Cultural Hegemony

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

In describing the tea party vs. the intellectuals, Lee Harris explains Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony:

A generation before Orwell devised the idea of Newspeak, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci had developed a concept that in many ways foreshadowed it, but with one major and considerable difference. Before Gramsci discovered Marx, he had been a student of languages. Gramsci was especially fascinated by what happened when two languages collided. Throughout European history, conquerors had routinely moved into new territories where the inhabitants spoke a different language. In some cases, such as the Normans in France, it was the conquerors who picked up the language of the conquered, but more frequently, it was the other way around. What explained this fact? Why did a conquered people so often abandon their own language in order to learn the language of their conquerors?

Gramsci argued that what led people to discard their native language was the greater prestige of the conqueror’s language. The idea of prestige, which had never played a role in classical Marxism, became the key to Gramsci’s most famous concept, cultural hegemony. For Orwell, the cultural hegemony sought by the totalitarian state had to be imposed on the masses through diabolically cunning devices such as the telescreen, a reverse television system that permitted the Thought Police to watch and monitor the activities of citizens in the privacy of their own homes. People did not watch the telescreen. Instead they were watched by it, fully cognizant that if they did anything to displease Big Brother they could face the most ghastly consequences imaginable.

For Orwell the basis of cultural hegemony was terror. For Gramsci, on the other hand, it was prestige. Cultural hegemony, according to Gramsci, did not have to be imposed on the people through threats and intimidation. It didn’t need to be imposed at all. Conquered subjects sought to emulate the prestigious language of their conquerors, while they simultaneously came to look down on their own native tongue as gross, defective, and inferior. In modern liberal societies the same principle has been at work, but with different players. As education became the ticket to worldly success, it naturally became a source of prestige. Prestige no longer came from conquest by arms, but from earning a Ph.D. In modern secular societies, the eminence of the intellectual elite allowed it to unilaterally allocate prestige to select ideas, thinkers, and institutions. Objects imbued with the magical glow of prestige did not need to be pushed on people — on the contrary, people eagerly vied with each other to obtain these objects, often at great personal sacrifice. That is why prestigious institutions, such as major universities, well-endowed foundations, and posh clubs invariably have far more candidates for admission than can possibly be accommodated — a selectivity that makes them even more desirable and prestigious. That is the beauty of prestige: It doesn’t need to lift a finger. It can just sit back and relax, confident that people will flock to its feet, begging for the crumbs from its luxuriant table.

A governing elite that has a monopoly over the allocation of prestige has immense power over a culture. It can decide what ideas, thinkers, and movements merit attention, while it can also determine what ideas, thinkers, and movements should be dismissed with scorn and contempt — assuming that the elite even condescends to notice their existence. Needless to say, such a setup will lead to a high degree of intellectual cronyism, in which members of the “in” group mutually endorse and reinforce each others’ prestige; but like crony capitalism, this is standard operating procedure of all elites and should come as no surprise. Relying on the natural human desire to gravitate towards prestige, the intellectual elite has no need to resort to the ham-fisted methods of Orwell’s Big Brother.

Despite the fact that Gramsci regarded himself as a Marxist, the central role that he gave to prestige led far from Marxist orthodoxy. In Marxism the ruling class can be easily identified: it has a monopoly on the production and distribution of things. For Gramsci, there is a new ruling class, which has a monopoly on the production and distribution of opinions. Capitalists only trade in products and services. Intellectuals shape and mold people’s perceptions and ideas. In earlier societies, in which intellectuals could only influence people by books and pamphlets, their reach was limited. But with the advent of the modern technology have come new means of reaching out to even the most illiterate masses, influencing them in new and subtle ways, while ingenious methods of psychological manipulation and subliminal persuasion have made it quite simple to mask propaganda under the guise of entertainment. The intellectual elite, simply by achieving cultural hegemony over the masses, could obtain a power of influencing the popular mind that tyrants and despots of a previous era only dreamt about. Because of their immense prestige with the general public, the intellectual elite can frequently win people over to their cause. Those who wish to be regarded as intelligent and current in their ideas will quickly move to adopt those ideas that happen to carry the greatest intellectual prestige at any given time, just as the fashion-conscious will quickly start dressing themselves in the latest clothes concocted by the most prestigious designers. The spell cast by prestige gives those who possess it an immense power to influence society. For Gramsci, the prestige of the dominant elite was sufficient to make people discard their native language in order to acquire a language that ranked higher in prestige. And if people are willing to change languages because of prestige, they will certainly be willing to change their ideas, their values, their customs, and their traditions for the same reason.

For better or for worse, the profound cultural changes in American life during the past half century are testament to the enormous influence exercised by our cultural guardians. Ideas, customs, and traditions that no longer find favor in the eyes of the cultural elite have been stigmatized as out-of-date and old-fashioned, while an array of progressive policies have received the imprimatur of elite prestige.

The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Lee Harris looks at the Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals:

Intellectual critics of the Tea Party movement most often attack it for its lack of ideas, especially new ideas — and these critics have a point. But the point they are making reveals as much about them as it does about the Tea Party. Behind the criticism lies the implicit assumption that comes quite naturally to American intellectuals: Namely, that a political movement ought be motivated by ideas and that a new political movement should provide new ideas.

But the Tea Party movement is not about ideas. It is all about attitude, like the attitude expressed by the popular poster seen at all Tea Party rallies. Over the head of a hissing rattlesnake threatening to strike is inscribed the defiant slogan so popular among our revolutionary ancestors: “Don’t tread on me!” The old defiant motto is certainly not a new idea. In fact, it is not an idea at all. It is a warning.

If you are an intellectual, you can debate an idea, but how do you debate a warning? No evidence can be adduced to refute it. No logic can be introduced to poke holes in it. All you can do with a warning is to heed it or disregard it. “Don’t tread on me!” is not the deliberate articulation of a well-thought-out political ideology, but rather the expression of an attitude — the attitude of pugnacious and even truculent defiance. But take away this attitude, and what is left of the Tea Party? Not much that respectable intellectuals can respect.

