The historical dice are loaded

Peter Brimelow begins his book Alien Nation by calling current immigration policy “Hitler’s posthumous revenge” on America. The war against the Nazis, he says, left the U.S. political elite “passionately concerned to cleanse itself from all taints of racism or xenophobia.” Now it appears, from a new book called Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, that what brought on the messianic antiracism that transformed American politics was instead Kennedy’s assassination—or rather, its interpretation as the result of the bigotry, intolerance, and hate supposedly endemic in America and not as the work of the communist with close personal ties to the Soviet Union who actually carried it out.

So far as I’m concerned, both theories are wrong. People today think it’s really smart to emphasize the radical contingency of historical events, but sometimes events are not all that contingent. Great moral transformations correspond to fundamental changes in forms of social cooperation. If how life is carried on changes moral standards will change correspondingly. If one event doesn’t provide an occasion for making the change official and organizing to carry it through comprehensively something else will do the trick.

Social institutions have been getting more and more rationalized on technological and industrial lines. That’s been going on for at least a couple hundred years. At the end of that process the only authorities still considered rational are money and markets, laws and bureaucratic regulations, and private tastes and whims. Under such circumstances ethnic, cultural, sexual and religious ties and distinctions come to seem simply irrational and therefore weird and evil. They gum up the smooth operation of the system and make life harder for the people who run things. They make no sense, so who knows where they might lead? Better to get rid of them. That being so, what difference does it make whether it’s Hitler or segregation or the horrors of the ’50s suburban lifestyle that provides the excuse for sweeping away pre-60s America?

27 thoughts on “The historical dice are loaded”

  1. If society is getting more rational…
    Then why the decline of marriage? Marriage is a civilizing—and rationalizing—institution that acts upon the chaotic and biological world of human mating. We seem to have evolved an organic hook-up culture to replace it. (While marriage itself becomes more rationalized, I admit, with family courts and child support payments, etc.)

    • Who lives without folly is not so wise as he thinks
      If social institutions become fully rationalized on neutral market and bureaucratic principles then whatever can’t go that route, like sex, becomes (in the words of the post) private taste and whim. You can’t make it purely rational so reason and sociality don’t apply at all.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

    • Rationalistic, not rational
      Thrasymachus: Then why the decline of marriage?

      Because marriage has become more rationalistic. It’s considered a voluntary contract between two parties which is undertaken in order to serve their interests and can be nullified at any time when it no longer does so.

  2. I’m reminded of something
    I’m reminded of something T.E. Hulme wrote:

    What was the positive principle behind all the other principles of ’89? I am talking here of the revolution in as far as it was an idea; I leave out material causes-they only produce the forces. The barriers which could easily have resisted or guided these forces had previously been rotted away by ideas. This always seems to be the case in successful changes; the privileged class is beaten only when it has lost faith in itself, when it has itself been penetrated with the very ideas which are working against it.

  3. “Radical contingency” vs. “fundamental changes”…
    …is a false dichotomy. Even if “[g]reat moral transformations correspond to fundamental changes in forms of social cooperation” as you say, it’s not determined just how or when those changes will occur, be temporarily reversed, etc., especially over a time range of only a few decades. It’s not “radical contingency” to suggest that (to take Brimelow’s example) US immigration policy would have followed a different course were it not for World War II. I’m not defending Brimelow’s claim, nor the one about Kennedy. It’s just that your attributing such fine-grained deterministic power to “fundamental changes in forms of social cooperation” is reminiscent of what used to be called “vulgar Marxism”—but with “forms of social cooperation” replacing Marx’s “relations of production” as the infrastructure and “morality” replacing “ideology” as the superstructure. The “vulgar” part meant specifically the idea that you could apply your understanding of such broad historical forces to explain the headlines of today’s (or yesterday’s) newspapers.

    Just because the historical dice are loaded doesn’t mean you can predict when they’ll come up craps.

    • I have to confesss that I
      I have to confesss that I had a similar thought when I read this entry. “Why should I be forced to choose between the two views?”

