In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, one of the characters explains a ‘European-style gangster hit’, which he says consists of three shots: head, heart, and stomach. Yes, that should definitely ensure the target’s demise!
It strikes me that this comprehensive approach to high-certainty murder provides a pretty good analogy for what is going on in America and in many other Western nations. In my analogy, ‘stomach’ represents the basic, essential physical infrastructure of society–energy and food supply, in particular. ‘Head’ represents the society’s aggregate thought processes: how decisions are made, how truth is distinguished from falsehood. And ‘heart’ represents the society’s spirit: how people feel about their fellow citizens, their families, friends, and associates, and their overall society.
In the year 2023, all of these things are under assault.
Stomach: The suicidal energy policies of Germany could serve as a poster child here, but similar trends are in place in other countries, although mostly not so far along. (The US state of California seems to want to be next on the list of bad examples.) The destructive farming policies of Sri Lanka, implemented with the enthusiastic cheerleading of Western experts, now have echoes in Canada and in the Netherlands. And energy and agriculture are of course closely coupled…for the production of fertilizer, for the operation of farm equipment, and for the transportation of supplies to the farms and the transportation of agricultural products to process and distribution centers and ultimately to consumers.
Nearly all physical goods and products come ultimately from farms or from mines. At least in the US and in much of Europe, regulations and litigation have made it very difficult to open new mines and even to keep existing ones in operation. Yet there are very extensive materials requirements for the wind, solar, and battery systems required for the envisaged ‘energy transition’…and the answer, if one asks where these materials should come from, seems to be only ‘not from here.’
Pressuring people and entire economies for maximum use of wind and solar…while at the same time amping up the difficulties and disrespect facing the people and companies involved in the extraction and processing of the necessary materials…is a sure recipe for shortages and Greenflation.
Speaking of disrespect, the American businessman and politician Michael Bloomberg, has made some rather remarkable assertions about both farming and manufacturing. With regard to farming, he said:
“I could teach anybody, even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer,” Bloomberg told the audience at the Distinguished Speakers Series at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. “It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.”
…and regarding manufacturing:
““You put the piece of metal on the lathe, you turn the crank in the direction of the arrow and you can have a job. And we created a lot of jobs.”
All of which elides the vast array of knowledge and skills required in order to do either farming or manufacturing successfully. I doubt that Bloomberg, for all his knowledge of information technology and finance, has much comprehension of any of these areas. What projects here is a feeling of contempt for people who are involved in the physical world rather than his own symbolic world of information technology and media.
Journalists and politicians, in particular, seem to have little grasp of those essential technologies which I have metaphorically classified under ‘stomach’, even at the most fundamental levels. And too many political leaders think…even while preaching about their respect for Science, that they can ignore people with actual, practical experience with energy and the other technologies which they wish to control. For example:
Trudeau’s green hydrogen announcement, as big an international energy policy statement as there’s been in memory, was held far from Canada’s energy heartland, and included no one from the energy sector that is currently shouldering the load.
Not only were they not invited, but Trudeau went out of his way to make an absurd statement about the lack of an economic case for LNG that was akin to a drama teacher going on stage at the Detroit Auto Show and telling the audience to get rid of all their wrenches because he didn’t think they were needed anymore.
Head: The cognitive methods that have made Western societies thrive are under assault. Such benign things as asking students to get the right answer and to show their work are denounced as racism. Debate and discussion have become difficult as disagreement is often perceived as a threat. In law, the adversary system itself is under attack as lawyers are pressured not to represent unpopular clients…something that has long been the case in totalitarian nations and in areas dominated by mobs and by lynch law.
A vital part of the toolkit that has driven progress–social progress as well as technological progress–has been the open discussion enabled by the spirit of free speech. This is under severe attack, not least on university campuses. A recent Quillette article provides multiple data points on campus hostility to allowing speakers whose view might offend somebody. Link A 2017 study, based on a sampling of all US registered voters, shows that 30% of Americans favor banning speakers “if the guest’s words are considered to be hateful or offensive by some.” Among Democrats–and professors and administrators are much more likely to be Democrats than to be Republicans–the corresponding number is 40%. And for Democrat women–a demographic which is in the ascendency in key roles on campus–the opposition to free speech, as measured by the above question, is 47%. Link Not a hopeful sign for the future of campus free speech or for the direction that American society will evolve as students who have come of age in its universities move out into the wider world.