First of all, there appears to be no consistent ideology or coherent set of policies behind the movement. Second, when intellectuals turn to examine some of the more radical proposals championed in Tea Party circles, such as the abolition of Social Security or the return to the gold standard, they can only shake their heads in dismay. These crank nostrums are well past their historical expiration date. They may elicit fanatic support from the politically naïve and unsophisticated, but no one who knows how the political world operates will pay them a moment’s notice. Reviving the gold standard in order to solve our economic problems is akin to reviving the horse-and-buggy to reduce our level of carbon emissions. It ain’t gonna happen, and those who put their energies into pursuing these quack solutions are at best engaged in the politics of make-believe.

It is little wonder that so many sober intellectuals find it difficult to take the Tea Party seriously, except to see it as a threat to the future of American politics. But anti-Tea Party intellectuals who are liberal have a luxury that their conservative brethren don’t have. Liberals can attack and deride the Tea Party without fear of alienating their traditional allies among ordinary voters. Indeed, their mockery of the Tea Party makes good sense to them politically. It is throwing red meat to their base. But conservative intellectuals are in a wholly different position.

As the Tea Party gains in momentum, conservative intellectuals are faced with a dilemma: to join the party or denounce it. If they join, they risk losing their status as respectable public intellectuals. If they denounce the party, they risk losing influence over the traditional Republican base.

The Spirit of Independence

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Intellectuals tend to believe that ideas cause attitudes, Lee Harris says, though it is far more often the other way around:

Several years ago, while attending a street festival in the small town of Tucker, Georgia, I came across a booth sponsored by the local libertarian society. At the time, I did not realize that my encounter would generate my next book. I only remember being struck by the question asked of everyone who visited the booth that day: “So who owns you?”
To most of [those who wandered into the booth that day], the question “So who owns you?” seemed to come with the force of a revelation, and they responded with a decided and often emphatic, “Nobody owns me.” Which is to say, someone may own other people, but certainly does not own me.

Lee Harris sees this as evidence that many people are natural libertarians. Arnold Kling does not; he emphasizes the last bit of that excerpt:

I think that most people resent being told what to do, and yet such people are not libertarians when it comes to other people being told what to do.

I have a stronger criterion for natural libertarianism. When you see other people doing something that really offends you, are you willing to see the state allow that behavior to continue? Only if you can answer “yes” are you a natural libertarian. I think that there are very few natural libertarians.

The Opium of the Intellectual

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Modern Marxism, Lee Harris explains, is a fantasy ideology dressed up to look like Marxism:

Marx and Engels’s wholesale condemnation of all previous socialism as utopian fantasy is the fundamental innovation of their own work. It is the basis of their claim to be taken seriously, not merely by Hoffmanesque daydreamers, but by men of practical judgment and shrewd common sense. To fail to make this distinction, or to fail to stay on the right side of this distinction once it has been made, is to cease to be a Marxist and to fall back into mere Träumerei.

This demarcation line arose because Marx believed that he had grasped something that no previous utopian socialist had even suspected. He believed that he had shown that socialism was inevitable and that it would come about through certain ironclad laws of history — laws that Marx believed were revealed through the study of the very nature of capitalism. Socialism, in short, would not come about because a handful of daydreamers had wished for it, or because pious moralists had urged it, but because the unavoidable breakdown of the capitalist system would force the turn to socialism upon those societies that, prior to this breakdown, had been organized along capitalist lines.

Schematically the scenario went something like this:

  • The capitalists would begin to suffer from a falling rate of profit.
  • The workers would therefore be “immiserized”; they would become poorer as the capitalists struggled to keep their own heads above water.
  • The poverty of the workers would drive them to overthrow the capitalist system — their poverty, not their ideals.

What is interesting here is that, once you accept the initial premise about the falling rate of profit, the rest does indeed follow realistically. Now, this does not mean that it follows necessarily or according to an ironclad scientific law; but it certainly conveys what any reasonable person would take as the most probable outcome of a hypothetical failure of capitalism.

For Marx it is absolutely essential that revolutionary activities be justifiable on realistic premises. If they cannot be, then they are actions that cannot possibly have a real political objective — and therefore, their only value can be the private emotional or spiritual satisfaction of the people carrying out this pseudo-political action.

So in order for revolutionary activity to have a chance of succeeding, there is an unavoidable precondition: The workers must have become much poorer over time. Furthermore, there had to be not merely an increase of poverty, but a conviction on the part of the workers that their material circumstances would only get worse, and not better — and this would require genuine misery.

This is the immiserization thesis of Marx. And it is central to revolutionary Marxism, since if capitalism produces no widespread misery, then it also produces no fatal internal contradiction: If everyone is getting better off through capitalism, who will dream of struggling to overthrow it? Only genuine misery on the part of the workers would be sufficient to overturn the whole apparatus of the capitalist state, simply because, as Marx insisted, the capitalist class could not be realistically expected to relinquish control of the state apparatus and, with it, the monopoly of force. In this, Marx was absolutely correct. No capitalist society has ever willingly liquidated itself, and it is utopian to think that any ever will. Therefore, in order to achieve the goal of socialism, nothing short of a complete revolution would do; and this means, in point of fact, a full-fledged civil war not just within one society, but across the globe. Without this catastrophic upheaval, capitalism would remain completely in control of the social order and all socialist schemes would be reduced to pipe dreams.

When Communism took hold in agrarian Russia and then China, while the workers in America and Britain grew prosperous, it should have been clear that Marx’s “scientific” predictions were in no sense coming true — but socialists did not admit their non-scientific shift into utopianism:

There might be several reasons advanced for this, but certainly one of them is Paul Baran. A Polish born American economist and a Marxist, Baran is the author of (Monthly Review Press, 1957). In it, for the first time in Marxist literature, Baran propounded a causal connection between the prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries and the impoverishment of the Third World. It was no longer the case, as it was for Marx, that poverty — as well as idiocy — was the natural condition of man living in an agricultural mode of production. Rather, poverty had been introduced into the Third World by the capitalist system. The colonies no longer served the purpose of consuming overstocked inventories, but were now the positive victims of capitalism.

What needs to be stressed here is that, prior to Baran, no Marxist had ever suspected that capitalism was the cause of the poverty of the rest of the world. Not only had Marx and Engels failed to notice this momentous fact, but neither had any of their followers. Yet this omission was certainly not due to Marx’s lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the question of European colonies. In his writing on India, Marx shows himself under no illusions concerning the brutal and mercenary nature of British rule. He is also aware of the “misery and degradation” effected by the impact of British industry’s “devastating effects” on India. Yet all of this is considered by Marx to be a dialectical necessity; that is to say, these effects were the unavoidable precondition of India’s progress and advance — an example of the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter spoke of as the essence of capitalist dynamics. Or, as Marx put it in On Colonialism: “[T]he English bourgeoisie… will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the [Indian] people… but… what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both” the emancipation and the mending of this social condition.