      But I think the point is that after a couple of hundred years of weighted rolls, you’re gonna roll craps. Also, it wasn’t just specific historical events e.g. Hitler but the general struture of society e.g. Jim Crow that provided impetus.

      In my opinion, Mr. Kalb’s view provides a valuable modification to insights like, say, Brimelow’s.

    • All roads today lead to anti-Rome
      Everything that happens is a mixture of necessity and contingency, and you can’t rerun history multiple times to find out how much each adds to a particular state of affairs. Some things do seem highly contingent: “no Hitler no Holocaust” would be an example. On immigration though I’m struck by the following:

      1. It seems that particular events are more contingent than general conditions, and particular policies consciously chosen are more contingent than background understandings of what is rational that determine what policies are legitimately conceivable. Our current immigration “policy” seems to fall into the latter categories. It’s the result of a pervasive and unshakable sense among governing elites that there are no legitimate rational objections whatever to large-scale third-world immigration. Opposition is simply ignorance, xenophobia and hatred. For that reason particular decisions to limit immigration are reversed as opportunities offer themselves and in the meantime enforced as little as possible because nobody who counts takes them seriously as good law.

      2. That attitude toward immigration is part of more general attitudes toward ties and distinctions like culture, religion, ethnicity and sex. Those ties and distinctions are fundamental to all known social order but irrelevant and therefore at odds with the smooth functioning of efficient neutral market and bureaucratic relationships. The latter are the only relationships officially recognized as legitimate and authoritative today. Our ruling elites are therefore absolutely convinced that ties like ethnicity are weird, irrational, threatening, evil, incipiently violent, and fit only for suppression by any means necessary. I don’t think that kind of pervasive outlook is the chance result of a particular historical event, and it makes immigration restrictions extremely difficult to establish and maintain.

      3. As the linked discussion shows, it wasn’t the Kennedy assassination but its ridiculously contrary-to-fact interpretation as an expression of American bigotry and hatred that mattered politically and culturally. I’d say something similar about the Holocaust. If colossal atrocities have big political and social effects because people want to avoid whatever might lead to anything similar, why hasn’t that been true of communist atrocities? And why has the importance of the Holocaust grown and grown as it has become more distant historically? The answer, I think, is that it serves as a symbol for a movement that would have been able to attain its present overwhelming success equally well with the aid of other symbols. That degree of success must be based on something more solid and comprehensive than chance.

      4. Bottom line: if people persistently do something insane and claim it’s an example of pure rationality, you don’t explain it by reference to something that happened 60 years ago that didn’t affect them much personally. You blame it on some malfunction in their heads or in their general way of going about doing things.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • all roads twist and turn
        First of all, I can’t let this one pass by: “Our ruling elites are therefore absolutely convinced that ties like ethnicity are weird, irrational, threatening, evil, incipiently violent, and fit only for suppression by any means necessary.” Now, as soon as I see the ruling elite condemn the NAACP and La Raza as dangerous throwbacks to an unenlightened era, maybe I’ll take that sentence seriously. There was a brief period, the two decades following World War II (hmmm…), when a “colorblind society” was in fashion. That “background understanding”, to use your term, disappeared pretty suddenly from the hegemonic ideology. How do your historical forces towards rationalism explain that?

        On to your main point. Here are some more of the American elites’ “background understandings” post-war which differed drastically from pre-war understandings: the study of racial differences is illegitimate; eugenics is beyond the pale; anti-Semitism, even of the mild country-club variety, is unacceptable. Now, could any of these drastic changes in “understandings” have been due in large part to Hitler? If so, then because these are all attitudes or beliefs rather than historical events, there’s something wrong with your argument against Brimelow—regardless of whether or not Brimelow is actually correct. (And to be charitable, I doubt that Brimelow was suggesting that monocausal explanation as sufficient, unconditioned on the state of American society in 1945. I hope our disagreement doesn’t just come down to a charitable or uncharitable reading of Brimelow’s remark.)

