Comments on “Wreckage: the culture war”


Ideological Turing Test Answers

1) Family bonding and stability is the key to a decent society; monogamy makes people better human beings by promoting loyalty, respect, and civilized virtues. Homosexual urges are a biological fact, and when they do not have a socially sanctioned structure for their lives in the form of marriage, their character degenerates into promiscuity and vice.

2) A society should be judged first and foremost by how it cares for its weakest and most vulnerable members. Children are always the most vulnerable in any society; they lack options and are unable to escape oppression on their own. It is unfair to risk their safety and human development by subjecting them to the untested experiment of new forms of child-rearing. If an experimental change to a child's upbringing would not be allowed by an IRB, it should not become a new social policy.

3) While consenting adults can make any contract they wish, children do not have the mental ability for meaningful consent, and therefore we must enforce default social contracts for them, based on our best understanding of their coherent extrapolated volition.

It is likely that almost everyone would choose to grow up in an environment that matches its biological needs for a psychologically healthy upbringing, and would be willing to sacrifice future freedoms to do so. Behind the veil of ignorance, most people would be willing to sign the contract "I will significantly increase the odds that I grow up in an environment that allows me to reach my full potential as a sapient being, and in exchange I forfeit my future right to raise sapient beings if I have any mutation that significantly impairs my ability to do so."

Let 'marriage' be defined in our social code as a reserved keyword denoting a standard social institution optimized for the production of future healthy sapient beings. All marriages must satisfy conditions that a potential sapient being would wish to be raised in, so entry into this status is reserved for those who can demonstrate the ability to properly raise sapient beings.

As science advances, we will develop a more accurate understanding of the proper conditions for healthy psychological growth, and better tests for suitability to be a parent. However, as a first approximation, we can assume that a household with only two men or two women responsible for childrearing lacks some essential ingredients for the full healthy development of a child.

"It has also been terrific

Greg's picture

"It has also been terrific for the ruling class—both politicians and plutocrats. When politics is mostly about sex, drugs, religion, and cartoon frogs, it is much easier to cut backroom deals that capture regulatory agencies and redirect trillions of tax dollars to business interests. "

It is frustrating how few people understand this. The most disturbing thing to me about this US presidential election is not Trump, it is the extent to which the New Left identity grievance movement has managed to redirect attention away from it.

Turing test

Alleged, very nice, thank you!

I gave the same answer to #1 (but I have read social conservatives making this argument, which was sort of cheating!). I think I would leave out "biological fact," which conservatives might balk at. Maybe more an attitude of "well, homosexuality is a perversion, but realistically we can't eliminate it, so we should recognize that it's better for them to marry each other and thereby minimize their own sins, plus the trouble they cause for other people." (But I'm not a social conservative, so I can't be sure this is better!)

I gave quite different answers than you did for 2 and 3. Yours are at least as good as mine; probably better. I'm impressed!

I'm having trouble being meta enough

I haven՚t finished processing this post, but something about it is bothering me right off the bat. It doesn՚t seem to live in the current historical moment, which for me demands an attitude entirely different from this position of abstracted symmetry. The two sides are not equivalent – one of them is flirting openly with actual fascism.

Fascism is not merely a different set of values, and the proper reaction to fascism is not, in my opinion, trying to carefully model its moral system so that it can be persuaded with argument. It needs to be defeated with force, hopefully in this case just the force of numbers in an election, although the legitimacy and finality of elections are in the process of being undermined, so who knows.

So maybe I am just stuck at an early developmental stage or am otherwise unable to transcend my partisanship, but there it is. If there is a culture war I know what side I՚m on.

Of course I can see the value of your noble effort to adjudicate a peace in the culture wars by taking an abstract position meta to both sides. That sounds admirable, and encouraging people to empathetically model their opponents is admirable. But I think we are far past that stage, and I speak as someone who has tried to engage with the right-wing on the internet a lot over the years.

I also disagree strongly with the goal of “disentangling morality from politics” – I don՚t think this is either possible or desirable. Politics is either a conflict between different value systems, or else a mere tribal contest between rival ethnicities or gangs. I՚d rather it be the former.