The radical nature of Baran’s reformulation of Marxist doctrine is obscured by an understandable tendency to confuse Baran’s theory with Lenin’s earlier theory of imperialism. In fact, the two have nothing in common. Lenin’s theory had evolved in order to explain the continuing survival of capitalism into the early twentieth century, and hence the delay of the coming of socialism. In Lenin’s view, imperialism is not the cause of Third World immiserization, but rather a stopgap means of postponing immiserization in the capitalist countries themselves. It is the capitalist countries’ way of keeping their own work force relatively prosperous — and hence politically placid — by selling surplus goods into captive colonial markets. It is not a way of exploiting, much less impoverishing, these colonies. It was rather a way “to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat, and… to… strengthen opportunism,” as Lenin put it in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (International Publishers, 1933).

This gives us the proper perspective from which to judge the revolutionary quality of Baran’s reformulation. For, in essence, what Baran has done is to globalize the traditional doctrine of immiserization so that, instead of applying to the workers of the advanced capitalist countries, it now came to apply to the entire population of those countries that have not achieved advanced capitalism: It was the rest of the world that was being impoverished by capitalism, not the workers of the advanced countries.

Baran’s global immiserization thesis, after its initial launch, was taken up by other Marxists, but it was nowhere given a more elaborate intellectual foundation than in Immanuel Wallerstein’s monumental study The Modern World-System (Academic Press, 1974), which was essentially a fleshing out in greater historical and statistical detail of Baran’s thesis. Hence, for the sake of convenience, I will call the global immiserization thesis the Baran-Wallerstein revision.

This Baran-Wallerstein revision helped explain a lot:

For example, there was no longer any difficulty in accepting the astonishingly high level of prosperity achieved by the work force of the advanced capitalist countries — indeed, it was now even possible to arraign the workers of these countries alongside of the capitalists for whom they labored — or, rather, more precisely, with whom they collaborated in order to exploit both the material resources and the cheap labor of the Third World. In the new configuration, both the workers and the capitalists of the advanced countries became the oppressor class, while it was the general population of the less advanced countries that became the oppressed — including, curiously enough, even the rulers of these countries, who often, to the untutored eye, seemed remarkably like oppressors themselves.

With this demystification of the capitalist working class came an end to even a feigned enthusiasm among Marxists for solidarity with the hopelessly middle-class aspirations of the American blue-collar work force. The Baran-Wallerstein revision offered an exotic new object of sympathy — namely, the comfortably distant and abstract Third World victims of the capitalist world system.

Perhaps most important, the Baran-Wallerstein revision also neatly solved the most pressing dilemma that worker prosperity in advanced capitalist countries bequeathed to classical Marxism: the absolute lack of revolutionary spirit among these workers — the very workers, it must be remembered, who were originally cast in the critical role of world revolutionaries. In the new theoretical configuration, this problem no longer mattered simply because the workers of the capitalist countries no longer mattered.

Hence the appeal of the global immiserization thesis: The Baran-Wallerstein revision neatly obviates all the most outstanding objections to the classical Marxist theory.

On the other hand the Baran-Wallerstein revision doesn’t explain how the revolution could succeed:

This is because the original immiserization thesis was set within the context of a class war within a society — an actual civil war between different classes of one and the same society, and not between different nations on different continents. This makes an enormous difference, for it is not at all unreasonable to think that a revolutionary movement could succeed, by means of a violent and bloody civil war, in gaining the monopoly of force within a capitalist society, and thus be able to dictate terms to the routed capitalists, if any survived.

But this is an utterly different scenario from one in which the most advanced capitalist societies have a monopoly of force — and brutally effective force — at their disposal. For in this case it is absurd to think that the exploited Third World countries could possibly be able to alter the world order by even a hair, provided the advanced capitalist societies were intent on not being altered.

What could they do to us?

The answer to this question, according to many of those who accept the global immiserization thesis, came on 9-11. Noam Chomsky, perhaps America’s most celebrated proponent of the Baran-Wallerstein thesis, expressed this idea in the immediate aftermath. Here, for the first time, the world had witnessed the oppressed finally striking a blow against the oppressor — a politically immature blow, perhaps, comparable to the taking of the Bastille by the Parisian mob in its furious disregard of all laws of humanity, but still an act equally world-historical in its significance: the dawn of a new revolutionary era.

It’s still not enough though:

For those who are persuaded by the Baran-Wallerstein thesis, 9-11 represents a classic temptation. It is the temptation that every fantasy ideology offers to those who become caught up in it — the temptation to replace serious thought and analysis, fidelity to the facts and scrupulous objectivity, with the worst kind of wishful thinking. The attempt to cast 9-11 as a second taking of the Bastille simply overlooks what is most critical about both of these events, namely, that the Bastille was a symbol of oppression to the masses of French men and women who first overthrew it and then tore it down, brick by brick. And while it is true that the Bastille had become the stuff of fantasy, thanks to the pre-1789 “horrors of the Bastille” literature, it was still a fantasy that worked potently on the minds of the Parisian mob and hence provided the objective political conditions necessary to undermine the Bourbon state. But the fantasy embodied in 9-11, far from weakening the American political order, strengthened it immeasurably, while the only mobs that were motivated by the enactment of this fantasy were those inhabiting the Arab streets — a population pathetically unable to control even the most elementary aspects of its own political destiny, and hence scarcely the material out of which a realistically minded revolutionary could hope to fashion an instrument of world-historical transformation. These people are badly miscast in the role of the vanguard of the world revolution. And what can we say about those in the West, allegedly acting within the tradition of Marxist thought, who encourage such spectacularly utopian flights of fantasy?

There is nothing Marxist about the Baran-Wallerstein thesis:

On the contrary, according to Marx, it was the duty of the non-utopian socialist, prior to the advent of genuine socialism, to support whatever state happened to represent the most fully developed and consistently carried out form of capitalism; and, indeed, it was his duty to defend it against the irrational onslaughts of those reactionary and backward forces that tried to thwart its development. In fact, this was a duty that Marx took upon himself, and nowhere more clearly than in his defense of the United States against the Confederacy in the Civil War. Only in this case he was defending capitalism against a fantasy ideology that, unlike that of radical Islam, wished to roll back the clock a mere handful of centuries, not several millennia.

