are true or not matters.  Today one actually hears so-called “progressive” atheists arguing that religious beliefs should not be questioned, because it risks robbing the “little people” of a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.  Apparently the goal is to cultivate delusions that will get them from cradle to grave with as little existential Angst as possible.  It would be too shocking for them to know the truth.  Beyond the obvious arrogance of such an attitude, I fail to see how it is doing anyone a favor.  People supply their own “meaning of life,” depending on their perceptions of reality.  Blocking the path to truth and promoting potentially pathological delusions in place of reality seems more a betrayal than a “service” to me.  To the extent that anyone cares to take my own subjective moral emotions seriously, I can only say that I find substituting bland religious truisms for a chance to experience the stunning wonder, beauty and improbability of human existence less a “benefit” than an exquisite form of cruelty.

  • On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate

    Posted on March 22nd, 2015 Helian 17 comments

    Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider the Blank Slate affair the greatest debacle in the history of science.  Perhaps you haven’t heard of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Those who are the most capable of writing its history are often also those who are most motivated to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  In any case, in the context of this post the Blank Slate refers to a dogma that prevailed in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century according to which there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as human nature.  I consider it the greatest scientific debacle of all time because, for more than half a century, it blocked the path of our species to self-knowledge.  As we gradually approach the technological ability to commit collective suicide, self-knowledge may well be critical to our survival.

    Such histories of the affair as do exist are often carefully and minutely researched by historians familiar with the scientific issues involved.  In general, they’ve personally lived through at least some phase of it, and they’ve often been personally acquainted with some of the most important players.  In spite of that, their accounts have a disconcerting tendency to wildly contradict each other.  Occasionally one finds different versions of the facts themselves, but more often its a question of the careful winnowing of the facts to select and record only those that support a preferred narrative.

    Obviously, I can’t cover all the relevant literature in a single blog post.  Instead, to illustrate my point, I will focus on a single work whose author, Hamilton Cravens, devotes most of his attention to events in the first half of the 20th century, describing the sea change in the behavioral sciences that signaled the onset of the Blank Slate.  As it happens, that’s not quite what he intended.  What we see today as the darkness descending was for him the light of science bursting forth.  Indeed, his book is entitled, somewhat optimistically in retrospect, The Triumph of Evolution:  The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941.  It first appeared in 1978, more or less still in the heyday of the Blank Slate, although murmurings against it could already be detected among academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences after the appearance of a series of devastating critiques in the popular literature in the 60’s by Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others, topped off by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

    Ostensibly, the “triumph” Cravens’ title refers to is the demise of what he calls the “extreme hereditarian” interpretations of human behavior that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century in favor of a more “balanced” approach that recognized the importance of culture, as revealed by a systematic application of the scientific method.  One certainly can’t fault him for being superficial.  He introduces us to most of the key movers and shakers in the behavioral sciences in the period in question.  There are minutiae about the contents of papers in old scientific journals, comments gleaned from personal correspondence, who said what at long forgotten scientific conferences, which colleges and universities had strong programs in psychology, sociology and anthropology more than 100 years ago, and who supported them, etc., etc.  He guides us into his narrative so gently that we hardly realize we’re being led by the nose.  Gradually, however, the picture comes into focus.

    It goes something like this.  In bygone days before the “triumph of evolution,” the existence of human “instincts” was taken for granted.  Their importance seemed even more obvious in light of the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.  As Cravens put it,

    While it would be inaccurate to say that most American experimentalists concluded as  the result of the general acceptance of Mendelism by 1910 or so that heredity was all powerful and environment of no consequence, it was nevertheless true that heredity occupied a much more prominent place than environment in their writings.

    This sort of “subtlety” is characteristic of Cravens’ writing.  Here, he doesn’t accuse the scientists he’s referring to of being outright genetic determinists.  They just have an “undue” tendency to overemphasize heredity.  It is only gradually, and by dint of occasional reading between the lines that we learn the “true” nature of these believers in human “instinct.”  Without ever seeing anything as blatant as a mention of Marxism, we learn that their “science” was really just a reflection of their “class.”  For example,

    But there were other reasons why so many American psychologists emphasized heredity over environment.  They shared the same general ethnocultural and class background as did the biologists.  Like the biologists, they grew up in middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes, in a subculture where the individual was the focal point of social explanation and comment.

    As we read on, we find Cravens is obsessed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, noting that the “wrong” kind of scientists belong to that “class” scores of times.  Among other things, they dominate the eugenics movement, and are innocently referred to as Social Darwinists, as if these terms had never been used in a pejorative sense.  In general they are supposed to oppose immigration from other than “Nordic” countries, and tend to support “neo-Lamarckian” doctrines, and believe blindly that intelligence test results are independent of “social circumstances and milieu.”  As we read further into Section I of the book, we are introduced to a whole swarm of these instinct-believing WASPs.