You might be suffering from a form of antipolitics, a syndrome common in geek culture and stemming from a dislike of conflict. Wouldn՚t it be nice if we could transcend our differences and acknowledge each other՚s fundamental humanity? Well, yes, it would be. And we should try. But I՚m increasingly of the opinion that conflict – between political factions, between value systems, between ways of life – is just fundamental to human life, and the best we can hope for is a way to work out those conflicts without actual bloodshed.

One other point: I think your analysis conflates the larger cultural war – which in my personal factoring is mostly about the urban vs rural mentalities, but that divide maps onto the more-or-less equivalent left/right or your monist/dualist splits – with the various countercultures that arose in the 60s and 80s. The factions long predated the countercultures and while the countercultures grew into these factions and reshaped them, they don՚t really define them as a whole.

[and apologies if this is overly contentious and/or missing the point. I don't pretend to any intellectual or (god forbid) moral authority in these matters. ]

History, fascism, and morality

I should say first that, at the non-meta level, I don't understand politics very well. (I was going to write a blog post just about that, but have deferred/dropped it, because I'm sure someone will point out any errors I make.) I haven't engaged with politics for years as you have, and your grasp of the situation on the ground is probably much better than mine.

It doesn՚t seem to live in the current historical moment

Right. This is the second-to-last post in a chapter on the 60s-80s movements, describing their legacy. It's not at all a complete discussion of current politics; it's just meant to illuminate some aspects thereof. By eliding many issues, it may obscure more than it illuminates, of course!

I have upcoming posts on how politics operates in the subcultural and atomized modes, which are quite different from the counterculture war. Because people tend to get stuck in the mode of their youth, we have all three kinds of conflicts going on simultaneously. It may be helpful to distinguish them.

The factions long predated the countercultures and while the countercultures grew into these factions and reshaped them, they don՚t really define them as a whole.

Yup. Much of the point of this page is that the countercultures (in their political manifestations) were just obfuscatory mythologies. That was where I was going with the "reproductive strategies" analysis. Family structure may be the real underlying issue, in which case the countercultures' systems of ideological justification were taken up only because they reinforced different sexual norms.

Interestingly, Trumpism is much closer to the 1960s Southern Strategy than to the 80s religious right. Trump doesn't reflect the values of the religious right at all (as has been much noticed) but appeals to the same group. This seems to show that the religious justifications for the 80s counterculture were largely window-dressing. I think we may be watching the final disintegration of the American religious right; its key constituency has visibly stopped pretending to believe in it.

The two sides are not equivalent – one of them is flirting openly with actual fascism.

Well... some elements of the left are flirting openly with actual Stalinist communism, which is as bad, in my opinion. ("Your side is represented by its worst crazies, mine by its most eloquent and morally upstanding thinkers" is a known failure mode.) However, currently the know-nothing authoritarian right is louder than the know-nothing authoritarian left; so I agree that there's more to be worried about, and to oppose, there. But the moderate, mainstream left is also more authoritarian than I would like, and (in the US) not obviously less authoritarian overall than the moderate, mainstream right. That does not make for moral equivalence, but I'm not altogether enthusiastic about either.

Politics is either a conflict between different value systems, or else a mere tribal contest between rival ethnicities or gangs.

Well... I have an idealistic, 18th century conception of politics, derived probably from a civics class I never took, as a process of collaborative rational deliberation about pragmatic policy questions.

As a descriptive account, this is obviously wildly inaccurate. I would like to hold it as a prescriptive account nonetheless. I have a draft post about that which I hope to get out before the election. (After the election, I suspect no one will want to hear about politics again for the foreseeable future!)

You might be suffering from a form of antipolitics, a syndrome common in geek culture and stemming from a dislike of conflict.

I found your post about that interesting and insightful. My final one in the counterculture chapter will probably say something similar (and maybe link your post).

I think I'm not making that mistake. I'm definitely not a libertarian, rationalist, or neoreactionary. I've publicly criticized all three sharply, in fact. There might be another form of anti-politics that I've fallen into, though!

The final page in this chapter will say explicitly that conflict is inevitable, and politics are important and necessary; but will suggest that better understanding can reduce collateral damage.