Akrasia and the Greatest Drug Worker in History

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Don’t blame drugs for drug addiction, says Theodore Dalrymple, in Romancing Opiates. Richard DeGrandpre makes the same point in The Cult of Pharmacology. Lee Harris offers his own perspective:

If the drug induced the moral weakness, then shouldn’t we blame the drug, as the addict asks us to? If the moral weakness was already there, before the drug use began, and if it explains the addict’s inability to control his drug use, then what sense does it make to hold the addict responsible for his moral weakness? If a person has been trained to believe that he is helpless to control his own behavior, can you alter this fact by stigmatizing him or by making him face the adverse consequences of what Dalrymple calls his “conscious choices”? It is his very moral weakness that makes him impossible to help, because that moral weakness has long convinced him that he cannot help himself.

To accept the addict’s account at face value does not require a bleeding heart. The problem of moral weakness was frankly recognized and brilliantly analyzed by the tough-minded Aristotle who put great emphasis in both his ethical and political theories on a psychological phenomenon he called akrasia. This Greek term literally means “without power,” and it refers to a lack of mastery over the self — a state of helplessness in respect to one’s appetites, passions, and impulses. It is defined in contrast to the concept of enkrateia, which represents the exact opposite kind of character — the person who has obtained mastery over himself, and who can control and regulate his passions and impulses. The dieter, for example, who follows his self-imposed regimen strictly and faithfully, is displaying enkrateia, while the dieter who goes off his diet because he cannot resist the lure of a strawberry milkshake is an example of akrasia.

According to Aristotle, not all akrasia is the same. There is weakness (astheneia) and impetuosity (propeteia). Our lapsed dieter is an example of weakness. He has thought out a plan of action that he thinks is the right thing for him to do, namely, to lose weight; he has even established a dietary routine to achieve his end. Yet he simply cannot resist the impulse to have a strawberry milkshake, in violation of the rules that he had set out for himself. He knows better, but this rational knowledge makes no difference to his actual conduct. He is too weak to control his appetites and his passions. He exists in a state of internal conflict: part of him wants to do the right thing, but that part is not strong enough to conquer the part of him that wants to do the wrong thing.

On the other hand, the impetuous person makes no attempt to curb and control his impulses and appetites. He simply acts, and does so without any internal agonizing over what choice to make, and indeed without any reflection or deliberation at all. Yet, for Aristotle, the impetuous person is capable of regretting his impulsive actions once he has committed them, though perhaps only in the way that the impulsive shoplifter regrets the fact that he has been caught red-handed. This regret, by itself, cannot bring about a change in the behavior of the impetuous person; he will continue to give in to his impulses and to be punished for them — like the criminal who, as soon as he is released from jail, returns to committing the same crimes that put him there in the first place. The impetuous person never learns.

Aristotle’s analysis is helpful in seeing where Dalrymple’s treatment of the addict falls short, since the concept of akrasia allows us to recognize that there will inevitably be large groups of human beings who will be unable to control their own lives — a group that will naturally exhibit all the signs of the impetuous personality. Large doses of testosterone coursing through the veins of young males will invariably lead to impetuous behavior, unless these boys have been subjected from a young age to a rigorous program aimed at habituating them to self-control, or enkrateia — and even then the success may be hit or miss. Kids who have been allowed to grow up feral cannot be expected to display self-control; self-mastery is a technique no one has taught them, so how could they have learned it? They will in fact lack the strength of mind to rise even to the level of Aristotle’s weak man, since they will be ignorant of what constitutes right conduct.

In Aristotle’s political theory, such human beings are classified as “natural slaves” who must be governed by others because they are completely unable to govern themselves. Today we find Aristotle’s theory objectionable, despite the fact that in even the most advanced societies many people are “enslaved” to drugs, to alcohol, to gambling, and to sex. Indeed, Aristotle could rightly point out that no society has ever existed that achieved the complete elimination of the weak-willed and the impetuous, if only because each rising generation will consist of children who, by nature, lack the self-mastery that can only be achieved by the right upbringing — if even then.

Civilizing the young is one of the first duties of any society, though it is a duty that certain cultures have discharged with vastly more success than others. If there are many people in the society whose behavior is characterized by akrasia, or moral weakness, then the society, for its own good, has a right and an obligation to keep them from dangers to which they, by nature, are especially vulnerable. The sociological motive behind such puritanism is not a hatred of pleasure as such, but only of those pleasures that weaken the will and undermine self-control. Some pleasures are wholesome and acceptable, and should be encouraged. Other pleasures challenge not just individual self-control but the collective self-control of the whole community, threatening the ethical foundation of the society; such pleasures must be curbed. Lead us not into temptation, both for our own good and the welfare of the general society.

There are, of course, people who live perfectly productive lives while addicted to drugs:

To begin with, let us examine the case of two remarkable individuals, one cited by DeGrandpre, the other by Dalrymple.

William Halsted was an American doctor whom DeGrandpre calls “one of the greatest of surgeons in American history, perhaps even the father of modern surgery.” In 1892, Halsted became the first professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital; he later introduced the use of rubber gloves when operating on patients, and went on to organize “new fields of medicine, including orthopaedics, otolaryngology, and urology.” Yet Halsted had been using morphine from the age of twenty-two, and remained a morphine user for well over the next half-century. A study made of him in 1942 reported that Halsted “found that his addiction caused him little inconvenience…. Sometimes he went for a few days, or even weeks, without the drug, but then ‘suddenly the overpowering desire would come.’”

William Wilberforce, an Englishman who lived a century before Halsted, played a pivotal role in bringing about one of the world’s greatest ethical achievements: he worked tirelessly for the emancipation of slaves, not just in British colonies, but around the world, and he was instrumental in ending the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. His contemporaries admired his eloquence; Boswell famously described watching the diminutive Wilberforce give a speech: “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.” Thanks to his patience and persistence, the abolitionist cause eventually won out in Parliament. Yet, as Dalrymple notes, Wilberforce died an opium addict.

