The Wreck of Western Culture

The Wreck of Western Culture:  Humanism Revisited, John Carroll, 2008

Carroll is yet another diagnostician in action here.  I will say that his thesis is bold and interesting, and I also note that often I wondered, “can this be true?”  Yet the evidence is visible:  “Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble.”  Carroll works backward from the conclusion to find what went wrong.  So, what went wrong?  Humanism.  Carroll is not here to honor Western humanism (though he gives credit to some real achievements), but to bury it, and bury it he does with a vicious polemical style.  I confess to a fondness for this.

What humanism did is to try to replace God with man, to found an order on earth without any transcendental or supernatural supports.  Yet, man needs a place to stand; he quotes Archimedes, “Give me somewhere to stand and I shall move the earth.”  Overturning the old order, humanism sought a new place to stand:  man.  This book chronicles, at a high level, the 500 year attempt to do so.

Carroll begins in the Italian Renaissance, with Donatello’s Gattamelata, a sculpture of a most noble, heroic man on a horse.  Carroll’s discussion turns on the idea of honor, and the Gattamelata is a visible embodiment.  Honor will save the day.  Continuing the theme, he moves into Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which Brutus is presented as an honorable man, a noble man.  Once again, honor will save the day.  The honorable Brutus killed Caesar to save him–from naked ambition.  Ultimately virtu is what it is to be fully human.

Next Carroll examines Holbein, a Renaissance artist, whose The Ambassadors is a key work in the story here.  Holbein has found that humanism is precarious; a look at The Ambassadors shows many humanist elements yet the picture is claustrophobic; and a foreshortened skull is painted right at the front.  Holbein mocks humanism.  And what is humanism’s weakness?  Death, and death haunts the humanists.  What to do with death?  Hamlet explores this, holding the skull of poor Yorick.  Hamlet is ultimately a character who is paralyzed, he cannot do his duty (kill Claudius).  His will is not enough to do what needs to be done, and he knows it, and it sickens him, full of shame.  “To be or not to be”: Hamlet explores death, and has no answers but dread.  Cervantes’s Don Quixote answers that one can will things into being, in a noble life lived in illusion; to come back to reality is a dismal existence.

And then there is Luther and the Protestant Reformation.  Carroll’s interpretation of Luther is intriguing, where he says that Luther sought a place to stand, and it wasn’t man’s will.  Luther himself said his most important work was On the Enslaved Will, and that was written not against the Pope but against Erasmus.  Erasmus was a Catholic humanist, and Luther was fighting for faith against man’s free will.

It is either the darkness of faith or nothing.  Sola fide has been the easy half of Luther’s Reformation:  he now moved into harsh terrain where, against all reason, the will is nothing.  Everything hinged on this.  If Erasmus won, Christ was done for.  The history of the next five hundred years would prove Luther right.


The deeper purpose of Luther’s Enslaved Will is not to debate Erasmus.  It is to create the authority with which to counter humanism, to annihilate it in its infancy.  Luther, too, has to find his place to stand.  With his sola fide and “no free will” he sets about forming the new Christians and subjecting them to fate.

Which was a dark dungeon where man has no free will, is imprisoned, heavily burdened with guilt and the inability to escape on his own, and so can only escape by faith.  Hard as it may be to believe, Luther was the cheerful one; and there is Calvin, who is the “sternly thoughtful and inwardly tormented self.”  Calvin embraced the contradiction against all reason:  God determined the human fall, yet all mortals are guilty.

It’s a long discussion and beyond this review’s scope, but it is clearly a pivotal element of Carroll’s thesis.  Luther & Calvin tried to answer the humanist problem (death), yet they introduced contradictions that, ultimately proved neurotic to and destructive of the West.

Carroll goes into the Alternative Reformation:  the works of Poussin, Donatello, Raphael, and Caravaggio.  He finds hope in these Catholic artists, who give embodiment to answers to humanism, yet ultimately failed.  The culture was on the move–“the seductive combination of ego, reason, and will”–and the Catholic church was declining from its own internal sclerosis, so not capable of beating humanism back.

Carroll continues through Velazquez and Rembrandt:  “The aftermath of the head-on clash between Luther, Calvin, and humanism was high cultural volatility” and these two artists are engines of two different directions, both injecting or reflecting discord into the culture.  His analysis of Velazquez’s Las Meninas is fascinating, it is pure subversion of authority.  Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac cuts to the heart of Dutch Calvinist neurosis–he cannot manage a satisfactory revision of Protestantism.

What follows is the rise of the bourgeois, represented by Vermeer (rational vocations) and Bach (a popularizer of high-culture virtuosity).  England is presented as the most successful cultural arena here.