Politics, rationality, conflict

This is the second-to-last post in a chapter on the 60s-80s movements, describing their legacy. It's not at all a complete discussion of current politics;

Right, I should remember that this is more part of a book-in-progress than commentary on the fleeting events of the day. Nonetheless you are talking at least in these parts about about recent history, so hard not to respond in that mode.

Well...some elements of the left are flirting openly with actual Stalinist communism, which is as bad, in my opinion

Some elements maybe, but their influence seems limited to a few precincts of Berkeley and Cambridge, whereas the right-wing crazies have coopted the candidate of a major political party. It՚s not really comparable.

Well... I have an idealistic, 18th century conception of politics, derived probably from a civics class I never took, as a process of collaborative rational deliberation about pragmatic policy questions.

I don՚t think so. It does, in its better forms, involve a good deal of reasoned deliberation, but I don՚t think it is ever free of the contest of concrete interests. If that isn՚t present, you don՚t really need politics, management and technical expertise will suffice.

Or, more deeply, it involves the creation of shared interests. A good politician is someone who can make the interests of a disparate group of people both appear to be aligned, and cause them to be actually aligned. The US is a sort of fiction, its interests are even more fictional, yet these fictions end up having enormous real-world power. The US coheres through various acts of magic, such as the ritual of elections through which the legitimacy of the government is maintained, and Americans are enabled to think of themselves as members of a collective rather than self-interested atoms.

This is a very basic and primal operation of all social groups. And it seems like it has to precede rationality, since it creates the conditions for cooperation.

Politics may be more about a contest of narratives than a contest of interests (eg the Trumpian story about how America has been taken advantage of but will be restored to greatness through better deals vs. the other side, harder to caricature but maybe it՚s “me and my friends at Davos are all so smart and capable and all we need is bit more money and bureaucratic power and we can fix anything”). But support for the narratives is grounded in interests or perceived interests.

Sorry, off on a tangent. Something about this stuff fascinates me...not even so much the politics per se but trying to find better ways to understand the dynamics of collectives.

I think I'm not making that mistake. I'm definitely not a libertarian,

Didn՚t mean to accuse you of libertarianism or any other ideology; if you are antipolitical it is surely your own personal flavor.

One stream of consciousness in reply to another!

I don՚t think it is ever free of the contest of concrete interests. If that isn՚t present, you don՚t really need politics.

Right. The first subtitle of the next page is "Beyond centrism and civility." My notes-to-myself from that, in stream-of-consciousness-ese:

this is not a plea for centrism, compromise, civility, or well-meaning tolerance (I tend to favor those, but that is not the point here)

the complete stance is not a middle way. I’m suggesting that both sides are wrong, and there are other, unrecognized alternatives

conflict is inevitable. ideological demonization is not. wars over symbols are not.

because people are diverse, these conflicts can’t be resolved (in favor of one or the other). They can be dissolved (in favor of a more accurate stance on meaningness). That leaves practical conflicts, which are inevitable. practical solutions are possible—after dissolving/untangling/withdrawing eternalist absolutisms, where compromise would be morally wrong.

or at least cooled (if people recognize at least intellectually that they are not absolutely in the right)

argue about concrete practicalities, not values, which are mostly bullshit anyway

You wrote:

A good politician is someone who can make the interests of a disparate group of people both appear to be aligned, and cause them to be actually aligned.

That's an interesting point; I hadn't thought of it that way! Will let it percolate.

trying to find better ways to understand the dynamics of collectives.


Thanks David

John's picture

Please keep writing this kind of essay. The world needs it.

Because you're on the left

Sean's picture

You mentioned you can't think of a counter example similar to abortion on the left that keeps galvanizing people and being exaggerated. That's because you probably mostly believe the myths of the left as well. Some of those include the over-exaggerated importance of racism, sexism, etc. Before everyone dogpiles to start giving all your arguments and evidence just realize, those on the right would do the same if I claimed "the negative impact of abortion is largely overstated". Also realize that there is plenty of evidence showing a post-gender post-racial society at large (i.e. starting women engineers without children make 117% of starting male engineers, black president, etc), you're probably just choosing to give more weight to evidence that supports your tribe.

you really really should read

you really really should read Alasdair Macintyre; I think you would find a lot of common ground and some strong intellectual ideas that would both challenge and bolster your thinking.

