Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

There have always been hard-working Americans.  And the respect for work and expectation and value put upon work was long an American virtue.  Americans also have long had a streak of impressive risk-taking.  The motive of so much of the hard work of Americans has long been to get rich and not have to work, preferably with as little real work as possible along the way.  What else is the meaning of “wild-catters” and “land speculators” and the old ’49ers.   Both trends–honest work-and get-rich-quick scheming–have coexisted since our republic’s founding.

Along the way came a third trend:  the will to idleness on the dime of others, without anything more required than breath in one’s lung and a vote.  This corrosive newcomer’s influence reached its high water mark in the 60s, where work, productivity, and the like were scorned as “selling out” by the elites and as a “sucker’s game” by the idle poor.  For a lot of reasons, mostly guilt of one kind or another, the idle rich in particular supported throwing a few bones at the poor.  A helping hand or a pay-off depending how you look at it.

Today all three of these ethics–the old work ethic, the scheming ethic, and the scheming ethic of socialism–coexist in varying degrees.  The decline of the old American work ethic has been the most notable consequence of an increasing culture of consumerism and self-gratification.  Consumerism and the extensive use of credit has fueled the two alternatives American visions’ attractiveness and undermined the vitality of the work ethic.

Below is an excerpt of an excellent essay by Steven Malanga on the work ethic’s present doldrums:

Behind America’s balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker [Tocqueville] noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty—virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion, which Tocqueville called “the first of [America’s] political institutions, . . . imparting morality” to American democracy and free markets. Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the “Protestant ethic” and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books, and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic undergirded and promoted America’s economic success.

What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they don’t understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is “not to be disturbed in his toil,” as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones. They would find what Tocqueville described as the “fatal circle” of materialism—the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.

Out of abject fear, saving is rising.  Perhaps the work ethic will enjoy a renaissance.  But this is unlikely so long as some can live quite well on the dole, while others live extraordinarily well playing games with other people’s money in a manner that has no apparent benefit for the public or the system.  I should think anger and resentment directed at those latter groups is more likely.

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A great editorial by (college classmate) Bret Stephens on the wide gap between today’s celebrity culture and the older, more austere values of yesteryear which characterized the brave and humble men of the space program:

That this should seem at all peculiar tells us something about the age. Codes of personal conduct were once what Americans—great ones, at least—were all about. In his superb book “American Heroes,” Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan writes about Benjamin Franklin and George Washington that “both men cared enormously about their reputations, about their honor. Their deliberate refusals to do things, employed to great advantage in serving their country, originated in a personal ambition to gain honor and reputation of a higher order than most people aspired to.”

This is not the way we live now. Modern culture has severed many of the remaining links between merit and celebrity. We make a fetish of uninteresting, detestable, loud or unaccomplished people: Paris Hilton, Princess Di, Keith Olbermann, Michael Jackson. Disgrace can be a ticket for even greater celebrity, particularly when mixed with confession. Stoicism, on the other hand, is regarded as a form of denial, meaning borderline lunacy.

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Wall Street will always be greedy and profit-minded. That is a given.  But the extent of the rot is really alarming.  The failure of all forms of regulation–internal, public, and market-based, such as bond-rating agencies–will leave a cloud over capital markets for some time.

The fearlessness by participants suggests that non-market considerations–friendships, loyalty, ethnic and religious ties, habit, absent moral compasses, and incompetence by regulators–have at least as much to do with where and how money is spent as ordinary considerations of profit and loss.  Of course, this is not always bad, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out in his research on the importance of trust in risky business transactions. But American business, particularly at the top level, has long been tempered by a broader notion of fair play:  rejection of nepotism and bribery, standardized procedures, meritocracy, some respect for “good birth,” the habits of good education and conscience, and a strong culture of fiduciary duties by officers to shareholders and other stakeholders.

This culture has come undone on Wall Street in particular, where cleverness and deception have displaced wisdom and hard work as the hallmark values.  The real value of investment instruments are increasingly hidden from outsiders through dishonest and opaque instruments, whether “barges” ten years ago or asset-backed-securities today.  Consider the headlines:  A $50B (!) ponzi scheme by Bernard Madoff. A lawyer hocking $380M in fake promissory notes. The scale, brazenness, and long-persistence of these frauds suggests that something is deeply wrong on Wall Street that no regulator alone can fix.  Something must happen to the culture, which likely depends on banning a great many people from any kind of dealings in complex financial matters, revising the famous bonus structure of Wall Street firms, a revolt by shareholders and commercial banks, and sending a great many people to jail for a very long time.