        Back to immigration: your historical forces of rationalistic individualism have been marching along since the Enlightenment up through the 19th century. Consistent with this, in the early 20th century, America was described as a “nation of immigrants”, a “melting-pot”. Your forces were on a roll. Don’t they predict, therefore, that mass immigration would continue up till 1925 and beyond? That Euro-centric arguments against immigration in 1925 would be scornfully brushed aside? And if not, if they don’t explain the situation in 1925, why then can they explain the situation in 2008?

        I’m not denying the existence or the importance of these long-term historical trends, which I agree are conditioned on social relations, among other things. What I’m objecting to is your vulgar Marxism, your apparent belief that—OK, not newspaper headlines, but specific contemporary attitudes are manifestations or epiphenomena of these historical forces.

        • Sauce for the goose and vulgar Marxism
          Favoring minority solidarity while suppressing white solidarity makes ethnic ties nonfunctional as a principle of social order and so favors bureaucratic institutions. The NAACP promotes the extension of the politically-correct managerial state and La Raza the borderless nationality-free society. What’s not to like (if you’re a law professor, say)?

          Changes don’t occur overnight, contrary tendencies take time to sort themselves out, historical remnants die slowly, and specific events retard or advance the process. Also some developments have far stronger support from general tendencies than others. I have no idea why such views constitute vulgar Marxism or why the historical record of backing and filing refutes them.

          As to immigration, what strikes me—as I think I’ve suggested—is our rulers view it not so much as a policy choice as a matter of basic rationality. To say it should be very different from what it is now is to say there are important enduring distinctions among peoples that justify differing treatment as long-term basic policy, and that is a view they find not only evil but crazy. It just makes no sense to them. Ideas of basic rationality though seem to me resistant to particular events. If anything is part of a comprehensive social process they are.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Simpler explanation
            Favoring minority solidarity while suppressing white solidarity makes ethnic ties nonfunctional as a principle of social order and so favors bureaucratic institutions.

            I think the simpler explanation for this “double standard” is that classical liberalism of the procedural equality sort was co-opted and completely dominated by leftism of the “egalitarianism of results” sort. A huge part of this is that the sympathy for the underdog, which to modern liberals is the ultimate proof of one’s righteousness, when coupled with a Rousseauian view of human nature, tends to lead to an insistence that inequality of results must be due to environmental causes, ergo “society is unjust.” Thus, it is not enough to insist on procedural equality, but equality of results with an eye towards improving the lot of the beloved underdog.

            The majority does not need to get any favorable treatment. They are not the underdogs. Minorities need special treatment because they are the underdogs. This is “inconsistent” if conservatives assume they are dealing with classical liberals, and perfectly consistent if the overarching principle is simply to assist the underdog. Thus, most conservative whines about “liberal double standards” are pointless and indicate a lack of understanding of leftist motivations.

            As I have mentioned before, I don’t think my liberal neighbor gets up in the morning and worries about how to advance world bureaucracy. He does worry about how to help the underdog and prove himself compassionate and righteous in the process. His political desires will require a massive bureaucracy to enforce the desired egalitarianism.

            So, which is cause and which is effect? I believe that a mass Rousseauian world view coupled with the innate desire to root for the underdog explains mass support for modern left-liberalism, and the bureaucracy follows to carry out the policies. If you argue that the desire for global bureaucracy among some elites comes first, and then the elites manipulate liberal saps like my neighbor into supporting them, then you are, ironically, proposing a rather conspiratorial theory that is the opposite of the inevitable long-term historical trend explanation that you seem to be favoring in general.

            Finally, I believe that we are more likely to change our neighbors’ minds about the wisdom of letting “love for the underdog” determine all policy than we are to change the elite bureaucrat’s mind on the necessity of his position in the world, or to simply defeat him in political battle.