Next:  Humanism cuts the ties with Christianity and goes it alone, in France and the Enlightenment (or, the Age of Reason), which is the fulfillment of humanism.  Descartes (pure reason), Mozart (romanticism), and Kant (tried to save the Enlightenment by supplying a moral foundation) feature prominently.

The decline and fall of the Enlightenment happens in the 19th century, with Marx and Darwin:  they represent the descent into wrecking and mockery.  Marx himself was full of rancour, which was a new attitude.  For those who need the antidote of the 19th century there is Dostoyevsky (who is generally outside the scope, being a Russian).

While the preceding is fascinating, his juxtaposition of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard is the most interesting.  Both are the best diagnosticians of their time, but came away with entirely different solutions to the vexing problem of humanism.  Nietzsche’s is to double down on humanism, so is really no solution.  Kierkegaard’s is to make the leap of faith, hard-core Calvinism taken to its logical extreme, a paradox:

so burden yourself with inwardness and guilt that the paradox will explode into faith.

With Freud the exploration goes under–into the subconscious, or even unconscious mind.  Will the answer be found there?

Henry James’s The Ambassadors is a tragic rage against the humanist ideal in Paris.

Carroll then introduces the American filmmaker John Ford, and his Westerns, as an attempt to find a place to stand.  What better place than the American West, and John Wayne, to do this?  He discusses a trio of Ford’s works–Rio Grande, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–as Ford’s (and Wayne’s) trajectory from foundational myth to epic tragedy to elegy.  Liberty Valance is Ford throwing in the towel, America chose poorly (represented by Hallie choosing Ransom Stoddard over Tom Doniphon).

And there it is.  I’ve catalogued all the subjects to show you the arc Carroll takes.  In the end, he is like most diagnosticians of our decline:  the story is there–and Carroll’s certainly is a fascinating version–but in the end Carroll’s answer is simple.  The problem that stared the humanists in the face–death–remains, and we know we cannot continue as we are.  So, ditch the humanism, it has no place to stand.



Zombology:  Zombies and the Decline of the West (and Guns), Brian Anse Patrick, 2014

The late Patrick, whose areas of expertise were the technique of propaganda and American gun culture, decided to explore the subject of zombies.  Zombies have infiltrated the gun culture in a big way–there are guns and ammunitions marketed especially for shooting zombies, and Patrick kicks off with a number of observations about weapon made and marketed for a fictional target, which is very strange, because as we all know, zombies aren’t real.

But are they?  Patrick suggests that the zombie phenomenon–not a fad, because it has entered into our collective subconscious in America–is a manifestation of something else in our collective subconscious:  the decline of the West and our various anxieties about it.

Yes, this is another decline book.  Patrick is rather modest in his goals:  he looks at the form of the manifestation of the anxiety in our subconscious (the zombies) and how they are dealt with (guns and ammo, lots and lots of ammo).  And he accomplishes his goals well, I think, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable survey of the landscape. While Patrick takes a short stab at explaining decline, he mainly makes observations about it.  Thus, Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies is a much better treatment, technically, but the enjoyment Patrick brings is that it’s all about pop culture here.

A fascinating point Patrick makes is that the West has two concurrent obsessions that look completely opposite:  Progress and Decline.  They wrap around and around like a double helix far back into the past, unique to the West.  They seem to need each other, making two sides of the same coin.  (The “two sides of the same coin” theme crops up often in the West, and would make a good thesis to explore; another example:  Capitalism and Communism.)

Back to zombies:  what are they, beyond just another form of undead that are hard to kill?  They could be any of many things:

  • “mass man”, unthinking, brain-dead, only consuming (zombies need to eat brains of the healthy living); masses of such people shambling through malls;
  • Blacks erupting from their urban enclaves;
  • An increasingly enfeebled population: geriatrics, those dependent on medications, social work clients, the diseased (particularly with STDs), and general overpopulation;
  • Failed institutions, corporations, schools, military. Also, bureaucracy run amok;
  • Brain thrill seeking (zombies need brains); people are increasingly needy of constant lurid media stimulation and distraction (that is, we all are the zombies);
  • And more!

The useful thing about zombies is that they are a “blank slate” onto which we can (and do) project our anxiety of the moment, especially the “politically incorrect” ones.  Also, zombies are an acceptable target.  Whatever the zombies represent, it is necessary, even desirable, to kill them.  It’s a visceral approach to what seems like irreversible decline.  There is no solution but to eliminate the problem.

Patrick also discusses the gun culture, and how it has embraced zombology.  Many people, who share the anxieties about our decline, have joined the gun culture, swelling its ranks.  Liberals are on the wrong side of the coin from all this, and naturally are feeling their own anxieties about it all.