The banker of old was a staid, somewhat humorless, but universally respected symbol of prudence and rectitude.  He made a good living, but his living depended on the survival of the institution with which he was affiliated.  The Wall Street impresario of today is a 30 year old castle collector who went to Ivy League schools and learned how to do regression analysis and also that “God is dead.”  He’ll switch jobs 3-4 times in a decade, and his entire compensation structure is directly proportional to the risks he takes with the money of others.  He represents an alien value system that has taken root on Wall Street.  It is un-American, untied to the broader moral traditions of western civilization, and we are witnessing its self-destruction.  The return of that earlier ethic of sturdy, sober, WASP Americana–an ethic that all social climbers, whether immigrant or “low born,” were expected to follow–is part of the solution to what’s wrong with Wall Street, which for too long has taken the Michael Douglas film as a “how to.”

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I thought Sara’s speech was awesome, and I like her a great deal. She just did great in nearly every possible way. One theme of hers was particularly striking to me. She said:

“We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.” I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.

I grew up with those people.

They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in Americawho grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.

They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.

This sense of pride, but also of fear, animates much of the “Red State” attitude about Blue Staters. Where does it come from?  It is an age old tension of what Yuri Slezkine calls Mercurians and Apollonians. America’s right-wing populism has much the same flavor as other reactions to the changes wrought by modernism. Once upon a time, itinerant merchants were a minority swimming in an ocean of peasants.  They lived alongside societies in which they barely fit in or only occasionally visited; they were often suspected of being unproductive or disloyal. Often they were from distinct ethnic or religious sub-groups.  Jews.  Armenians.  Chinese.  They had to play it cool and generally made efforts not to appear to threaten the community’s prevailing mores.

Today, the Mercurians are in charge. The Ivy Leagues, Wall Streeters, verbally intelligent, quick-to-move, urban cosmopolitans. What Steve Sailer calls “Davos People.” In other words, today the world is the opposite of that of even 100 years ago, when a third or more of Americans still lived on farms.  Today’s elite is everything that Sara Palin is not and has never been.

Palin represents those left behind, people not altogether devoid of the “bitterness” Obama was castigated for taking notice of.  Thankfully, in America, this prejudice has been less ethnically discriminatory, less nasty, and more forgiving and ecumenical than elsewhere. In America, this populism is also dampened by our strong cultural respect for free enterprise. We’re willing as a people to make exceptions. That said, the Red Staters are willing to be overinclusive too. Consider the right-wing’s visceral hatred for a turn-coat WASP character like Bill Clinton.

In spite of its various limits and American peculiarities, this tension is still there. It has cultural, geographic, and ethnic dimensions. In spite of entreaties, we’re not solely a land of people making money or a creedal nation or some other modern symbol like a Big Shopping Mall of a Country where it does not matter who lives here, for how long, or what they think and do.  This should matter to conservatives.  The Mercurian ideas that “everyone should go to college,” “diversity is our strength,” physical strength and courage are irrelevant and barbaric, and other platitudes of cosmopolitan globalism are corrosive of the traditional values and virtues of the peasant-patriot, the natural conservative rooted to the soil and suspicious of change and outsiders.

When such people see gazillionaire banks getting bailed out by the feds, prayer being taken out of schools, regional and religious disparities in military service, and people in NYC making tons of money by gambling other peoples’ meager savings–their pensions in some cases–in impenetrably complex transactions even while these same workers get tossed about or outsourced by globalization, it stings and then enrages. In hard times in particular, these dichotomies and suspicions come into play.

Slezkine understands this mutual suspicion as a broader phenomenon than mere American populism or mere anti-Semitism but rather as a permanent distinction in human types in nearly every society on
earth. I think Palin tapped into this dichotomy in a very effective way. She and her land are the quintessential American Apollonian outpost. She knows these people and channels their frustrations, frustrations that can never be fully alleviated by the emasculating offer of hand-outs from the Democrats.