Halsted and Wilberforce certainly do not fit into the categories of the weak-willed or impetuous man. Can their addictions be summarily dismissed as mere self-indulgence, or do they offer evidence that certain substances possess an occult hold over even the strongest of us? When Halsted spoke of the times when he tried to quit morphine, but found himself seized by “the overpowering desire” for the drug, was he simply propagating more pharmacological lies, as De Quincey is supposed to have done, or was he genuinely possessed by a desire over which he had no control?

Earlier we discussed the case of the weak-willed fellow who set out to follow a rigorous diet plan, but found himself seduced by the temptation of a strawberry milkshake. When dealing with our lapsed dieter and his strawberry milkshake, our common sense tells us that it would be silly to blame some sinister power in the milkshake. Instead, it makes more sense to say that he lacked the strength of will; or, as Aristotle would say, that he was weak. But can the same thing be said about other substances, like opium, cocaine, or alcohol? It was the immensely strong-willed Samuel Johnson who, when asked why he never touched wine, replied: “Abstinence is as easy for me, as temperance would be difficult.” But why would temperance have been so difficult for Johnson to achieve? It makes no sense to blame it on his lack of willpower, since he was strong enough to abstain from wine completely, and, as he said, quite easily.

Johnson’s quip about abstinence and temperance makes sense when it is a question of spirituous beverages, but what about strawberry milkshakes? We can understand a man who abstains from drinking strawberry milkshakes — but what about a man who cannot drink strawberry milkshakes in moderation, and who goes on a weekend-long strawberry milkshake binge? Is such a man even imaginable? If one finds pleasure in a strawberry milkshake at all, one can find it only in moderation: drink three of them in a row as an experiment if you doubt the truth of this observation.

But the same thing cannot be said about the pleasures of alcohol, and by extension, the pleasures of opium, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine. While it is true that some people can use these drugs moderately, the way many of Johnson’s contemporaries could drink wine moderately, the fact remains that there are many otherwise strong-willed people who begin taking alcohol and drugs and discover, too late, that they cannot control their desire to take more and more — a problem which, as we have seen, does not afflict even the most self-indulgent lover of strawberry milkshakes. In short, the chemical nature of the temptation does matter.

Harris argues in favor of useful myths:

Is it possible that one of the causes of the modern drug epidemic is that more and more people have ceased to subscribe to the idea that certain substances are inherently destructive of our strength of will, and have therefore been tempted to taste the erstwhile forbidden fruit? If scientific knowledge leads us to abandon such myths as that of Demon Rum, Demon Heroin, and Demon Cocaine, is it altogether clear that our increased sophistication will be advantageous to the welfare of both present and future generations? Some irrational fears are obviously bad; others may serve an immensely useful social purpose. Carrie Nation’s crusade against Demon Rum may raise smiles on our faces today, but have we developed a more effective technique at getting people to resist the temptation of forbidden fruit than scaring the hell out of them?

The libertarian position seems inevitable, Harris says, once we have decided that drugs are not the cause of drug addiction:

If opiate users can be divided into those who would be criminals anyway and those who end up brilliant surgeons like Halsted and eminent humanitarians like Wilberforce, then it obviously makes far more sense to lock up the criminals for their criminal behavior, and not for their heroin use. But this argument can be turned on its head: If strong and confident men like Halsted and Wilberforce can become hopelessly addicted to a drug, then might this not be an argument for doing everything possible to keep it out of the hands of adolescent boys, slum addicts, the weak-willed, the impetuous, the self-indulgent, the depressed — in short, to treat it in the same way you would treat a dangerous strain of plague that threatened to sweep through entire populations? Yes, some people will be immune to the plague, but it remains a plague all the same. The obvious fact that some people can use these substances without undermining the foundation of the open society does not mean that their widespread promiscuous use among the general population will prove equally innocuous.

Mill argued that the prohibition of opium imports into China was an “objectionable … infringement of liberty … of the buyer.” This was a straightforward, if unappetizing, application of his “simple universal principle.” But would Mill have stood by his simple principle if he had foreseen the consequences of its application in this case? By the time the Communist Party came to power in 1949, there were approximately 20 million opium addicts in China. Chairman Mao, no student of Mill, decided that the only answer to the problem was ruthlessness. As Dalrymple writes, Mao gave the Chinese opium addicts “a strong motive to give up and the rest of the population a strong motive not to start. He shot the dealers out of hand, and any such addicts who did not give up their habit. The carrot for addicts was life and the stick was death. It would not be going too far to say that, within a mere three years, Mao produced more cures than all the drug clinics in the world before or since, or indeed to come. He was the greatest drug worker in history.”

Immediately after making this observation, Dalrymple writes that “the point of this story is not to advocate a repetition of Mao’s methods on our soil, but to demonstrate that, when a motive is sufficiently strong, not merely some, but many, indeed millions, of addicted people can abandon their addiction, without the whole paraphernalia of the help that is necessary on the standard view of the problem.” But what kind of substitute for mass executions is available to the open societies of the West in dealing with our drug problems? Out of our limited box of tricks, how do we devise motives that are “sufficiently strong” to get addicts to kick their habit, but which fall short of lining them up against a wall and shooting them?

Open societies cannot be open to everything, Harris claims.

I think Harris makes an error in logic when he asks, If the moral weakness was already there, before the drug use began, and if it explains the addict’s inability to control his drug use, then what sense does it make to hold the addict responsible for his moral weakness? As Mao’s answer to the drug problem demonstrated, moral weakness is not simply present or absent; when threatened with execution, addicts quickly found the moral strength to drop their bad habit.

That’s the totalitarian answer — Communist or Fascist. The liberal answer — modern progressive or classical liberal — is to let drug-users use drugs. More specifically, the progressive answer is to let drug-users use drugs, and to effectively subsidize their bad habit through “harm reduction” measures — clean needles, free clinics, methadone and buprenorphine treatment, etc. The libertarian answer is to let drug-users use drugs, and to assume that the only damage done is to the drug-users themselves — and to emphasize how much damage is done by drug prohibition.

What rarely seems to come up is the notion of treating self-destructive drug addicts, who live off of petty crime, as distinct from productive members of society who have a vice. In Beggars & Thieves, street ethnographer Mark Fleisher emphasizes that the members of this criminal underclass don’t get better. They come from broken homes. They become addicted to illegal drugs and legal alcohol. They commit petty crimes and beg on the streets. And when they do time in a “correctional facility”, it’s a big step up in living standard for them — except that they can’t wait to get back to their booze and drugs. They never join productive society. But they do get let out of jail.