    In Section II, however, we begin to see the first glimmerings of a new, critical and truly scientific approach to the question of human instincts.  Men like Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, and Alfred Kroeber, began to insist on the importance of culture.  Furthermore, they believed that their “culture idea” could be studied in isolation in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, insisting on sharp, “territorial” boundaries that would protect their favored disciplines from the defiling influence of instincts.  As one might expect,

    The Boasians were separated from WASP culture; several were immigrants, of Jewish background, or both.

    A bit later they were joined by joined by John Watson and his behaviorists who, after performing some experiments on animals and human infants, apparently experienced an epiphany.  As Cravens puts it,

    To his amazement, Watson concluded that the James-McDougall human instinct theory had no demonstrable experimental basis.  He found the instinct theorists had greatly overestimated the number of original emotional reactions in infants.  For all practical purposes, he realized that there were no human instincts determining the behavior of adults or even of children.

    Perhaps more amazing is the fact that Cravens suspected not a hint of a tendency to replace science with dogma in all this.  As Leibniz might have put it, everything was for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Everything pointed to the “triumph of evolution.”  According to Cravens, the “triumph” came with astonishing speed:

    By the early 1920s the controversy was over.  Subsequently, psychologists and sociologists joined hands to work out a new interdisciplinary model of the sources of human conduct and emotion stressing the interaction of heredity and environment, of innate and acquired characters – in short, the balance of man’s nature and his culture.

    Alas, my dear Cravens, the controversy was just beginning.  In what follows, he allows us a glimpse at just what kind of “balance” he’s referring to.  As we read on into Section 3 of the book, he finally gets around to setting the hook:

    Within two years of the Nazi collapse in Europe Science published an article symptomatic of a profound theoretical reorientation in the American natural and social sciences.  In that article Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist, and M. F. Ashley-Montagu, an anthropologist, summarized and synthesized what the last quarter century’s work in their respective fields implied for extreme hereditarian explanations of human nature and conduct.  Their overarching thesis was that man was the product of biological and social evolution.  Even though man in his biological aspects was as subject to natural processes as any other species, in certain critical respects he was unique in nature, for the specific system of genes that created an identifiably human mentality also permitted man to experience cultural evolution… Dobzhansky and Ashley-Montagu continued, “Instead of having his responses genetically fixed as in other animal species, man is a species that invents its own responses, and it is out of this unique ability to invent…  his responses that his cultures are born.”

    and, finally, in the conclusions, after assuring us that,

    By the early 1940s the nature-nurture controversy had run its course.

    Cravens leaves us with some closing sentences that epitomize his “triumph of evolution:”

    The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

    At this point, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently Cravens, who has just supplied us with arcane details about who said what at obscure scientific conferences half a century and more before he published his book was completely unawares of exactly what Ashley Montagu, his herald of the new world order, meant when he referred to “extreme hereditarian explanations,” in spite of the fact that he spelled it out ten years earlier in an invaluable little pocket guide for the followers of the “new science” entitled Man and Aggression.  There Montagu describes the sort of “balance of man’s nature and his culture” he intended as follows:

    Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.

    and,

    There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “phylogenetically adapted instinctive” behavior of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive-forces of human behavior.  The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

    So much for Cravens’ “balance.”  He spills a great deal of ink in his book assuring us that the Blank Slate orthodoxy he defends was the product of “science,” little influenced by any political or ideological bias.  Apparently he also didn’t notice that, not only in Man and Aggression, but ubiquitously in the Blank Slate literature, the “new science” is defended over and over and over again with the “argument” that anyone who opposes it is a racist and a fascist, not to mention far right wing.

    As it turns out, Cravens didn’t completely lapse into a coma following the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1947 pronunciamiento in Science.  In his “Conclusion” we discover that, after all, he had a vague presentiment of the avalanche that would soon make a shambles of his “new evolutionary science.”  In his words,

    Of course in recent years something approximating at least a minor revival of the old nature-nurture controversy seems to have arisen in American science and politics.  It is certainly quite possible that this will lead to a full scale nature-nurture controversy in time, not simply because of the potential for a new model of nature that would permit a new debate, but also, as one historian has pointed out, because our own time, like the 1920s, has been a period of racial and ethnic polarization.  Obviously any further comment would be premature.