He wraps up with a short chapter on “How Not to Become a Zombie”.  It’s as practical for the individual as anything else I’ve read on decline:

  • Don’t get bitten; stay out of places where zombies are;
  • MOAR GUNS AND AMMO; and learn to use them well;
  • Turn off the TV, which makes you mindless;
  • Participate in civil society (millennials: BE SOCIAL IN REAL LIFE);
  • Create something, anything; be a doer, not a passive lump;
  • Fight, assert, organize, resist against social forces of evil and stupidity;
  • Adopt a code;
  • Stand up straight and walk tall;
  • Don’t run with fools;
  • Find something to do that you love.

See you all on the other side of the Zombie Apocalypse!

The Moviegoer

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy, 1961

This is Walker Percy’s first novel, which won the U.S. National Book Award, when things like that still mattered, in 1961.

I admit I cheated in reading this.  About one-third of the way through, I checked online to see what this was all about, because I was not liking this.  It was unpleasant, not in the manner of horror, but that the main character, the narrator Jack “Binx” Bolling, is so unlikable, but in such an uninteresting way.  You will be glad to know I was right in my assessment.

Bolling is on “the search” but he never makes clear what he is in search of, but he makes it amply clear that it is not for God.  He is restless, bored, and terrorized by the prospect of malaise.  His relations with other people are like in a dream or fog.  He is alienated, or atomized, and can only have significant conversation with his depressive cousin, whom he eventually marries (it appears).  He finds reality in movies, and if a place he knows shows up in a movie, it is “certified”, meaning real.  William Holden makes an appearance on the streets of New Orleans and he is more real than reality to Bolling.

Bolling could have achieved something in scientific research–he is prodded about it often–but found his sweet spot in making money.

This is America.  There are people who really like this book, who identify with it, and quote Bolling approvingly.  These people are lost at sea.

I find it fascinating this came out in 1961, right at peak America.  Percy, a Catholic, had it diagnosed.  I hear his work added up to, “There is a way through this:  Christianity.”

Free Trade Doesn’t Work

Free Trade Doesn’t Work:  What Should Replace It and Why; Ian Fletcher

I have been a free trade skeptic for a long time now.  I’ve read Chronicles magazine, where Scott Richert and others have long written about manufacturing in Rockford, Illinois, a once-thriving manufacturing city suffering from the “giant sucking sound” of jobs moving out of America.  Richert put a human face on NAFTA and other globalist trade shenanigans;  Ian Fletcher, an economist, gives us the economics.  This is a readable, not-too-technical account of free trade, and there is a lot to say.

Progressivism has long had an internationalist focus, see Woodrow Wilson.  It’s no surprise to find the left doesn’t care about Americans in particular, whether it’s our jobs or our culture, and is fully on board with globalist free trade (see NAFTA, a Bill Clinton project).  You would think the right would fight, but you would be wrong.  Modern American Conservatism was created in the 1950s by William F. Buckley, and was fatally compromised by the influential inclusion of Frank S. Meyer, a formerly-Communist libertarian who cooked up “fusionism”, a synthesis of traditionalism (as represented by Russell Kirk) and libertarianism (as represented by F.A. Hayek).  Over the years the libertarian side won–particularly with the influx of globalist / internationalist neo-Conservatives, disaffected Trotskyist liberals such as Irving Kristol, who burrowed into the right, took it over, and turned it into a globalist force, joining the liberals.  Today one can visit National Review online and see that Free Trade is a Conservative Cargo Cult.  What we now have is a free trade duopoly.

Fletcher starts by describing the problems with free trade.  He elaborates the bad arguments for free trade–and we’ve heard them all, they are accepted wisdom.  The foundation of our Free Trade regime is that the U.S. cannot discriminate in favor of itself.  There is a (false) narrative that Free Trade is inexorable, inevitable, and always good; the interests of the nation-state are obsolete and irrelevant.

The fundamental message of this book is that nations, including the U.S., should see strategic, not unconditional integration with the rest of the world economy.

He quotes Wired magazine as indicative of the simplistic faith in free trade:

Open, good.  Closed, bad.  Tattoo it on your forehead.  Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life.  Is the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

He says that “One giveaway sign that laissez faire in foreign trade (what free trade is) is wrong is that laissez faire hasn’t been taken seriously in America’s domestic economy for well over 100 years.”  In other words, free trade includes much posturing. Finding out “who benefits?” is illuminating–typically it is the 1%, the Donor Class, those who make their income from returns on capital.

Remember when trade deficits were a big deal?  They weren’t until America embrace Free Trade, and during the 80s they became a big deal (because they had been unusual until then).  The solution was, “get used to it.”  Fletcher spells out the doom of unending trade deficits, which used to worry everyone.  It’s a sell-off of America to foreign interests, due to short time horizons and what he calls a perverse efficiency (immediate profits don’t signify long-term health, a legend that drives the success of the likes of Bain Capital); one day, there will be nothing left to sell off, the well will run dry.