          • Not so simple
            Your explanation doesn’t strike me as simpler. It may take less effort for most people to see it as the explanation since it’s closer to usual ways of thinking about these issues. Maybe that’s what you have in mind. For my part I find explanations by reference to popular sentiment—“that’s what happens because that’s what people want”—questionbegging. They don’t tell us why one sentiment seems legitimate and another doesn’t.

            My explanation has nothing much to do with a conscious desire to maximize bureaucratic control. It’s a matter of what looks good, because it promotes what seems to make sense. What is justified and legitimate is determined today from a bureaucratic point of view: from a point of view that identifies rationality with conscious weighing of means and ends in accordance with routinized modes of expert investigation and an eye to maximum satisfaction of publicly stated goals (in general, equal satisfaction of preferences). From that point of view the big threat is social decisionmaking in accordance with traditional understandings. It follows that anything that destroys the dominance of any particular traditional understanding, and therefore leaves what is understood as rationality in control, looks good.

            It will also look fair, since traditional understandings are understood as simple private tastes and it’s fair to protect oppressed private tastes against oppressive private tastes. The feeling that it’s fair isn’t what is basic though. That feeling is the result of general views as to what makes sense and therefore general conceptions of rationality and reality. I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere much unless we change those conceptions.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • One guess is that what JK
            One guess is that what JK proposes best describes how things function at the level of the folks who made and are making the decisions which I suppose is who really matters. Maybe emotion and sentiment and such has more to do with how regular folks react given understandings that are already established??

            I’m not sure Mr. Kalb’s view requires anything like cabals. I’m not sure the people in charge would have any reservations in stating their intentions.

            P.S. Paul Gottfried at least hints at JK’s(and Sam Francis’ I believe) view in his latest column on Hillary’s statement about the civil rights movement:

            “While these enforcers might have been pursuing their own goals, e.g., increasing their control over an increasingly docile and disunited society……”

          • Without popular support, the elite will not rule
            Without popular support for the civil rights movement, on the basis of what seems “fair” to most people, the elite civil rights leaders could not successfully pursue their own goals.

            The Rousseauian view of human nature has one big advantage: it seems optimistic and “progressive.” It convinces us that we can create utopia, by improving the human environment. Hence the messianic language surrounding public schooling since about two centuries ago. Contrary views about human willfulness and sin and the inevitability of conflicts, etc., are anti-utopian, more pessimistic, etc.

            Thomas Sowell analyzed the various policy implications of these two views of human nature in A Conflict of Visions. The natural appeal of the “optimistic, progressive” Rousseauian world view to anyone not firmly grounded in a contrary religious view should be obvious. The logical conclusion of the Rousseauian view of human nature is that all human dysfunction is caused by society, and the powers that be in society are responsible for changing things so that everyone turns out to be a success. If a man is a criminal, society is to blame for the environment that produced his criminality. At the national level, any backwards country must be that way because of oppression by the more “advantaged” countries. Etc., etc. In other words, modern egalitarianism-of-results left-liberalism is the natural outcome of one rather simple perspective on human nature.

          • This is true:
            “The natural appeal of the “optimistic, progressive” Rousseauian world view to anyone not firmly grounded in a contrary religious view should be obvious.”
            This seems to go hand-in-hand with the cult of the self (hopefully I used that phrase correctly). The optimistic, progressive view seems to make people feel good about themselves as in “I’m a good person.”

            Regarding elite rule, I’m not sure that what’s being done to us in terms of demographic displacement can be fairly described as consensual. There’s lots of ways for those governing to stack the deck and they do.

            This has strayed a bit from the original post but it’s still interesting.

          • Rousseauian nature isn’t natural
            Popular sentiment matters, but your feelings about things depend on what those things are and what makes sense—in other words, on your ontology and epistemology. And views as to what’s real and what it all means tend to start with elites and then filter down to hoi polloi. That’s especially true with the advent of the bureaucratic state, mass public education, modern industry, the mass media, and modern natural science, which tells us that what’s real and what makes sense is the business of experts who have no obligation to make themselves comprehensible to us.