Working class rural people don’t want a handout; they want to be understood and respected; and, if not, they want to remind the Mercurians of the latter’s practical dependence on the Apollonian. Often this takes place in iconic symbols.  Consider the brief social elevation of NYC firefighters after 9/11. For so long it had been the Enrons, techno-geeks, heiresses, artists, lawyers, and Wall-Streeters who reigned supreme there.  For a brief moment, the utter fear and terror and vulnerability of the financial classes was made manifest, and their fear and helplessness contrasted so sharply with the sacrificial bravery of those very different men who marched into the burning towers.

Here’s what Slezkine says of these human types:

At different times and in different places, there were tribes–ethnic groups–that specialized exclusively in providing services to the surrounding food-producing societies. They include Roma-Gypsies, various so-called “Travelers” or “Tinkers,” the Fuga in Ethiopia, the Sheikh Mohammadi in Afghanistan, and of course the Armenians, the Overseas Chinese, the Indians in East Africa, the Lebanese in West Africa and Latin America, and so on. I call them all “Mercurians,” as opposed to their “Apollonian” hosts.

What do you mean by those terms?

Apollo was the god of both livestock and agriculture. “Apollonian” societies, the way I use the term, are societies organized around food production, societies that consist mostly of peasants, plus various combinations of warriors and priests who appropriate peasant labor by controlling access to land or salvation.

Mercury, or Hermes, was the god of messengers, merchants, interpreters, craftsmen, guides, healers, and other border-crossers. “Mercurians,” the way I use the term, are ethnic groups, demographically complete societies, that do not engage in food production, but live by providing services to the surrounding Apollonians.

In the modern world, Apollonians have to become more Mercurian–more Jewish, if you will; but Apollonian values, peasant and warrior values, essentially, live on, of course. The two attitudes, two ideal types, are still with us today, and the Jews, the most accomplished of all Mercurians, are still playing a very special role in the modern world–as the models of both success and victimization.

There are striking similarities in the way all Mercurians think of themselves and of their non-Mercurian neighbors, and in the way they actually behave. . . .

There were a lot of groups performing such functions. And, throughout the world, they share certain features and are regarded in similar ways. Think of Jews and Gypsies. Both were traditionally seen as dangerous internal aliens, homeless for reasons of divine punishment, and engaged in harmful, morally suspect activities. They were always seen as mirror images of their host communities: Their men weren’t warriors, their women seemed aggressive–and, perhaps for that reason, attractive; they remained strangers by staying aloof, not intermarrying, not fighting, not sharing meals–just making, exchanging, selling, and possibly stealing, things and concepts. And so they were feared and hated accordingly, with the Holocaust as the culmination of that long history of fear and hatred.

And I think they were seen in similar ways because they were, in many ways, similar. Both were exclusive, nomadic service providers; both had rigid taboos regarding unclean food and intermarriage; both could only survive by remaining strangers–hence the prohibitions against sharing food and blood with their neighbors, and the obsession with cleanliness. . . .

Including the Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia?

Yes. The Overseas Chinese too are supposed to be clever–too clever, perhaps. You can call on the usual anti-Semitic list: they are aloof, devious, unmanly, and so on. This is the way Apollonians describe Mercurians throughout the world.

And of course one could interpret these same qualities in a positive light. “Cunning” and “deviousness” may become “intelligence” and “a general commitment to the life of the mind.” Gypsies are proud of being smarter than the non-Gypsies they deal with, as Jews are, or were in the traditional Jewish world. Mercurian views of Apollonians tend to be negative too: “soulfulness,” “courage,” and “earthiness” may become “stupidity,” “belligerence,” and “uncleanliness.”

In other words, the oppositions mind/body, intelligence/physicality, impermanence/permanence, non-belligerence/belligerence remain the same and are agreed upon by everyone involved. Everyone knows which traits are associated with which group; the difference is in the interpretation.

While I have a great deal of sympathy for the working men left behind or abused in a global era, admire their virtues, and believe our society has become unbalanced, Palin and the GOP’s contempt for “Mercurians” of all types is a potentially dangerous indulgence. Modern societies need both human types and their respective vocations to be balanced and powerful. As a conservative, I want to tilt the scales, the honors, and benefits of society back towards the forgotten Apollonians.  At the same time, I do not want to see us devolve into a primitive, hateful, envious, and dull race devoid of contemplation, gentleness, or ability, as so many Apollonian societies have become or always remained.