In science, ideas and conclusions which conflict with established views and prestigious people are increasingly likely to be condemned and suppressed as ‘misinformation.’ This paper Link argues persuasively that identity politics and censorship go hand in hand. Major scientific publications are now evaluating submitted papers based on (what someone thinks are) the moral implications of the proposed conclusions, not just on the truth or falsity of those conclusions–see Alex Tabarrok’s recent post as well as this Quillette article.
There are of course precedents for this kind of thing. As the blogger Neo notes, “The Soviets actively squelched science that contradicted certain political messages they wished to get across.” The agricultural catastrophe that was brought about by the nonsensical but politically-correct and politically-enforced theories of Lysenko is well-documented history, but the damage is much broader than that. This article mentions that the Soviets at one point banned resonance theory, in chemistry, as “bourgeois pseudoscience.” The field of cybernetics–feedback systems and automatic control–was at one point denounced as “a misanthropic pseudo-theory”, among other things. (It is interesting to note that “few of these critics had any access to primary sources on cybernetics”…the denunciations were largely based on other Soviet anti-cybernetics sources.)
In Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, protagonist Rubashov is an Old Bolshevik who has been arrested by the Stalinist regime. The book represents his musings while awaiting trial and likely execution.
A short time ago, our leading agriculturalist, B., was shot with thirty of his collaborators because he maintained the opinion that nitrate artificial manure was superior to potash. No. 1 is all for potash; therefore B. and the thirty had to be liquidated as saboteurs. In a nationally centralized agriculture, the alternative of nitrate or potash is of enormous importance : it can decide the issue of the next war. If No. 1 was in the right, history will absolve him … If he was wrong …
Note that phrase in a nationally centralized agriculture. When things are centralized, decisions become overwhelmingly important. There will be strong pressure against allowing dissidents to “interfere with” what has been determined to be the One Best Way.
The assault on what I have called “cognitive methods that have made Westerns societies thrive” has not originated only from the universities, but they have been the most influential source of this destructive challenge. Which is ironic, given that the great growth of educational institutions was driven by and premised on the Enlightenment ideals that all too many of these institutions seem focused on negating.
There was once a rather sinister toy: it consisted of a box with a switch on the side. When you turned the switch to on, the box would open, and hand would come out, and the thing would turn itself off. The behavior of much of western academia seems modeled after the behavior of that box. Unfortunately, it’s not just themselves that these institutions may succeed in turning off.
Heart. The late Dr. David Yeagley, a Comanche Indian (traditional name ‘Bad Eagle’) and a college professor, described an interaction that took place in one of his classes. (excerpted)
“LOOK, DR. YEAGLEY, I don’t see anything about my culture to be proud of. It’s all nothing. My race is just nothing.”
The girl was white. She was tall and pretty, with amber hair and brown eyes. For convenience’ sake, let’s call her “Rachel.”
I had been leading a class on social psychology, in which we discussed patriotism – what it means to be a people or a nation. The discussion had been quite lively. But when Rachel spoke, everyone fell silent.
“Look at your culture,” she said to me. “Look at American Indian tradition. Now I think that’s really great. You have something to be proud of. My culture is nothing.”
Her words disturbed and offended me in a way that I could not quite enunciate.
When Rachel denounced her people, she did it with the serene self-confidence of a High Priestess reciting a liturgy. She said it without fear of criticism or censure. And she received none. The other students listened in silence, their eyes moving timidly back and forth between me and Rachel, as if unsure which of us constituted a higher authority.
Yeagley saw a resemblance between Rachel and those Frenchwomen who were quick to associate with the conquering Germans…and he wondered:
Who had conquered Rachel’s people? What had led her to disrespect them? Why did she behave like a woman of a defeated tribe?
(Dr Yeagley also cited a Cheyenne saying which seems relevant: A people is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground.)
