More trad gloom and doom

This past weekend I heard quite a good talk by James Kurth about the demise of the American nation due to its own internal defects (too much liberal individualism). Anyone who wants a clear exposition of the deep roots and radical nature of the problems of liberal modernity should read three pieces he wrote setting forth the analysis, The Late American Nation, The Protestant Deformation (that is, the decline of protestantism into messianic liberalism), and Western Civilization, Our Tradition.

His view of the situation is basically the same as mine, only he’s a Calvinist so he thinks we need the Bible and I’m a Catholic so I think we need tradition and the Pope. He’s a professor at Swarthmore, and an outstanding author and speaker, but I don’t think he’ll be invited to speak at one of their graduation ceremonies any time soon.

16 thoughts on “More trad gloom and doom”

  1. Kurth
    The way Kurth brings his understanding of America’s religious character to bear in his explanation of its foreign policy is impressive. So far in my reading it is also unique.

  2. Fallacy?
    Kurth traces out the trajectory, after the fact, saying that “it started this way, therefore it had to happen this way.” Sure, it did happen that way, but that it had to is not so clear to me.

    Could I not say (and be correct) that something happened in the Xth Century (where 1 < X < 16) such that the Protestant Revolution had to happen?

    • What might have been
      The issue of freedom and necessity is notoriously difficult. Still, sometimes developments seem unavoidable and sometimes they don’t. We can only do our best.

      It seems to me for example that once individual interpretation is the highest principle in religion then what we have today follows in the long run:

      1. If individual interpretation is the highest principle then nobody can tell anybody else what’s right or true.
      2. In the absence of a way of saying which desires are are right or true the point of satisfying desire is simply that it is desire.
      3. But then you need principles to manage conflicts between desires without taking any position on which desires are better.
      4. Since all desires are equally desires and therefore equally good all must have an equal claim to satisfaction. So politics and morality become based on maximum equal satisfaction of individual preference. Which is liberalism.

      As to how far back it goes, a lot of people trace it to 14th century nominalism. If general words like “good” are only names then their application is arbitrary and you’re left with particular people wanting and doing particular things without any principled way to say which choices are better. So you have to have some system that handles conflicts without taking a position on the issue.

      The question then becomes whether nominalism and protestantism were inevitable. Presumably that would be so if Christianity naturally led to them.

      The basic principle of Christianity though is the Word made flesh, which seems to mean that a particular (like a particular man) need not be merely particular, but can have an indissoluble connection to something transcending it (like God). So nominalism seems basically at odds with Christianity. But if nominalism is incorrect then it seems odd to make particulars (like the particular judgment of each individual) the final criterion of the good and true.

      So it seems that liberalism is a natural continuation of nominalism and protestantism, while the latter are not natural continuations of orthodox Christianity.

      • The Soul of Liberalism
        Isn’t liberalism a hardy political perennial that grows in any civil society? Its provenance is part of the history of civilization.

        If compassion is the soul of liberalism, then perhaps Jesus Christ could be described as a liberal. His moderation of conservative Judaic law and the ‘revolutionary’ moral message of the Sermon on the Mount can be understood as having liberal propensities.

        • The soullessness of liberalism
          Liberalism seems to me something much more specific. As its name suggests, it’s based on taking self-determining freedom as the highest standard. For that reason, it depends on prior abolition of transcendent goods. There’s just individual desire and choice. As such, I don’t find it a hardy perennial and I don’t think Jesus was liberal.

          • The soul of liberalism isn’t compassion
            The soul of liberalism isn’t compassion or else they’d be compassionate to us.

  3. An individualist objection to open immigration
    In the first article, Kurth writes:

    What has been true of the Anglo-Protestant culture has been even more true of the American Creed. Its central values have been variously defined as liberty, equality, opportunity, individualism, free enterprise, civil rights and the rule of law. None of these provides any principled basis for restrictions on immigration.

    This is an important claim, that I will only partially contradict. An individualist can observe that most cultures in the world are not individualistic, and that importation of large numbers of persons from outside the Anglo-American culture will threaten our culture with takeover by cultural principles of group rights, clannishness, etc. Thus, if you believe in individualism, you want to preserve it, justifying immigration restriction.

    This is only a partial defense, however, because there seems to be a blind spot in Anglo-American-Protestant culture. We seem to assume (falsely) that everyone on earth is pretty much like us, i.e. individualistic, meritocratic, not clannish, etc. The instinct to preserve the culture is not triggered in those who do not perceive a threat to that culture.

    The question is thus: Is there something inherent in our individualistic culture that causes this blind spot, or is the blind spot due to the national myth that everyone in the world wants to come here in order to become Americans and not just to get a good job here, get welfare benefits for the poor relatives they bring along, etc.? Does our geographic buffer of two oceans help us not really perceive how different the rest of the world is? Americans are notoriously insular, believe in American exceptionalism in almost every political and cultural matter, etc.

    I think there are mixed causative factors here, and it is far too simplistic to say that our individualistic culture inherently leads to open immigration. I think it is at least as much due to our ignorance and naivete concerning how non-individualistic other cultures are.

    • Individualism downplays generalities
      The problem I think is that individualists don’t see individuals as constituted by their social connections. As a result they view judging people by cultural background as unjust prejudice. If you tell them “don’t let Asians in because Asian culture is familial and communal” they’re not likely to be impressed.

      • That’s putting it a bit weakly
        That is a bit of a straw man. I would certainly not expect “Asian culture is familial and communal” to impress anyone as an argument for immigration limitation. In fact, it sounds more like praise than a warning.

        How about, “Other cultures are clannish enough to band together and vote themselves political spoils based on their group identity when the occasion arises. If you don’t want to see America devolve into a tribal group-identity-politics country, in which politicians are trying to piece together 51% of the vote by forming group coalitions that would be happy to abuse the losing 49%, then you really don’t want to import the kind of people who have thought that way for centuries.”