These beggars and thieves are Aristotle’s “natural slaves” — unable to govern themselves. And giving them warm blankets and clean needles doesn’t solve their problems — or our problems with them.

How Can Syria Get Away With Murder?

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Lee Harris reviews Barry Rubin’s The Truth About Syria, which explains how Syria gets away with murder:

Rubin’s fascinating and often mordant book aims to overcome the cognitive asymmetry between West and anti-West by presenting an objective analysis of the very different rules by which our geopolitical opponents are operating, and to make it clear to the Western reader why they have different rules from us. It is not because they are ignorant of our rules, and need only to be enlightened about them. They are perfectly aware how our rules work, as Rubin insists. Indeed, it is through their intimate familiarity with our rules that they have been able repeatedly to predict how we will react to their moves — an ability that has allowed them to outwit and outfox us over and over again.

Such a situation might be dubbed cognitively asymmetrical, on the analogy of asymmetrical warfare. [...] This advantage will be especially great if the master player has the virtue that the Arabs call sumud — steadfastness: the patience to wait as long as it takes to wear down his opponent until he is ready to abandon the game. Sumud yields policymaking in terms of generations and even centuries, whereas Western foreign policy, like Western culture in general, is always looking for a quick fix. We want to make a deal now, and we will settle for less; they want exactly what they want, and they are willing to wait the time it takes to get it, which turns out to be exactly the amount of time it takes for their opponents to throw up their hands in despair.

Taken together, sumud and the cognitive asymmetry between Syria and the West explain one of the central paradoxes of Rubin’s book: How can an economically stagnant and militarily weak nation like Syria get away with murder, both figuratively and literally?

In February 2005, Syria masterminded the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, former Prime Minister of neighboring Lebanon — not just the murder of a single individual, but, in effect, an attack on a sovereign nation. In 2006, Syria provided rockets and other arms to Hezbollah to aid it in its war with Israel. After the American and allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rubin writes that “from the U.S. standpoint, Syria took the enemy side by smuggling military equipment into Iraq (including night-vision goggles) and letting wanted Iraqi officials, millions of dollars of Saddam’s money, and possibly some equipment for the production of weapons of mass destruction cross the border into safe haven in Syria. In addition, after the defeat of the Saddam regime, an insurgency began that depended largely on Syria as a rear area. Pro-Saddam officials there used smuggled money to finance and direct a war against coalition forces as well as the Shia-Kurdish majority. Terrorists from abroad or Syrians themselves were trained, armed, and dispatched into Iraq.”

How did America respond to Syria’s sponsorship of terrorists who killed hundreds of American soldiers and thousand of Iraqis? In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad had already lied to Powell once, in 2001, telling him that Syria had cut off the Iraqi oil pipeline. Powell later saw that he had been hoodwinked. On the airplane taking him to his 2003 visit, the secretary of state “insisted… that he… would not be fooled again. Shortly after he landed, however, Bashar again sold him the same old swampland by falsely telling Powell that the terrorist offices in Damascus had already been closed down, good news that the secretary of state announced to the American reporters accompanying him. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent, in the most humiliating way for Powell, that he had been taken in once more. Reporters simply telephoned the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and found that they were still open for business as usual.” In short, as Rubin trenchantly puts it, “Syria was making a fool out of the U.S. government and the Bush administration was helping it to do so.”

Rubin offers another striking example of this cognitive asymmetry. In September 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trip to Syria to visit its president (and Bashar’s father), Hafiz al-Assad. Baker had prepared his case well. He presented detailed evidence that Syria had been sponsoring quite an impressive list of terrorist activities by means of surrogate agencies. Syria had denied all involvement with terrorism, and Baker was, in effect, calling Hafiz’ bluff. By Baker’s own standards it was a tough act, like that of a criminal investigator who spreads out on a table the hard and irrefutable evidence he has gathered against a suspect, and says: Deny that! Yet his confrontation with Assad had no effect. Or, rather, it had an effect, but one that Baker did not see coming. After the meeting, Rubin writes, “Hafiz did take action: He had the three Jordanian agents who supplied the information tracked down and killed.” The upshot was that “Syria kept on fomenting terrorism; and the United States did very little in retaliation.” Baker had thought he and Hafiz Assad were playing by the same rule book. They weren’t. But Hafiz had the immense advantage of knowing this, which Baker did not.

“But it gets even better,” Rubin says. “Precisely sixteen years later, after his betrayal by Hafiz, the White House asked Baker to recommend what policy the United States should take on Iraq and the Middle East in general. In explaining why he favored dialogue with Syria, Baker recalled the ‘success’ of his 1990 talks with Hafiz in supposedly getting Syria to stop sponsoring terrorism, ignoring the fact that it had continued to do so during that entire period.” In short, the recommendations to engage Syria offered by the Iraq Study Group were not made by men who lacked experience with Syria; they were made by men who simply had not learned from the experience they had. Their inability to acknowledge the rules by which Syria plays has led them repeatedly to believe that Syria is playing by their rules. Unable to put themselves into the position of the Syrian regime, they fail to see the logic and cogency of its behavior — behavior that in Western eyes so often seems infantile, counterproductive, or just plain irrational.

Why We Are Still Arguing About Darwin

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Lee Harris explains Why We Are Still Arguing About Darwin:

The stumbling block to an acceptance of Darwin, I would like to submit, has little to do with Christian fundamentalism, but a whole lot to do with our intense visceral revulsion at monkeys and apes. This revulsion, while certainly not universal, is widely shared, and it is a psychological phenomenon that is completely independent of our ideas about the literal truth of the Bible.

His larger point:

At the same time, those who accept Darwin (as I do) need to understand the true origin of the revulsion so many people feel against his theory. For the basis of this revulsion is none other than “the civilizing process” that has been instilled into us from infancy. The civilizing process has taught us never to throw our feces at other people, not even in jest. It has taught us not to snatch food from other people, not even when they are much weaker than we. It has taught us not to play with our genitals in front of other people, not even when we are very bored. It has taught us not to mount the posterior of other people, not even when they have cute butts.