Fletcher lists a number of things that are offered as solutions, and explains why each, in turn, isn’t the prescription.  Productivity growth, compensating the losers (the winners can help soften the blows), education, creativity and freedom, currency revaluation; and post-industrialism comes in for special treatment, and Fletcher lays out the case that having an industrial base is essential to a prosperous, healthy economy.

Fletcher wisely includes a number of critiques of free trade to avoid.

Because free trade has so many flaws in theory and causes so many problems in practice, it’s tempting to throw at it every criticism we can think of.

Fletcher wants the critique of free trade to be about the hard economics, not any number of side issues (he mentions culture as one).  There is no need for villainous drama–such as Big Corporations, or America.  “Fair trade” is a bad argument.  A level playing field is a bad argument.  Labor standards is a bad argument.  He tackles the “race to the bottom” argument.  Free trade doesn’t gut government (sorry libertarians).  It (thankfully) won’t Americanize the world.

Having described the problems with free trade, Fletcher goes into the real economics of trade.  He dedicates a chapter to debunking Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, explaining seven dubious assumptions that destroy the theory in practice.  An example is “There are no externalities.”  An externality is something not part of the theory, such as how America has offshored so much production to China, along with the waste and hazards of production (which have costs).  China is paying a steep price environmentally for taking on manufacturing, but this price isn’t being factored in anywhere.  Yet.

At any rate, American business does not believe in or practice comparative advantage, but it is used all the time in politics to lobby for more free trade.  Nevertheless, Fletcher explores ways in which the theory does illuminate things, and ways in which is does work.

Chapter 6 is the most interesting for me, because Fletcher sketches out a history of trade.  He discusses the myth of British free trade, and how in reality British industry went into decline with the adoption of free trade–or possibly, the adoption of free trade is a sign of decline.  If free trade is a sign of decline, it can be no coincidence that America’s full embrasure of free trade, finally adopted in the 60s, is also the time of James Burnham’s Suicide of the West. 

He also describes America as “the sweet land of protectionism.”  It may shock you to learn that

the American Revolution was, in fact, a war over industrial policy in which the commercial elite of the Colonies revolted against being forced into an inferior role in the emerging Atlantic economy.  This is one of the things that gave the American Revolution its exceptionally bourgeois character as revolutions go, with bewigged Founding Fathers rather than the usual unshaven revolutionary mobs.  It is no accident that upon Independence, a tariff was the very second bill signed by President Washington.

Is it any surprise John Hancock was so bold?

He lists out Alexander Hamilton’s economics, a dozen key measures, in his own words, where he emerges as a protectionist extraordinaire.

Southerners should reconcile with tariffs as a good thing.  The Civil War was not about the tariff, but Fletcher explains how slavery and free trade are intimately connected as economic policies:

free trade is, in fact, the ideal policy for a nation which actually wants to be an agricultural slave state.  Because slave states are unsuitable for industrial work, slave states from Rome onward have failed to industrialize.  Because they have no hope of developing comparative advantage in manufacturing, their best move is to optimize the comparative advantage in slave-based agriculture they are stuck with and import everything else.  Classic Ricardian free trade fits this strategy to a ‘t’.

America’s golden industrial age was characterized by tariffs, with Republicans dominant.  The retreat from protectionism was not driven by economics, as though protectionism had been proven bad, but by politics.  It’s a sad tale Fletcher tells how America’s leaders embraced free trade.  The average American wage has stagnated since the early 70s, which coincides with the triumph of free trade.  Fletcher also usefully dismisses the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act as free-traders’ bogeyman.

Next Fletcher talks about the negligible benefits of free trade.  It does not reduce global poverty, it increases global inequality, and devastates middle-income nations.  NAFTA is a case study for the failure of free trade–for Mexico, not just the USAChina and India are held up a phony successes–their rise preceded their economic liberalizations.

Chapter 8, “The Disingenuous Law and Diplomacy of Free Trade” delves into the World Trade Organization and its nefarious effects in trying to regulate the world into a free trade utopia.  The loss of sovereignty and self-determination of every nation in the WTO is a sordid tale of a globalist power-grab.  And the USA is a victim as well, called by Fletcher  a “Global Sucker”.

Finally Fletcher offers his solutions.  He probes into the question “where does growth really come from?” which is something not well understood; if it were, it would be easy to discard free trade.  Quoting the Economist, a premier outlet of free-trade agitprop,

Economists are interested in growth.  The trouble is that, even by their standards, they have been terribly ignorant about it.  The depth of the ignorance has long been their best-kept secret.

Fletcher notes that

if free-trade economics is bad at explaining growth and knows it, then we really shouldn’t be taking its recommendations on how to get growth so seriously–starting with free trade.

He talks about good industries and bad industries and dead-end economies (say, agriculture).