It is not only the value of our national and cultures that is increasingly held in low esteem–it is something even more fundamental, humanity itself. Here is a meme which was circulated on Facebook–the world without bees–the world without humans:
The top panel of the meme is unobjectionable; it does seem likely that a world without bees would lead to very bad consequences. The lower panel, though, with its image of a beautiful and peaceful Eden–but no people–is just flat-out nihilism. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is no longer limited to the fringes. Stacey Adams, a candidate for governor of the US state of Georgia (45% in the most recent polls), recently asserted that the reason people are concerned about inflation is that they have kids. No kids, no problems!. (And in a hundred years, with no kids, there will be even few problems, as the above meme suggests.)
The plague of opioids and other drugs that currently afflicts America has many causes–irresponsible marketing by manufacturers, unwise or worse prescribing by some physicians, people who start on a pain-suppression drug for legitimate reasons, typically, injury but then can’t stop, and the almost complete failure of federal law enforcement. But one major factor is surely the desire to escape from reality–to disappear in dreams, to borrow a line from a song–similar to the way in which Chinese laborers with hard lives and little hope became habitues of the opium dens, though with much less-straightforward proximate causes. Loss of a sense of meaning, driven by lack of social connections as well as lack of a strong belief system (whether religious, humanist, or other) surely plays an important part. Unrewarding and seemingly-meaningless jobs drive some people to drugs and others to extreme video game obsessions.
Surely the unrelenting demonization of Western societies, as perpetrated by many influential voices and ‘elites’ of these very societies, contributes to the sense of despair on the part of many individuals. This is probably especially true of men, who find their gender as well as their societies and countries under continuous attack. Years ago, the author Doris Lessing described something she observed in a UK school:
I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives.”
Lessing said the teacher tried to “catch my eye, thinking I would approve of this rubbish”.
This isn’t good for anybody; it is destructive both of the self-concept of the boys and of the sense of agency of the girls–and especially destructive of the possibilities for good relationships between the sexes.
Societies have become extremely politicized. Everything from science to art to history to sex is viewed by many as nothing more than markers in the endless power struggle of group against group. The recent attacks against famous artworks by climate fanatics in the UK and in Germany provides an extreme exemple of this trend: these paintings were not something that could be appreciated for their beauty, they were merely targets of opportunity in the struggle.
This all leads to an increased focus on tribalism. And tribalism, when it goes too far, makes a high-trust society impossible. And a low-trust society is at a considerable disadvantage as concerns its future economic development.
The metaphorical shots to the Head, Heart, and Stomach are individually very harmful to a society; when they occur simultaneously, as is happening now, the impact is devastating.
So, is the situation hopeless? While the situation is indeed dark, I don’t think it’s hopeless, for several reasons. The extreme nature of Woke positions is bound to generate pushback, as is the extension of Woke theology across virtually all areas of human life. To focus on some specifics:
Misdirected kindness has sometimes has its limits: There are people who have aligned themselves with some forms of Wokeness because they want to be kind to people who are different in some way and to avoid bullying…but come to the realization that much of Wokeness is all about bullying. See for example this thread at Twitter:
Melonie Mac @MelonieMac: For those who at least to some degree fell into the woke cult then snapped out of it, what was it that woke you up? For me it was cancel culture. I found myself defending cancelled people because it seemed so cruel. That’s when I realized woke ideology is evil parading as good
Some responses to her tweet:
It’s trying to combat bullying by becoming an even worse bully.
Being canceled online for a clear joke and watching 1000s of people contact my work/family
I didn’t fall for it persay I just thought they were people doing the right thing. I went and would deliver supplies to dc for the blm protests and talked to the people actually there. They were all so warm and kind, from lower class situations. Then I looked up BLM leaders.
It was when I got “canceled” for having a “problematic” guest when I realized how horrible it all was.
I was a leftist anarcho punk that got turned off by all the racism pointed in the other direction, policing what a person could wear or style their hair like based on skin color. It’s the same intolerance and hate with a different coat of paint.
Used to have a woke friend. Said friend basically turned on me when I attempted to defended my gf because she was having a laugh over me accidentally using her soap and smelling like roses. He got mad because “scents aren’t gendered”, and basically never got along with us again.
If you’re on Twitter, there are many more responses worth reading through.