Those who are horrified by our resemblance to the lower primates are not wrong, because it is by means of this very horror of the primate-within that men have been able to transcend our original primate state of nature. It is by refusing to accept our embarrassing kinship with primates that men have been able to create societies that prohibit precisely the kind of monkey business that civilized men and women invariably find so revolting and disgusting. Thou shalt not act like a monkey — this is the essence of all the higher religions, and the summation of all ethical systems.

Those who continue to resist Darwin are not standing up for science, but they may well be standing up for something even more important — a Dawkinsian meme, if you will, that has been instrumental in permitting mankind to transcend the brutal level of our primate origins. Our lofty humanitarian ethical standards have been derived not by observing our primate kin, but by imagining that we were made in the image of God. It was only by assuming that we were expected to come up to heavenly standards that we did not lower our standards to those of our biological next of kin. The meme that asserts that we are the children of God, and not merely a bunch of wild monkeys may be an illusion; but it is the illusion upon which all humane civilizations have been constructed. Those who wish to eliminate this illusionary meme from our general meme pool may be acting in the name of science; but it is by no means obvious that they are acting in the name of civilization and humanity.

Revisiting the Stupid Party

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

In Revisiting the Stupid Party, Lee Harris (The Suicide of Reason) looks at the strengths of being “stupid”:

The nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill bequeathed to modern conservatism a lasting inferiority complex when he dismissed the conservatives of his day as “the stupid party.” No one likes to be called stupid, as we can all agree, though Mill himself may not have understood this, since it is highly unlikely that anyone had ever called him by this disparaging epithet. In his famous Autobiography, Mill tells us that he was reading Plato in the original Greek when he was five, and by the time he was twelve, he was capable of discussing the fine points of economic theory with the leading authorities of his day — facts that may well have seriously skewed Mill’s judgment about the intelligence of other people. Stupid, for Mill, may have meant those who only learned how to read Plato in Greek at the ripe old age of eleven, in which case the charge of belonging to the “stupid party” loses much of its sting.

Yet the sting of Mill’s insult remains today, and it explains, in part, the conspicuous braininess of contemporary conservatism. Conservative think-tanks abound in PhD’s and experts in every field imaginable, whose intelligence, as measured by IQ tests and academic credentials, is certainly a match for those of their ideological opponents. But has the emergence of a conservative intelligentsia proven to be an unmixed blessing? Or is the very phrase conservative intelligentsia an oxymoron?

Let’s begin by noting that the eagerness to appear intelligent to others is a fairly recent development among conservatives. By and large, the English Tories whom Mill dubbed as the original stupid party did not share this desire in the least. If you read the delightful novels of Anthony Trollope, you will find them teaming with hilariously dim-witted Lords who feel no need to apologize for their mediocre minds, as long as they have their aristocratic pedigrees. Their stupidity, as many of them no doubt hazily realized, was their best defense against the inroads of clever madmen intent on turning their world upside down — men like John Stuart Mill, for example, to whom tradition meant nothing, and who was willing to throw out the solid heritage of the past in the pursuit of the latest fad, dubbed by him “experiments in living.” Against the blueprints for a better world concocted by the brilliant they opposed the redneck wisdom encapsulated in the adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Today, no self-respecting conservative wants to be thought stupid, not even by the lunatics on the far left. Yet there are far worse things than looking stupid to others — and one of them is being conned by those who are far cleverer than we are. Indeed, in certain cases, the desire to appear intelligent at all costs can be downright suicidal. Throughout history people have come along who were able to outtalk and outthink their neighbors, like the paradox-bearing sophists of ancient Greece or the mocking philosophes of the eighteenth century French salon. The bell curve virtually guarantees that there will always be those who can pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of us, and if we once begin to listen to their spiel, then we find that before we know it we have been taken advantage of. It is not easy to outfox the fox, and those who try often end up on the unpleasant end of the food chain. Thus, it is safer simply never to begin listening to them — or when you must listen to them, to force them to go so slowly that they despair of ever drawing you into their clutches, acting on the maxim: “Never let a good argument get the better of your common sense.”

The Future of Tradition

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

I’ve cited Lee Harris’s The Future of Tradition before, but I stumbled across it again, and I find it well worth re-reading:

A tradition, [Hayek] realizes, may well be justified by a community on nonsensical or irrational grounds; but this by itself need not make the tradition less useful to those who follow it. If a primitive tribe justifies its incest taboo with a myth about divine siblings whose sexual liaison produced a monstrously deformed cockroach, this does not make the tradition a bit less useful to the community.
For implicit in this observation is the insight that every inherited tradition has come down to us at two distinct levels — first, as a behavioral phenomenon, as an embodied value hardwired into our neural circuitry and into our sweat glands, and secondly, as an articulated value that can be analyzed and discussed, attacked and defended, in words.

In the case of the tradition against incest, at the primary level it exists in the form of the commandments, injunctions, prohibition, and so on, to keep brothers and sisters, or parents and children, from having sexual intercourse. They work by programming the members of the community to automatically and instinctively avoid committing incest. They constitute the visceral code of the community that commands us to act in certain ways and forbids us to act in other ways.

At the secondary level, there is what might be called (to use Marxist terminology) the ideological superstructure; i.e., the system of myths and statements and arguments that are used by the community to justify obedience to the commandments, injunctions, and prohibitions. In the case of our islander, this secondary level is represented by the myth of the gigantic cockroach spawned by incest. This ideological superstructure may be used polemically and apologetically as well and is often most fully developed and exploited for this purpose, frequently ending up in immense intellectual constructions that are Summa contra Gentiles: everything that can be argued against those who challenge the truth of the ideological superstructure.

In evaluating whether a “tradition” is useful or not, we must keep this distinction in mind. For when confronted with any particular tradition, we now have two different criteria to evaluate its usefulness — first, the usefulness of the tradition’s base, the visceral code out of which the social structure of the community is created, and second, the usefulness of the tradition’s ideological superstructure.

But once we grasp this distinction, it immediately becomes apparent that there can be a conflict, perhaps violent, between the two manifestations of one tradition: the embodied and visceral version versus the articulated and ideal version. In our primitive island’s traditional taboo against incest, for example, the visceral form of the tradition might succeed in preventing inbreeding among the islanders by producing visceral aversion; yet its articulated form, namely, the myth of the monstrously deformed cockroach, may work quite differently. Indeed, as the islanders become more and more sophisticated, the continued use of this myth may actually tend to make people more likely to violate the visceral code and to commit incest on the basis of the quite correct empirical belief that incestuous unions do not produce gigantic deformed cockroaches.