            The view that utopia is a realistic goal of organized human activity—I’d call that view technocratic rather than Rousseauian—isn’t the natural default view for human beings. If it were you’d find lots of it in all times and places and you don’t. It’s rather the result of a view that reduces reason to a combination of means/ends rationality and formal logic and makes preference satisfaction the summum bonum. That latter view is closely associated with the modern scientific outlook and with a social organization based on liberated markets and ideals of neutral bureaucratic administration. So it’s got a definite social context and is supported by definite social elites whose status and power depend on its acceptance.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Rousseau was certainly an elite
            The Rousseauian ideas have not been around that long. Sowell could only find this paradigm of thought as far back as Condorcet and Rousseau in the 1700s. Their ideas started with inarguably elite thinkers and spread to common men. I do not claim that the ideas themselves originated with common men.

            Why do such ideas not exist in all places and times? There are no doubt many reasons. For example, other elite thinkers had to pave the way with various ideas such as nominalism and relativism. I think that material affluence has to reach a certain level before anyone can entertain utopian fantasies. For most of the world at most times, utopianism would not have connected with real life at all in anyone’s mind. We probably also have to live in a world of a certain large scale with specialization of jobs (and stratification of incomes) such that no one is exactly sure why person A is so much richer than person B before egalitarianism makes much sense.

            We could probably spend lifetimes tracking down all the contributing factors to mass acceptance of the elite ideas of the likes of Rousseau. The rationalization and bureaucratization of life are certainly factors in that acceptance, but there is a lot else going on as well.

          • Ruling principles form a hierarchy, and they matter
            There are of course billions of things going on and each thing affects every other. Some things are more important than others, though. If that weren’t so it would be impossible to focus efforts. For example, it seems to me that:

            • Markets and neutral rational bureaucracies are regarded as the basic principles of social order today.
            • It is thought that the function of legislative and judicial institutions is to protect and support the efficiency and fairness of markets and bureaucracies.
            • Family, religion, and inherited culture and community are understood as private pursuits and no longer treated as social institutions.
            • Such understandings are integrated with a technological understanding of rational action—what’s rational individually is satisfying whatever desires you happen to have, and what’s rational socially is maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences, secured in a stable organized way through some technically-rational overall scheme.
            • That technological understanding is based in turn on a denial of knowable transcendent goods and consequent emphasis on the authority of desire, means/ends rationality, publicly demonstrable fact, and abstract standards like efficiency and equality.

            Such understandings make the EU look like a demand of pure reason as such. Conversely, the EU is going to go after you unless you accept them. We’ll never get anywhere with our arguments—our position will seem senseless, antisocial, dangerous, and explicable only by reference to hidden motives or mental disorder—unless we debunk managerial society and overthrow its conception of what’s rational. That’s what we should put effort into.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Some human distinctions are more illegitimate than others
        The “jarring dissonance” mechanism is about an order of magnitude stronger for race than for sex, religion, culture, etc. The abolition of those other forms of social organization is equally important to the functioning of a rational, neutral bureaucracy, right?

        How could this be without (over)reaction to specific historical events?

        Since it’s an emotional mechanism (taboo) that seems to dominate regular people’s thinking on this, why isn’t this the mechanism controlling the governing elite’s thoughts?
        Is it really a rational policy choice anymore or is the post WW2 “policy” just running on momentum?

        • Reason and feeling
          If what happens in this area is driven mostly by emotional reactions to particular events, why are the rules so similar for race, sex, religion etc.? Why does the adoption of one rule mean adoption of all the rest?

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • I’m on board with your
            I’m on board with your assessement of the general trajectory of society wrt the role of traditional social institutions. And when someone offers a summarizing explanation like the Brimelow quote, then I agree with your criticisms.

            But I do think the particulars are shaped by historical events. As an example, racism is sick and evil, sexism and religious bigotry aren’t.