Personal experience can trump narrative. There are lots of people who may superficially agree with some position that sounds good…the claim that wind and solar are both cheaper and less-polluting than other energy sources, for example…and who may not have the time or the kind of background/experience needed to see the flaws in things like some of the ‘Levelized Cost of Energy’ claims being made for ‘renewables’…but can & will perceive that something is wrong when they suffer repeated blackouts and sharply-rising electricity bills. And if you are an avid cook, then ‘going green’ is less-likely to feel warm and fuzzy after you find out that it is being interpreted to require confiscation of your gas stove…and maybe rewiring your kitchen for 220 for your new, required electric stove.
The same point is true about crime. Reducing unneeded imprisonment, having the cops act nicer to suspects…these goals may sound very good, but your views are likely to become more…nuanced…when vast areas of your city–maybe even your own neighborhood–become unlivable.
Credentialism is being challenged. Universities are major engines of Wokeness, and their claims of being the only path to success are being challenged. Some face declining enrollments. Some young people, especially men, are being warned off by the career and financial struggles of those who spent 4, 6, or 8+ years in higher education, and are looking at other options. Some employers are placing less emphasis on college degrees…rather ironically, in some cases this is a side effect of Wokeness. The work of Peter Thiel’s fellowship program, and the affiliated 1517 Fund, are helping to build the case that an ‘elite’ college degree is not the only path to financial and career success.
Get Woke Go Broke. Doesn’t always happen, of course…there are plenty of organizations whose Wokeness does not appear to have yet seriously harmed them…but there are such well-known examples as CNN’s poor showing in ratings (resulting in terminations and layoffs) and the reactions to Disney’s Woke virtue-signature, which reactions were likely a factor in the replacement of its CEO.
Challenging the Censors. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter–the dismantling of much of the censorship apparatus on that platform–and the public release of The Twitter Files are phenomena of the first importance. The rise of Substack…basically a reinvigoration of the old-fashioned concept of the personal blog, but with the option of easy monitorization for those who need/want it…is also important.
Individual Courage. Bari Weiss, writing in Commentary, says We got here because of cowardice. We get out with courage. She cites several examples of courageous behavior, including:
–Maud Maron, a Legal Aid attorney in NYC who spoke out against the mayor’s proposal to get rid of admissions tests to schools like Stuyvesant and who believes that ‘racial essentialism’ is racist and should not be taught in schools. She was the target of a witch hunt, and was eventually forced out. Instead of quietly finding a new job, she has filed suit against the organization under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
–Paul Rossi, teacher at New York private school, who raised questions about the ideology being preached at a mandatory (whites only!) student and faculty Zoom meeting. A few days later, all the school’s advisors were required to read a public reprimand of his conduct out loud to every student in the school. Unwilling to disavow his beliefs, Rossi blew the whistle: “I know that by attaching my name to this I’m risking not only my current job but my career as an educator, since most schools, both public and private, are now captive to this backward ideology. But witnessing the harmful impact it has on children, I can’t stay silent.” As Bari Weiss says, “That’s courage.”
–Peter Boghossian, who resigned his post at Portland State University, writing: “The university transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a social justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender and victimhood and whose only output was grievance and division…For ten years, I have taught my students the importance of living by your principles. One of mine is to defend our system of liberal education from those who would destroy it. Who would I be if I didn’t?”
(Commentary, November 2021 issue)
Parents, seeing the realities of public K-12 education. One side effect of the Covid lockdowns is that many parents got their first view of what is really being taught in their kids’ schools, and often they don’t much like it. This was certainly a major factor in the Virginia gubernatorial race and in several other races as well. A lot of parental activism has been inspired by these revelations, and the reactions of many local authorities and of the Biden administration have themselves been…quite educational.
Some of those who have been most forthright in speaking about local school issues are those who themselves come from totalitarian countries. For example, Xi Van Fleet, a Virginia mom who endured Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a child and spoke up to the Loudoun County School Board:
“You are training our children to loathe our country and our history. Growing up in Mao’s China, all of this feels very familiar…The only difference is that they used class instead of race.”
The “progressive” Left and the “Woke” movement have tremendous inertia. Institutions ranging from universities to churches to banks have been largely captured by its worldview. Derailing the crazy train will be difficult–but I do believe it is possible. By no means certain…but possible.