Alasdair Macintyre

Thank you! Could you say more about what I should read and why?

I am roughly familiar with the ideas in After Virtue from secondary sources. I've read many summaries and discussions of the book, but there might be something important there that they miss. The title of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? poses questions that seem important. I rarely see references to that book (or his others) though.

Alasdair Macintyre

Well, this is potentially a big subject, and not one I have delved into deeply since my student days (I think I self-indulgently tweeted you my undergrad thesis - the contents page at list of which might be useful):
I can give the broad sweep, but not good references to texts any more, sorry!
He has some strong themes and an internally consistent philosophy which I find to be very persuasive, and in many respects I think might not be totally distinct from yours.
So - the breakdown of rationality in ethical argument - because of 'cargo cult' disconnection of ethical expression from the community and practices which in which context they held meaning: After Virtue.
The concept of the breakdown of meaning when a model of the world (Kuhnian paradigm) no longer has sufficient explanatory power - "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, & the Philosophy of Science" (this would, I think, be a good intro).
I don't know if it is in there or in 'whose justice, which rationality' that he then makes the move into competing rationalities - and the idea that an incommensurable tradition which can explain both what the failing tradition fails to explain and what it *can* explain and why it failed.
Interestingly, in claiming that different rationalities (founded in practices and social groupings) compete for explanatory power of the human condition and useful interpretation of human context, and in the process justifying his own move from early socialism to late-life Aristotelian Thomism, Macintyre's ultimate foundation of reality is a deeply circular one: the interpretation of the Word. And it seems to me that circular causation is a quite important point that I haven't yet found in the samples I've read of your writing, but is probably there?
(Though, like Wittgenstein, he inevitably brings the Word and the Act together, since for him interpretation is not a merely intellectual process, it is an embodied and social one – and so I really resonated with meaning being created from action, with most ontological questions therefore dissolving away. (There’s a systems thinking/family therapy approach based on this called 'co-ordinated management of meaning', which is one of those many things I think more people should be more interested in).
There’s a very early paper he wrote on Marxism which talks about hermeneutics and in the last book I read (Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry – Dependent Rational Animals came out after I left university – I bought it recently but haven’t read it), he returns to hermeneutics to justify his Thomism.
I think he holds views about modernism, post-modernism, and meaning in community that you would find interesting – I found it very consistent with a ‘there’s no self without other’ view, which I share since being infected with existentialist philosophy (and the Saint-Simon sort of side of Marx and Hegel which speaks to production, creation, and alienation - you might also say that there is no self without production (which might be creating relationships), and that self is therefore never limited to self-in-self cos there is self-in-other by definition (by essence) - this can be considered a definition of 'wholeness' or a definition of 'alienation', depending). But that's where existentialism gets you - hyphenated composite words.

I’ll end with a good quote:

“I cannot answer the question, 'What ought I to do?' unless I first answer the question, 'Of which story am I a part?'”

Languages of Politics

M Vargas's picture

I found this article super interesting and insightful but I feel like there was a major oversight that should be mentioned. You say that "conservatives [are primarily concerned] with civilization vs. barbarism" but that doesn't really fit the small/anti-govt push of the last few decades, such as is being seen in the right's extreme hostility towards Obamacare. It fits your overall monist vs dualist concept fairly well, but not so much the discussion on "Languages of Politics" as you describe it.

The small/anti-govt push

Kling puts small/anti-government attitudes in the libertarian category, rather than the conservative one.

There's been an alliance of convenience between those two views in the United States during the past few decades, but they're conceptually opposed. That's playing out now in the Republican Congress's inability to agree among themselves about what to do with healthcare finance.

There have also been alliances between the left and libertarian views earlier in US political history; the current right-libertarian alliance is something of a historical accident as far as I can see.

Alliance of convenience

M Vargas's picture

The "alliance of convenience" has been my thinking as well but it kinda muddies the waters in terms of "Languages of Politics" because it shows that individuals can swap around their "language" depending on the issue, since many conservatives will very passionately defend things with a more "anti-barbarism" argument on one issue and then switch to "anti-coercion" arguments for another. It makes the hope of mutual understanding and communication even more complicated.