    Obviously, my dear Cravens.  What’s the moral of the story, dear reader?   Well, among other things, that if you really want to learn something about the Blank Slate, you’d better not be shy of wading through the source literature yourself.  It’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.  One particularly rich source of historical nuggets is H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which Ron Unz has been so kind as to post online.  Mencken took a personal interest in the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, and took care to publish articles by heavy hitters on both sides.  For a rather different take than Cravens on the motivations of the early Blank Slaters, see for example, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley.  Parshley was an interesting character who took on no less an opponent than Clarence Darrow in a debate over eugenics, and later translated Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex into English.

    chimp-thinking

  • Oswald Spengler got it Wrong

    Posted on November 1st, 2014 Helian 3 comments

    Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines.  There are page limits, so they have to get to the point.  It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage.  Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler.  His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918.  Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean.  He should have quit while he was ahead.

    Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak.  The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli.  Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels.  Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!”  It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself.  It was also wrong.

    According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse.  Man had dared to “revolt against nature.”  Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man.  At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:

    A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation.  Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength.  But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal.  The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…

    Spengler went on to explain that,

    Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.

    No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia.  Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history.  Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book.  It was a rash assumption.  Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology.  He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all.  For example,

    The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose.  In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot.  In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out.  Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.

    Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book.  At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields.  He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives.  However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”

    It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially.  Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power.  It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time.  For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then.  No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.

    Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later.  Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.”  As he put it,

    Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition.  the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.

    In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races.  They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West.  Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:

    For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose.  This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon.  The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close.  It will be eaten up from within.  When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.

    Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”  (Matthew 24:36).  However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that.  Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time.  Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7).  In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:

    The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War.  This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries.  It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.

    Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well.  Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:

    This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work.  The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost.  Their numbers are their death.

    Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:

    Only dreamers believe that there is a way out.  Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him.  That is greatness.  That is what it means to be a thoroughbred.  The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.

    One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world.  And who can blame them?  After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova.  When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”

  • Mencken Trilogy Republished: Some New Words of Wisdom from the Sage of Baltimore

    Posted on September 27th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Readers who loath the modern joyless version of Puritanism, shorn of its religious impedimenta, that has become the dominant dogma of our time, and would like to escape for a while to a happier time in which ostentatious public piety was not yet de rigueur are in luck.  An expanded version of H. L. Mencken’s “Days” trilogy has just been published, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rogers.  It includes Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, and certainly ranks as one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written.  The latest version actually contains a bonus for Mencken fans.  As noted in the book’s Amazon blurb,

    …unknown to the legions of Days books’ admirers, Mencken continued to add to them after publication, annotating and expanding each volume in typescripts sealed to the public for twenty-five years after his death. Until now, most of this material—often more frank and unvarnished than the original Days books—has never been published.  (This latest version contains) nearly 200 pages of previously unseen writing, and is illustrated with photographs from Mencken’s archives, many taken by Mencken himself.

    Infidel that he was, the Sage of Baltimore would have smiled to see the hardcover version.  It comes equipped with not one, but two of those little string bookmarks normally found in family Bibles.  I’ve read an earlier version of the trilogy, but that was many years ago.  I recalled many of Mencken’s anecdotes as I encountered them again, and perhaps with a bit more insight.  I know a great deal more about the author than I did the first time through, not to mention the times in which he lived.   There’ve been some changes made since then, to say the least.  For example, Mencken recalls that maids were paid $10 a month plus room and board in the 1880’s, but no less than $12 a month from about 1890 on.  Draught beer was a nickel, and a first class businessman’s lunch at a downtown hotel with soup, a meat dish, two side dishes, pie and coffee, was a quarter.  A room on the “American plan,” complete with three full meals a day, was $2.50.

    Mencken was already beginning to notice the transition to today’s “kinder, gentler” mode of raising children in his later days, but experienced few such ameliorations in his own childhood.  Children weren’t “spared the rod,” either by their parents or their teachers.  Mencken recalls that the headmaster of his first school, one Prof. Friedrich Knapp, had a separate ritual for administering corporal punishment to boys and girls, and wore out a good number of rattan switches in the process.  Even the policemen had strips of leather dangling from their clubs, with which they chastised juveniles who ran afoul of the law.  Parents took all this as a matter of course, and the sage never knew any of his acquaintance to complain.  When school started, the children were given one dry run on the local horse car accompanied by their parents, and were sent out on their own thereafter.  Of course, Mencken and his sister got lost on their first try, but were set on the right track by a policeman and some Baltimore stevedores.  No one thought of such a thing as supervising children at play. One encounters many similar changes in the social scene as one progresses through the trilogy, but the nature of the human beast hasn’t changed much.  All the foibles and weaknesses Mencken describes are still with us today.  He was, of course, one of the most prominent atheists in American history, and often singled out the more gaudy specimens of the faithful for special attention.  His description of the Scopes monkey trial in Heathen Days is a classic example.  I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the New Atheists.  In his words,

    No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it.  There were no converts from the faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics.  To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.