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McCain is an open borders fanatic.  He thinks other conservatives are racist for opposing him on this, and he takes it personally. He grudgingly said he wouldn’t push for comprehensive amnesty until the borders were secured first, but now he’s saying he’s going to fight for amnesty in 2009 if he somehow wins the election.

McCain acted honorably in his youth, but he’s a liar, and he has no commitment to the rule of law or the historical American nation.  He is more committed to his own vanity and the abstract liberal principals that say its wrong and offensive and an offensive attack to ask that laws be enforced and that America preserves its demographic balance.  Ace puts it well:

What surprises me is that John McCain fetishizes his own integrity and honor and yet apparently doesn’t think a promise made to conservatives “counts” — perhaps he imagines we’re children, or perhaps legally incompetent lunatics, who cannot enter binding contracts, and thus the contract he made with us can be voided without consequence?

I don’t know. For a man to whom integrity and honor is supposedly so important one would imagine he’d be slightly less cavalier about lying and breaking a promise, even if he didn’t like that promise.

Doubtless he disagrees with us. He thinks his policy is better. So what? The point of a promise is to, well, promise future outcomes, even if one wouldn’t choose those outcomes in absence of a promise.

One doesn’t really have to promise to do things one wants to do. One makes promises to do things one would not do, absent the promise.

This is the nasty edge of McCain’s conception of himself as impeccably righteous — he believes he’s so above the rest of us in terms of honesty and integrity he can also decide what constitutes a lie and what constitutes bad behavior and what represents a broken promise. As in, his mind, his presidency is absolutely indispensible to America, tiny deceptions like this are not merely excusable, but downright imperative, and thus justified.

Or perhaps it’s simpler: John McCain is unfailingly honorable; if he acts in a way that seems to be dishonorable, you must be perceiving it incorrectly, because John McCain is unfailingly honorable.

In fact, I imagine he conceives that there’s a great deal of integrity in his “having the guts” to tell the conservative troglodytes what they needed to hear in order to secure the nomination.

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If you think America is fine alternating between corporatist Democratic Presidents and semi-socialist, open borders Republicans, then what I’m about to say will make no sense. But if you think America is on the wrong course, that its people are demoralized, that its schools are corrupt and ineffective, that its people are more and more indebted and unrealistically materialistic, that mass immigration is fracturing our identity, that Christianity is wrongly marginalized in the culture, and that crime, disorder, incivility, and servile habits of every kind are getting worse with each passing year, then you recognize something extreme must happen. There must be an awakening. Conservative minded and patriotic Americans must be pushed to the brink, abandoning their false hopes, and approach politics in the future on the basis of hard-headed appraisals of reality. And a big part of that reality is that America is changing, its demographics engineered by mass immigration, its minority communities resentful and alienated, and the pride of its white majority sapped by a constant drumbeat of lies and exaggerations about the past under the rubric of “multiculturalism.”

Many Americans have no idea how much rage, resentment, and racism exists in America’s Hispanic and black communities. The Reverend Wright episode has allowed the general public to peer into this malevolent universe. This glimpse has frightened people that grew forgetful of why they or their parents left cities for orderly and gated suburban communities. Four years of an Obama presidency will be the best possible thing for honesty and clarity to return to America’s public life. Consider how much more forthrightly mainstream conservatives are talking about Obama and his line of bulls**t about his reverend of 20 years.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg–not exacly a man living in Jared Taylor’s universe–had the following to say:

I am so sick of hearing talking heads saying that Wright’s sermons are nothing unusual in black churches as if that somehow makes what he says ok. It’s as if something disgusting and untrue is outrageous if one person believes it, but it’s suddenly respectable if lots of people — or lots of black people — believe it. Hogwash.

Michelle Malkin took things a step further. She mocked Obama’s campaign as the “Jive Talk Express” and said the following:

It was just this March, in his Philadelphia racial reconciliation speech, that Obama was urging us not to dismiss Wright as a “crank or a demagogue” and protesting that he could “no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

Now, realizing how gravely his self-serving association with Wright has wounded his campaign, Obama himself has attempted to do both those things — and expects the American public to believe him when he weakly and belatedly asserts that “when I say I find [Wright’s] statements appalling, I mean it.”