What subsidy?

Bad Horse's picture

"It’s an everybody-else-vs.-the-financial-industry issue. How can subsidies in excess of a trillion dollars a year persist, with no popular support from either the right or the left?"

What subsidies?

(P.S. -- I can never enter anything into the 'homepage' field, or your spam filter blocks my comment.)


Bad Horse's picture

"The collapse of belief in all grand narratives is the defining feature of postmodernity. "

That's what post-modernists would like you to believe. But post-modernism is also an eternalist dogma. It assumes that no other accounts of reality or meaning are possible other than 13th-century scholastic ones, that words are signifiers for eternal essences, and that "meaning" can only be a hypothetical connection between a word and an eternal, transcendent essence. The post-modern arguments against grand narratives are all arguments against 13th-century grand narratives and accounts of meaning. They subtly reject all scientific thought by pretending it doesn't exist, by claiming to talk about science when they are talking about Aristotelianism.

Structurally-sound bridges

Bad Horse's picture

I've heard the "one in 10 bridges is not structurally sound" quote many times before. We should stop using it; it's obviously false. I don't know how many concrete bridges there are on public roads in America, but if one in 10 were not structurally sound in 2013, then at least one of them would've collapsed since 2013-- but as far as I know, none of them have.

Differences are in encoding and inference, not in values

Bad Horse's picture

"Disentangling morality from politics would be enormously helpful."

I think these words are almost synonyms. If they aren't, that would mean that people are amoral--that their social intentions (politics) are not driven by morals, and that "morality" means not a code of behavior that a person plans to follow himself, but one which he falsely promotes in the hope that other people will follow it.

"Research suggests that the differences in values between the tribes are much smaller than both think. Most supposed conflicts in fundamental values are actually disagreements about concrete issues (is euthanasia OK? is cultural appropriation OK?) that were given symbolic significance through mythological reasoning."

Political conflicts are conflicts in conclusions. Conclusions differ for at least two main reasons:

  1. People compress out different information when encoding information. Whatever algorithm we use to encode information, it must reduce its dimensionality first. Dimensionality reduction saves the dimensions which experience has taught the organism are most significant, and throws out the ones experience has taught it to be less significant. Conservatives and liberals will remember different parts of the same speech, and their reasoning will be better able to match and make use of information along the dimensions they consider important.
  2. Given the information stored in their brains, people use different reasoning techniques. Both political parties today are Rationalist, meaning they believe politics should be based on theorem-proving, as in geometry. Each takes as axiomatic beliefs which are not empirically justified. They are unable to question, or even to conceive of questioning their axioms, and as Rationalists they are unable to think about certainty, which their logic cannot represent, and opposed to the idea of compromise.

Rationalism = GOFAI

Bad Horse's picture

... so you should understand when I say that Rationalism, the philosophy underlying both political parties today, is precisely GOFAI. This philosophy was brought over by the Puritans to New England, and has since taken over all positions of power in the US.

New England's only strong political opponent among the Colonies was the South. New England puritanism took over the Southern churches by spreading Baptist theology to the south, much aided by the Great Awakening and the war with Britain, which both weakened American Anglicanism.

It consolidated its position by founding universities all across America, as well as evangelizing the West Coast. Most of the elite universities in the US (eg Harvard, Princeton, Yale) were founded /specifically to promote Rationalist theology/, which is what they still do today. The 4 main promulgators of post-modern ideology are the University of Paris, Yale, Harvard, and maybe Oxford, all of which were founded /not/ to promote "higher education", but to teach an ontology and theology based on medieval scholastisism; and post-modernism is simply medieval scholastic beliefs circa 1300 minus God.

The keystone of their political dominance is the university system. All roads to cultural importance, whether financial, political, academic, scientific, or in the fine arts, now require going through an elite university--and all merit-based scholarships have been eliminated, and objective measures of academic merit downgraded in favor of "holistic" measures, meaning control of who gets in can be entirely ideological.

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This page is in the section Countercultures: modernity’s last gasp,
      which is in How meaning fell apart,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The next page in this section is Completing the countercultures.

The previous page is Why both countercultures failed.

This page’s topics are Countercultures and Eternalism.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.