    Of course, if one possesses the wit of a Mencken or a Voltaire, one has the luxury of fighting the bigotry and fanaticism coming from the other side very effectively without using the same weapons.

    I certainly encourage those who haven’t read Mencken to pick up a copy of this latest release of his work.  Those interested in more detail about the content may consult the work of professional reviewers that I’m sure will soon appear.  I will limit myself to one more observation.  It never fails that when some new bit of Menckeniana appears, the self-appointed guardians of the public virtue climb up on their soapboxes and condemn him as a racist.  Anyone who reads the Days will immediately see where this charge comes from.  Mencken makes free use of the N word and several other terms for African-Americans that have been banned from the lexicon over the ensuing years.  No matter that he didn’t use more flattering terms to describe other subgroups of the population, and certainly not of the white “boobeoisie,” of the cities, or the “hinds,” and “yokels” of the country.

    Nothing could be more untrue or unfair than this charge of “racism,” but, alas, to give the lie to it one must actually read Mencken’s work, and few of the preening moralists of our own day are willing to go to the trouble.  That’s sad, because none of them have contributed anywhere near as much as Mencken to the cause of racial equality.  He did that by ignoring the racist conventions of his own day and cultivating respect for black thinkers and intellectuals by actively seeking them out and publishing their work, most notably in the American Mercury, which he edited from its inception in 1924 until he turned over the reigns to Charles Angoff in 1933.  He didn’t publish them out of condescension or pity, or as their self-appointed savior, or out of an inordinate love of moralistic grandstanding of the sort that has become so familiar in our own day.  He paid them a much higher favor.  He published them because, unlike so many others in his own time, he was not blind to their intellectual gifts, and rightly concluded that their work was not only worthy of, but would enhance the value of the Mercury, one of the premier intellectual, political and literary journals of the time.  As a result, the work of a host of African-American intellectuals, professionals, and poets appeared in Mencken’s magazine, eclipsing the Nation, The New Republic, The Century, or any other comparable journal of the day in that regard.  All this can be easily fact-checked, because every issue of the Mercury published during Mencken’s tenure as editor can now be read online. For example, there are contributions by W. E. B. Dubois in the issue of October 1924, a young poet named Countee P. Cullen in November 1924, newspaper reporter and editor Eugene Gordon in June 1926, James Weldon Johnson, diplomat, author, lawyer, and former leader of the NAACP in April 1927, George Schuyler, author and social commentator in December 1927,  Langston Hughes, poet, author, and activist in November 1933, and many others.

    Most issues of the Mercury included an Americana section devoted to ridiculing absurdities discovered in various newspapers and other publications listed by state.  Mencken used it regularly to heap scorn on genuine racists.  For example, from the March 1925 issue:

    North Carolina

    Effects of the war for democracy among the Tar Heels, as reported in a dispatch from Goldsboro:

    Allen Moses and his wife, wealthy Negroes, left here in Pullman births tonight for Washington and New York.  This is the first time in the history of this city that Negroes have “had the nerve,” as one citizen expressed it, to buy sleeper tickets here.  White citizens are aroused, and it is said the Ku Klux Klan will be asked to give Moses a warm reception on his return.

    From the May 1926 issue:

    North Carolina

    The rise of an aristocracy among the defenders of 100% Americanism, as revealed by a dispatch from Durham:

    “According to reports being circulated here the Ku Klux Klan has added a new wrinkle to its activities and are now giving distinguished service crosses to member of the hooded order of the reconstruction days.  In keeping with this new custom, it is reported that two Durham citizens were recipients of this honor recently.  The medal, as explained by the honorable klansman making the award, is of no intrinsic value, ‘but the sentiment attached to it and the heart throbs that go with it are as measureless as the sands of the sea.'”

    From the August 1928 issue:

    District of Columbia

    The Hon. Cole L. Blease, of South Carolina, favors his colleagues in the Senate with a treatise on southern ethics:

    “There are not enough marines in or outside of the United States Army or Navy, in Nicaragua, and all combined, to make us associate with niggers.  We never expect to.  We never have; but we treat them fairly.  If you promise one of the $5 for a days work, if he does the days work, I believe you should pay him.”

    So much for the alleged “racism” of H. L. Mencken.  It reminds me of a poster that was prominently displayed in an office I once worked in.  It bore the motto, “No good deed goes unpunished.”