        Witness the current election campaign, in which Obama is noticeably weak among Hispanic voters. The Hispanics trust a white liberal such as Hillary to give them their racial spoils; they don’t trust a black politician to do the same, especially when that black politician makes thinly veiled statements like “Our time has come!” and even fellow Democrats are not sure who is included in “our.” Many Americans are waking up to what is going on as they see this little melodrama play out on their TV screens. It is not far-fetched that we can enlighten individualists to the nightmarish transformation that is occurring.

        However, we have to not only enlighten them, but then motivate them to do something acceptable to their sensibilities. Telling them that the solution is to join the white nationalist/American Renaissance crowd (which I have seen some advocate elsewhere than on this blog) will be a non-starter. Telling them to limit immigration so they can go back to their Anglo-American individualist lives without fear is far more palatable and feasible.

        • Individualism doesn’t see itself as cultural
          I don’t see why an individualist would think that “Asian culture is familial and communal” is praise. It’s another way of saying it’s not individualistic. I also don’t see why it is more of a straw man than “other cultures are clannish” etc.

          The problem with the line of argument is that it requires the individualist to see foreigners either

          1. as beings of a fundamentally different sort from himself, which is ridiculous, or
          2. to see his own individualism as the outcome of his particular social relations and background, which is inconsistent with that very individualism.

          You want the individualist to see a Mexican immigrant as someone who’s thought about things in some particular way for centuries, which is obviously false. He’s probably only 25 years old. And you want the immigrant to be seen as someone whose actions are determined by his kind, which is an anti-individualist point of view. I don’t think you’ll succeed.

          • Individualism and racism
            To make explicit something implied in my most recent comment: the impossibility of taking cultural differences seriously from an individualist perspective is the root of the current obsession with “racism.” If you think such differences matter then (the thought is) you must think outsiders are a fundamentally different kind of being. They aren’t different because the same sort of thing that gives you one set of tendencies gives them another, they’re different because they’re just plain different. And if you identify autonomy with humanity (which is the individualist and liberal tendency) then to say the difference is that they are less individualistic and autonomous is to say that the difference is that they are less human.

          • An existence proof to the contrary: me
            I greatly admire the individualism and meritocratic nature of my Anglo-American-Protestant heritage. I understand that those who do not share my heritage do not share my attitudes. Therefore, I seek to protect my heritage, including my heritage of individualism, individual rights vs. group rights, meritocracy vs. nepotism, universal rule of law vs. one set of rules for one group and another set of laws for the other group, etc., by limiting the immigration of those who do not share my heritage and attitudes.

            However, according to your post, it is not possible for me to hold all of these beliefs at once. I recall one of Woody Allen’s old stand-up routines in which he recalled his frustration with an old girlfriend who was a philosophy major. He said they would get in these long discussions that would conclude with her proving that he did not exist.

            Perhaps you are approaching people a little too abstractly when you generalize about what they can and cannot be persuaded to understand. My experience is that highly individualistic WASPs who come into real daily contact with real, living non-WASPs often understand the differences. I have heard many such WASPs comment on the “clannishness” of other groups, just based on their experience. But, according to you, it is not possible for non-clannish individualist WASPs to notice that these other groups are clannish, because that would imply that they are making a generalization about another culture being different, etc. So, not only can I not exist, but my experience with others who also privately vocalized their understandings of cultural differences is probably a figment of my imagination.

            No offense, but the actual world of actual people does not work the way you hypothesize. People do see differences. Their perceptions generally have to be unvocalized due to leftist PC constraints and outright leftist oppression, not because individualists are unable to perceive in the first place.

          • PC doesn’t come out of nowhere
            You don’t have to claim that people are perfectly logical to claim that the logic of a position tells in the long run. That’s why liberalism is reformist: it takes a long time for the implications of individualist freedom as a guiding principle to work themselves out. Some people of course resist taking the next step. Most people eventually go along, though, and once that’s happened it’s extremely difficult to go back because once the next step has been recognized as logical to reverse it would directly deny the basic principle.

            We can see the results all around us in the actual world of actual people. No matter how obvious it becomes that individualist freedom is a cultural matter rather than a matter of free individual choice people resist that recognition and its implications. Some of them might mumble a bit or make fun of the conclusions to which their own basic principle has driven things but the complaints never get anywhere because the principles on which public argument is based don’t support them.

  4. Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus
    You said:

    [Kurth’s] view of the situation is basically the same as mine, only he’s a Calvinist so he thinks we need the Bible and I’m a Catholic so I think we need tradition and the Pope.

    As a Reformed Protestant, I have to report that the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian churches hold to a version of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” although they would disagree with Rome on what constitutes a valid church. And the same view is held by traditional Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal churches, which is why I would describe this view as the traditional Protestant view. These Protestant churches do not, of course, go so far as to identify a (capital T) Tradition or a Pope as being part of the official picture, but they would agree with the general principle that one cannot be a “Lone Ranger” Christian.

    Of course, the garden-variety Protestant churches of today have abandoned the principle of the necessity of participation in a true church, which is one reason why America is in danger: Protestants (in the loose sense) feel themselves to be justified in any sort of heresy or heterodoxy, as long as they tell themselves they are affirming certain basic beliefs such as the Resurrection, the Trinity, and justification by faith alone. This laxity prevents real Christian fellowship, which contributes to the dissolution of the larger American society.

    As for traditionalist restoration of a properly ordered American society: Properly traditionalistic Protestant churches could play a key role in forming a more cohesive society based around their more cohesive parishes, as seems to have been the case in many instances until roughly the middle of the Twentieth Century.


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