One telltale sign that a formerly good industry is turning bad is that product innovation exhausts itself and the industry turns to process innovation.  And when a bad industry turns downright terrible, even process innovation exhausts itself and the industry just seeks cheaper labor.  One can trace this process in individual industries over time.  The shoe business, for example…

He notes that there is good and there is bad industrial policy.  It’s not necessary to try to keep bad industries.  But we don’t even try to keep good industries.  America’s industrial policy is–and don’t be fooled, we have one, it’s impossible not to have one–is de-industrialization.

Fletcher is clearly excited by recent work he calls the Multiple Equilibrium Revolution.  The field of economics is in such a sorry state that only a mathematical characterization can succeed in changing the tone, and economists Ralph Gomory and William Baumol have done so, Fletcher believes, successfully.  It will take many years, but theirs is an excellent start.  It’s a bit technical at times, but the end result is win-win situations in trade.  America is stuck in win-lose, where every other nation is free-trading us to death.

Next he presents the simple “Natural Strategic Tariff”, clearly a protectionist measure, and why it works.  It’s necessary because protectionism is necessary for a healthy industrial policy.  Keeping it simple is the only way to make it work, otherwise protectionism is doomed due to the political culture in America.  We cannot embrace a byzantine Japanese-style industrial policy; we need something that is politics-proof.

Fletcher deals with some reasonable objections to a tariff, and some alternatives to the natural strategic tariff.  In the end, he is elaborating a wise, pro American industrial policy–that will help Americans and American businesses.  Global businesses are going to have to adjust, and they will.  Foreign business will adjust.

The last chapter deals with the End of the Free Trade Coalition.  This is where things really get interesting.

The first rift this implies is between people who obtain most of their income from work and those who obtain most of their income from returns on capital.  People in the latter category obviously want all labor to be as cheap as possible.  People in the former category want the labor they consume (directly or embodied in goods) to be as cheap as possible, but the labor they produce and sell, namely their own wages, to be expensive.

This implies the possibility of an electoral coalition in which one part of society treats itself to cheap foreign labor as the expense of another.

Discussing how both left and right are wrong on trade,

The ideal political position from which to oppose free trade would be a kind of nationalist liberalism, but this Trumanesque or Jacksonian position does not exist in American politics today.

Said Fletcher in 2011.  But it’s the current year!  Someone may have read Fletcher’s book.

The fact that wildly different partisan figures ranging from Patrick Buchanan on the right to Ralph Nader on the left oppose free trade is a strength for protectionism, not a sign of ideological incoherence, as it means that protectionism can be credibly sold to voters from one end of the political spectrum to the other.  Protectionism can plausibly be packaged as anything from a right-wing tub-thumping America First appeal to a left-wing tie-dyed hippie sob story.  Even better, it can be packaged as a moderate and reasonable “commitment to a middle class society” that will appeal to voters in the center.

In a section on how free trade will fall apart:

Once protectionism is conceded to be a valid political position, it will eventually win the public debate… When this happens, the status quo will be sustained only be the tacit bargain of the American political duopoly, in which the two parties agree not to make trade a serious issue, whatever tactical feints they may deploy.  This bargain will hold as long at the benefits of keeping it, which mainly consist in keeping the corporate backers of both parties happy, exceed the benefits of defecting from it, which consist in winning votes.  Once on party defects, protectionism will…almost certainly be sufficiently successful in practice (and therefore popular) that the other party will have no choice but to follow.  The alternative, if one party insists on handicapping itself by clinging to an unpopular position on such a major issue, is an era of one-part political dominance like 1860-1932 or 1932-80.

He traces recent history of candidates statements and actual positions on trade, with false starts and missed opportunities (all tactical feints), and the zeitgeist on trade.  He gets to the 2010 mid-term election:

The big unexpected event of this election cycle was the sharpening turn of mass conservative opinion against free trade.  For example, though given to libertarianism on many domestic issues and heavily funded by pro-free-trade economic interests, 61 percent of Tea Party members surveyed said free trade agreements have hurt the U.S.  This right-wing populist movement is thus now more opposed to free trade than the average voter…..

Obviously this sets up a battle inside the Republican Party.  The Republican establishment has already lost battles in Republican primaries to the Tea Party, so if a fight breaks out, it well may lose.  The establishment’s best hope is to fob off opponents of free trade with paper concessions which leave its substance intact, but they will be constrained by the risk that the Democrats will outbid them in general elections with authentic opposition to free trade.

To read these things is electrifying.  If I had read this book in 2011, I would have stood agape watching things unfold as they have, even being the free trade skeptic that I’ve been.  I would be hailing Fletcher as an economic prophet.  I look forward to seeing how things continue to develop.

One point writer Vox Day has added to the whole picture is that free trade requires the free movement of not just capital, but of labor.  Hence the fanatical devotion of free traders to open borders.  If you are going to deal with the open borders problem or with the free trade problem, you are going to have to deal with both.