As those of us with non-European brains might put it: You be trippin’, Barry.

The formula of race relations since the 1960s goes something like this: when blacks misbehave, the source must be found in white racism. The worse the behavior, the worse whites must be. Black rioting in New Orleans after Katrina . . . George Bush’s fault, plus decades of “white” neglect. L.A. Riots . . . 12 years of neglect. O.J. Simpson kills two white people . . . Mark Fuhrman made racist remarks and framed O.J. Crack-powder cocaine disparity . . . whites are guilty of “institutional racism” by punishing blacks harshly who try to get rich quick in the drug trade.

This is all nonsense. There are many causes of black misbehavior and failure, but racism is no longer a significant factor in minority failure and hasn’t been for over 30 years. In spite of this, black resentment is at an all time high, inflamed by agitators like Reverend Wright. Limited government conservatism requires whites to reject this formula. It’s no longer accurate, and it’s exacerbating black failures that could be reduced by white and black elites standing shoulder to shoulder and providing moral leadership. This new generation of leadership won’t emerge, so long as whites demur to black leaders, their lame leaders consist chiefly of useless demagogues like Sharpton, Wright, and company.

It’s good that mainstream conservatives are speaking plainly about Wright, black racism, and the various lies used to support the superstructure of “white guilt.” It’s good they’re calling McCain out on pulling punches in the face of this nonsense. Four years of this trend will propel someone like me well into the middle of the conservative mainstream, and that would be a good thing. Obama’s presidency will stress and purify the conservative movement, leading to clarity on issues of culture, the welfare state, demographics, and racism that it has lost in the fog of “compassionate conservatism” under President Bush.

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We have three very bad candidates for President. One is an angry, open borders fanatic. One is a black nationalist and smooth-talking charlatan. One is an crude and unaccomplished ladder-climber whose only qualification is her association as putative spouse of an ex-president.

Which of these three losers will best rally conservatives? One argument for either Hillary or Obama is that conservatives will become united, thwarting these presdients’ worst proposals, and rethinking policy and principles based on the damage of the Bush Presidency. But have the horrors and mistakes of the Bush presidency caused a rally of real conservatives?

It seems like his faux populist war talk instead creates a kind of false consciousness, where memories of the anti-war movement counterculture of the Sixties and the pussilanimity of the Democrats during the Cold War made instinctual conservatives mistakenly support all the unthinking talk of war in the Middle East.   The distraction of the Iraq War let conservatives forget about all the ways this president is, in fact, advancing the Sixties agenda, i.e., open borders, big government, silence on various culture issues.

A friend writes an interesting point about how the “unity” of a Clinton or Obama presidency may give us false hopes:

As far as the Conservative movement goes, I still choose having someone in office who will appoint decent judges and protect the country even if it means a slightly smaller chance the conservative movement will regenerate, which I am not even sure is the case. Consider that an Obama or Clinton (or Gore) presidency would give anyone to the right of Lenin plenty to complain about, and it might actually serve to paper over significant differences among the right that need to be hashed out. Think about some of the conspiracy theorists that got thrown into the conservative movement during the Clinton presidency. And look who we elected President afterwards. It doesn’t seem like a Democratic presidency was all that helpful to the Conservative movement (I know that Bill was more moderate than these goons, but still).

All of these candidates are so bad, it’s hard to decide who will be worst.  We can only think now of who will accomplish the least, be the least bad, or, if bad, do the most to unify conservatives.  I think more and more that person is Obama, because our biggest national hang up is confusion about equality, the role of government, and race.  He, more than a McCain or Clinton, I believe will be ideological, supporting open borders equally with McCain, but also supporting divisive minority set asides and various symbolic embraces of black barbarism.  Can you imagine a President Obama during black riots or a foreign attack on Americans?  He’s never faced these kinds of issues, and, to the extent he has, has been an apologist for or associated with the most extreme anti-American leftism. 

Becoming accustomed to criticizing this man, seeing his errors, realizing he’s a charlatan (a process already underway), and taking note of his conflicting loyalty to his tribe over the people as a whole will be a cleansing process, albeit a painful one.  I think he’ll be less likely to win than McCain or Clinton, but I think his victory would be the best hope for a conservative revival.

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