          • There is a divinity that doth shape our ends
            I agree that random particulars affect what happens and how people feel about it. That effect is sometimes decisive and sometimes just affects manner or timing. Still, it seems to me that some results are going to happen one way or another without much regard to happenstance. Even if the South had been allowed to depart in peace in 1861 slavery would have disappeared there at some point. Even if Hitler had been killed in WW I we’d have gone through something like the sixties, the growth of the hedonistic consumer society, the rejection of traditional roles, authorities and connections, the development of advanced liberalism, the tyranny of the expert, and the tendency toward global merger of ruling elites. It follows that we’d be dealing today with an established frame of mind that says that national distinctions make no basic sense and narrow restrictions on cross-border movement for the sake of preserving separate national societies and cultures are at odds with both efficiency and human freedom.

            I’ve suggested my reasons for thinking that. It does no good to say “you can’t know that,” since the same could be said to Brimelow.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • I’m with you on this
            “It follows that we’d be dealing today with an established frame of mind that says that national distinctions make no basic sense and narrow restrictions on cross-border movement for the sake of preserving separate national societies and cultures are at odds with both efficiency and human freedom.”

            This trend was present well before WW2, right? Else Americans would all descend from British colonists or, if we decided to be a little bit “inclusive”, northern European Protestants.
            The “nativists” scored a few victories, but there was certainly great momentum in the direction you indicate.

            I reckon the problem with a emphasizing the contingency of historical events may be that it tends to distract attention from more fundamental problems.

          • Go to the root!
            Emphasizing contingency means we always underestimate what we’re dealing with. PC or whatever is just a weird oddity that’s going to go away so why take it seriously.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  4. Anti-sexism v. Anti-racism

    Please forgive me for beating this dead horse. Can I revist this?

    I agree that the underlying principle is the same but doesn’t the intensity of reaction to a display of “racism” vs “sexism” suggest some sort of concious or subconcious reference to history or experience, real or perceived?

    I can be “sexist” among professional collegaues and at worst I’ll be called a chauvanist by the girls and a caveman (half-joking) by the guys. If I say something “racist”, well, there’s a stunned silence and then it hits the fan whether or not it’s mixed company.

    Likewise, my “sexism” is supported by (very) conservative Christians but I’ve never met a Christian outside of right-wing internet kook-land who doesn’t throw you into the leper-bin over a “racist” rant.

    Doesn’t this difference suggest something?

    • Good question
      There are differences between the two situations that don’t depend on specific historical events.

      The sexes can’t get along without each other. Everyone has male and female family members, or at least male and female ancestors. Almost everyone is attracted to the opposite sex and wants to build a life in common with same. Those are among the strongest human motives. And there’s a natural pattern of differentiated cooperation between the sexes, without which the world would have ended long ago.

      None of that’s true of race relations, so the two situations are necessarily very different. The first is intrinsically much more stable and cooperative. The historical events people point to are in fact a consequence of that more basic distinction.

      • Here I go again.
        I don’t know if this means anything but my observation might apply to race and “sexual orientation” and gays aren’t necessary to life. I can make anti-homosexual remarks around quite a few co-workers but if you make a “racist” comment, well, let’s just say the dissonance is quite jarring. Same thing (only the dissonance is even more jarring) for an anti-semitic remark I suspect (I haven’t tried it).

        I believe you when you tell us what liberalism is. I think specific historic references and connections do modify (amplify?, supplement?, I’m struggling for the right word here) the basic liberal world view. I think it’s important to recognize this because this is something we can act on (while of course attacking the core of their belief system like you do). What can we do with this? We can suggest counter narratives to the ones that are currently used to bash of over the heads (no, I don’t mean arguing that Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy). We can also question the relevancy of the current liberal historic narratives. To me, this seems like a worthwhile project for conservatives.

        Update: The piece that I quote from your entry at AltRight (in the comments section) suggests an answer to the objection I keep raising here. That answer isn’t historical memory/contingencies but rather where their basic view of things leads (and the fact that they, at least implicitly, sense this).


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