The Architecture of Happiness

The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton

Botton is a Swiss-born Jew based in England, a philospher who writes on a variety of subjects, in this case, architecture.  It’s interesting that James Howard Kunstler, practically a one-man Culture of Critique of American architecture, is also Jewish.  There are some based Jews with good aesthetic sense, regardless of the degenerative Jewish influence in modern art, so effectively sent up by Tom Wolfe in Back to Blood.

Kunstler is a voice crying out in a devastated wilderness of American architecture.  His “Eyesore of the Month” is a picture of some dehumanizing architectural abomination accompanied by severely rancorous commentary.  H.L. Mencken noticed America’s general indifference, at best, active hostility at worst, to a humane landscape in an essay titled “Libido for the Ugly” (1927), where he notes,

Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. The etiology of this madness deserves a great deal more study than it has got. There must be causes behind it; it arises and flourishes in obedience to biological laws, and not as a mere act of God. What, precisely, are the terms of those laws? And why do they run stronger in America than elsewhere? Let some honest Privat Dozent in pathological sociology apply himself to the problem.

Botton, however, writes from Europe, which is a completely different world.  Instead of Kunstler’s howling rage and frustration, we get a sensible discussion of architecture and what makes for good architecture.  After all, there is more than enough good architecture in Europe, so one can be more sober about the whole matter.

Botton begins by contemplating the significance of architecture.  The upshot is that good architecture is notable by not trying to be overly significant.  Good architecture is important, but not too important–it should not be drawing great attention to itself (which makes architects prone to pursuing novelty).  However, bad architecture can have an all-too-great influence in one’s life.  In sum, good architecture will allow humans to flourish and thrive, and bad architecture can sorely afflict the human spirit.  This assymmetry in the good/bad of architecture leads to ambitious architects–those who strive to make great architecture– often making bad architecture by sheer dint of too much effort, and especially with novelty to add “significance”.  Good architecture requires humility and subtlety.  Apparently, it’s a balance that Americans have completely lost.

I also like Botton’s focus on human interaction with architecture in our living and working places.  Architecture is best pursued as a way to help make us feel human and at home–to be happy.  It should meet our needs and desires–but our needs and desires with respect to architecture are relatively modest.  But Botton asserts that architecture is no guarantor of happiness.

Botton considers what constitutes a beautiful building.  He traces some of the history of architectural styles in the West–of which there are sundry good examples in Europe.  He notes the rise of engineering in the 18th Century as a major shift of influence–primarily in a retreat from attempts at beauty and a move towards functionality.  Le Corbusier is a prime example of this school of thought.

He continues with a discussion of how buildings and objects communicate meaning.  Essentially it’s by prompting associations, by evoking memories.  He says architectural and decorative styles “become, for us, emotional souvenirs of the moments and setting in which we came across them.”  He even delves into modern art, but has the good sense to avoid abominations like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (that’s the urinal).

He proceeds into elaborating the virtues of buildings–what makes for good architecture.  Order, balance, elegance, coherence, and self-knowledge each receive a detailed treatment.  A digression into Japanese architecture is particularly interesting, because of the contrast with Western style.

He concludes with a meditation on time, how a field changes to a housing development.  Clearly his concern is to restrict a reckless construction that barrels on without consideration for past, future, or context–or enduring beauty.

This is a good introduction to the subject, and offers more hope than Kunstler ever could.  He has been criticized for stating the obvious, so if you know your architecture, this book may be redundant.  I don’t know much but what Kunstler has said, so I found this enjoyable and informative.



The Righteous Mind (Book Review)

The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt.

The now-famous Dunning-Kruger Effect was first documented in a paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, of Cornell University, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999, entitled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The main point was that people who are unskilled tend to lack the ability to assess their own abilities. They then overestimate their competence.

Haidt could have subtitled his book “Morally Stunted and Unaware of It: How Deficiencies in Moral Development Lead to Liberal Rage.” But that wouldn’t reel in liberals; the real title should. And make no mistake: this book is written to liberals, an earnest plea for liberals to broaden their moral horizon.

Haidt himself is a liberal, and an atheist New York Jew academic to boot. With all that against him, his book also is the personal journey of his broadening moral horizon. His own moral sense and its growth is woven into the story of his research.

The book is three main sections:

  1. Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second.
  2. There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness.
  3. Morality Binds and Blinds.


Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second

Haidt takes you through his (and others’) research and theories on how we make moral decisions. His ultimate conclusion is in the picture of an elephant with a rider. The elephant is our moral intuition, the rider is our reason. The big point is that the elephant goes as it goes, and the rider goes along:

“…the rider’s function is to serve the elephant. Reasoning matters, particularly because reasons do sometimes influence other people [emphasis added], but most of the action in moral psychology is in the intuitions.”