This means that as a population becomes more “enlightened,” it is more likely to challenge the tradition on the basis of its transparently mythic or fabulous origin; this in turn threatens to undermine the population’s willingness to instill the visceral code into its children. If “everyone” knows that incestuous lovers do not spawn enormous insect children, then what is the point of teaching one’s children not to commit incest?

Message from Dan

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

In his latest Message from Dan, author Dan Simmons comments on his recent Time Traveler piece and the threat posed by radical Islam:

Why did our fictional Time Traveler return to New Year’s Eve 2005? The paradoxical answer might be that it was the last real time of peace he knew of in the 21st Century.

“Forgetfulness overcomes every successful civilization,” writes Lee Harris. That forgetfulness is this: in each era, just when trade and peace and reason and moderation seem most likely to prevail, the opportunity for the zealots to succeed through ruthlessness is at its greatest.

“The result is an unsettling paradox: the more the spirit of commerce triumphs, the closer mankind comes to dispensing with war, the nearer we approach the end of history, the greater are the rewards to those who decide to return to the path of war, and the easier it will be for them to conquer. There is nothing that can be done to change this fact; it is built into the structure of our world.”

Russia … An Honest Broker?

Sunday, March 19th, 2006

Lee Harris brings his sense of history to current events once again, in Russia … An Honest Broker?:

In its recent dealing with Iran and Hamas, Russia has succeeded in achieving a major geopolitical objective. And it has done so with relatively little cost. It has managed to convince many in the Muslim world that it is willing to play the role of ‘the honest broker’ — the role that the wily German Chancellor Otto Bismarck assigned to himself at the Congress of Berlin. For example, representatives of Hamas, on returning from their trip to Moscow, praised the Russian efforts at mediation, and noted that Russia’s geographical position made it the ideal party to settle differences between the Islamic world and the West.

The Night I Became An American

Sunday, March 19th, 2006

Lee Harris describes The Night [He] Became An American:

I became an American when I was forty-nine.

No, I did not become an American after immigrating from another country, passing tests, and taking an oath of loyalty, as millions of other Americans have to become Americans. My people were born here, and as far back as any of them could remember, their people had been born here as well. They were farmers, and like most farmers, they were convinced that they had sprung up from the soil, like corn-stalks. No, I became an American during the course of a conversation that I had on a night train from Innsbruck to fabled Vienna.
After so much musical and literary seriousness, my traveling companion explained to me the litigious history of the famous Sacher Torte, one of Vienna’s miraculous pastry confections. Then, while he was on the subject of food, he looked at me and asked with a laugh: “What do you Americans do when you go to a foreign city? Do you only eat at McDonald’s?”

The laugh had a mocking and smugly superior edge to it; and, like the question itself, it disconcerted and befuddled me. Being a good American, I expected him to break out into a grin and say something like the German equivalent of, “Oh, I’m just joshing you.” But he didn’t. It was embarrassingly obvious that he was quite sincere. After all, where else would we Americans eat in a foreign land except McDonald’s? Isn’t that all we eat at home?

Suddenly I realized that to my young Austrian companion, it made no difference whether I knew Bruckner’s symphonies backwards and forwards; it mattered not in the slightest that I could appreciate the poetry of Grillparzer in the original German. I was an American, and, therefore, I had to be the kind of person who, when in a strange land, would make a bee-line to the closest McDonald’s, out of fear of tasting the food of foreigners.

Russia and The End of History

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

Lee Harris turns on the sarcasm in Russia and The End of History:

There was a point in time when geopolitical cynics might have worried that Russia was trying to achieve what used to be called ‘a sphere of influence’ in Iran. These cynics might even have worried that Russia might be deliberately courting and coddling Iran so that Russia could exploit to its own selfish advantage the current division between the West and that oil-rich and militant Muslim nation. Fortunately for us, however, our leadership no longer tolerates such cynics in their midst. Foreign policy in both the United States and in Europe has been purged of all such illiberal skepticism about the sinister motives of others. We all want the same things, don’t we? Therefore, Vladimir Putin must be just as anxious to visualize global peace as any American soccer mom. As we all know, Russia is our friend, and not our enemy. Besides, we are at the End of History. Why would Mr. Putin want to start up history all over again — for example, by insisting that Russia should play a major role on the world’s stage, as it once did, and not so long ago?

Nuts with Nukes

Friday, February 3rd, 2006

Lee Harris explains the power of Nuts with Nukes:

There is an important law about power that is too often overlooked by rational and peace-loving people. Any form of power, from the most primitive to the most mind-boggling, is always amplified enormously when it falls into the hands of those whose behavior is wild, erratic, and unpredictable. A gun being waved back and forth by a maniac is far more disturbing to us than the gun in the holster of the policeman, though both weapons are equally capable of shooting us dead. And what is true of guns is far more true in the case of nukes.

That is why nuclear weapons in an Iran dominated by a figure like its current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad make us more nervous than nuclear weapons in the hands of the Swiss.
In a world where everyone else is prepared to do anything to prevent a war, the man who makes other people believe he is willing to go to war automatically gains the advantage of being the party that must be appeased if war is to be avoided. In such a world, it is the erratic and the irrational whose power is amplified at the expense of the reasonable and the predictable.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a populist demagogue of quite exceptional talent who has instinctively grasped the law of power that so many in the West have forgotten: Just as it is the squeaking wheel that gets the oil, it is the shrieking madman who gets his way.

When the Moral Levee Breaks

Thursday, September 1st, 2005

Lee Harris presents a quintessentially conservative point of view in When the Moral Levee Breaks:

To me, the looting came as no surprise: it was a completely natural phenomenon. It was exactly what my own theory of the social order would have predicted. What else should you expect when a civilized order collapses?

He continues with an anecdote from history:

[F]or the last couple of days, I had been reading a book about the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii, and what Captain Cook, the great English explorer, had observed about its people, and, indeed, about all the various peoples that he had discovered tucked away on their paradise islands in the middle of the nowhere called the South Pacific.

They were all thieves.

Cook was enough of a multiculturalist not to take great moral umbrage at the thieving ways of the savages of paradise. His attitude, after landing on several thieving islands, became: “Oh well, what can you expect?