This is not an unsurprising view–the word “rationalize” is basically the function of reason–we intuit moral decisions and then justify them with reason. It’s why you never can just lay out the pros and cons of a position and your interlocutor changes his mind on the spot. It takes a lot to turn the elephant. It’s why if you want to influence the morality of a people, you don’t do it with reason, and you do it from a young age. Plato called education “moral training”, because you need to shape the intuitions from the start. Whoever really did write William Bennett’s “Book of Virtues”, the use of stories in shaping morality is age old.

Haidt says about reason:

“I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion.”

“From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.”

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. … most of the most bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. … This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful and so ineradicable.”

Other interesting discussion is about how we really are concerned about what others think of us (psychopaths don’t), how reasoning can take us to any conclusion we want to reach, and how we are often groupish rather than selfish.


There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness.

It should be clear where this is headed, it’s about more morality than liberals have. He starts out talking WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Such people are a small subset of the world’s population and cannot be used to generalize about human nature, but the principle of WEIRDness is: “The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.” In a nutshell, more individualistic than groupish; ultimately, sociopathic.

“Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).”

Haidt’s broadening moral horizon began when he spent three months in India doing research, hoping to get a closer look at the “ethic of divinity.” He saw and understood moral dimensions that he had never had in his own world;

“The moral domain is unusually narrow in WEIRD cultures, where it is largely limited to the ethic of autonomy (i.e., moral concerns about individuals harming, oppressing, or cheating other individuals). It is broader–including the ethics of community and divinity–in most other societies, and within religious and conservative moral matrices within WEIRD societies.”

He proceeds to describe his Moral Foundations Theory, which is the meat of the book. Basically, morality is like our taste buds: there are six dimensions:

  • Care / Harm
  • Fairness / Cheating
  • Loyalty / Betrayal
  • Authority / Subversion
  • Sanctity / Degradation
  • Liberty / Oppression

He has a whole chapter titled, “The Conservative Advantage”. What is that advantage? That, as one becomes more conservative, he is more balanced across the six dimensions. As one is more liberal, he is less balanced (see the accompanying figure).


The liberal is dominated by Care and Fairness; the conservative is not dominated by any one or two dimensions. Later Haidt introduces Liberty / Oppression; liberals do work on that dimension, and libertarians are monomaniacal about it to the exclusion of all other dimensions.

So, liberals work on three of the six dimensions of the moral domain. Conservatives work easily on all six dimensions. (Libertarians are on one dimension, as we’d expect of autistes.) In other words, liberals are morally stunted or deficient. We might even consider them as children morally.  They are not just blind to three axes, they consider those three axes (Authority, Loyalty, Sanctity) to be evil.  This is a significant–possibly uncrossable–divide with conservatives, and most of the rest of the non-WEIRD world.  Liberals overestimate their morality, while clearly being too narrow in their moral dimensions.  It’s a case of Dunning-Kruger effect.  They then rage against evil conservatives.  How can one deal with such people?


Morality Binds and Blinds.

In this section Haidt explores the groupishness of morality. He observes the effects of religion and the religious group on people–religion has a significant effect on people, giving them a connection to something bigger than themselves and creating group cohesion (improving survival and reproduction). Secular groups, even when they try, just don’t have the same lasting effect on people. For those reasons, Haidt takes a positive view of religion in general; he also devotes a section taking down the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris).

“Religion is therefore well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”

“Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix [read: America] you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for anomie–Durkheim’s word for what happens to a society that no longer has a shared moral order.”


Haidt finishes with some discussion about how liberals and conservatives can disagree more constructively. It’s clear there is more onus on the liberals because they don’t partake of all the moral foundations.

“As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.”

Moral capital “is the reason I believe that liberalism–which has done so much to bring freedom and equal opportunity–is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, an reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.”

Of course, conservatives get their share of blame, as they ought.

Haidt, however, misses a key moral dimension (but shows it, if you can catch it). As he traveled his journey, it’s clear that he has something–a moral something, humility–that many do not have. What happens when someone who is deficient or incompetent comes face to face with his shortcomings? Rare is the man who, like Haidt (whose deficiency clearly was not intellectual), faces them, learns, changes and comes away a better man. The real question is: can his liberal readers do likewise?

Nihilism (Book Review)

Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, Eugene (Father Seraphim) Rose.

This short book is a chapter in a greater work that Rose envisioned, an Augustinian The Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God. Presumably he was using Augustine’s framework in a version updated for the modern age. The book was never completed, but we do have an outline of the work-in-progress, and this completed chapter, part of the second half of the book, in the section “The Old Order and the ‘New Order’ ”

  • The advent of the ‘New Order’: the Revolution of the modern age
  • The root of the revolution:  Nihilism (the book under review)
  • The Goal of the Revolution:  the Anarchist Millennium

One wonders if he connected his “New Order” with the Novus Ordo Seclorum (New Order of the Ages) that features on the US dollar bill and is the true spirit of the American Founding.

This book/chapter assumes a context, and that context is explicitly Christian, and specifically Orthodox. Non-Christian readers may find the assumptions Rose uses “begging the question”, but the complete book would have set the context.  Christians won’t have a problem with the assumptions, but Rose’s reasoning for them would have been welcome.

Rose uses Friedrich Nietzsche, the master of Nihilism, to define Nihilism. It is not the belief in nothing, nor of a lack of belief in anything, which you might think based on the root nihil. Nietzsche offers:

That there is no truth; that there is no absolute state of affairs–no ‘thing in itself.’  This alone is Nihilism, and of the most extreme kind.  (From The Will to Power.)

Rose notes that his own definition of absolute truth is “the dimension of the beginning and end of things”; I would have liked to have seen his elaboration of that. “There is no truth” is a self-refuting argument, and I know Nietzsche wasn’t making only that point, but it was his foundation.

Ultimately Rose sets Nihilism as a kind of faith opposed to Christian faith:

The whole food of Christian Truth, however, is accessible only to faith; and the chief obstacle to such faith is not logic, as the facile modern view has it, but another and opposed faith. We have seen indeed, that logic cannot deny absolute truth without denying itself; the logic that sets itself up against the Christian Revelation is merely the servant of another “revelation,” of a false “absolute truth”: namely Nihilism.

The real value for me in this book is how Rose characterizes four manifestations of nihilism in the modern age, in the chapter “The Stages of the Nihilistic Dialectic”:

  • Liberalism.  There is no truth, but we maintain the forms from when people believed in and acted like there was truth. One thinks of various mainstream Protestant priests who don’t seem to believe in God anymore, but continue their functions as priests (I believe Kierkegaard noticed this in the state Lutheran church in Denmark). This is more of an introductory stage to the other forms.
  • Realism.  This is the kind of Nihilism the Russian Ivan Turgenev was describing in Fathers and Sons. Tough-minded, realistic, materialistic, self-interested; the atheism is out in the open. Nothing exists but what is most obvious. The Realist is openly hostile to the idea of absolute truth (the Liberal is just indifferent and vague about it all).
  • Vitalism.  Seeing the dead reductionism of realism, vitalism reacts. It does not critique the foundation of realism, only the expression. A more “life-affirming” approach is desired, where one can suck the marrow from the bone of life.   No sensitive man can stand the realist approach, he seeks something dynamic, vital, refreshing, even traditional (the Old Ways). Nietzsche was such a nihilist.
  • The Nihilism of Destruction. A pure rage against creation and civilization, unappeasable until they are reduced to total ruins. Such nihilists glory in destruction.  Bazarov in Fathers and Sons states that “there is not a single institution of our society that should not be destroyed.” The anarchist Michail Bakunin reveled in it: “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion!”

Our age sees all four stages in various institutions and movements, although it seems we are dominated by a kind of nihilism of destruction. I notice that some of the disaffected right do not reject nihilism but seek a roll back to a realist (“Red Pill”) or vitalist (Zarathustra) version; some glory in destructive nihilism (“burn it down, burn it all down”) believing something better will follow.

Rose goes on to talk about “The Theology and Spirit of Nihilism”. He asserts that Nihilism is not atheism, but a profounder malady: anti-theism. Nietzsche himself was haunted by Christ to the end of his life; the closing words of his last book, Ecce Homo, are, “Have you understood me? Dionysus against the Crucified.” He was engaged in a battle.  Thus, the theology is rebellion, or a war against God. The spirit is the worship of nothingness. Rose points out that nihilist “Nothingness” is a denial, a negation. Nietzsche says,

What does Nihilism mean?–that the highest values are losing their value. There is no goal. There is no answer to the question: ‘why?’

Next Rose addresses “The Nihilist Program”. It amounts to the destruction of the old order (violence is essential), the making of the new earth, and the fashioning of the new man. The Soviet Communist system is paradigmatic, but it is also at work today in the West. It is why Paul Gottfried can write a book, The Strange Death of Marxism where he finds it is not dead at all, but alive and well in the West.

Finally, Rose closes with “Beyond Nihilism” where Nihilism, having finished its work, can now be supplanted by the next thing: Anarchism, a new order of existence.  That was to be the next chapter of Rose’s greater work.   Again, Nietzsche:

Under certain circumstances, the appearance of the extremest form of Pessimism and actual Nihilism might be the sign of a process of incisive and most essential growth, and of mankind’s transit into completely new conditions of existence. This is what I have understood.

It is the fondest wish of our current ruling order to reach that state beyond nihilism, the goal of the revolution, a new age of a completely new condition of existence.  Novus Ordo Seclorum.

God save us.