Thursday, July 13, 2006

Populism, Authenticity and other Lies

Caleb Stegall is at it again, rousing a rabble to combat the dark forces of prosperity, namely, you and I. In this editorial for the Dallas Morning News, he calls for a new prairie populism to arise:
Yet most people in the Gilded Age seemed desperate. A growing disparity between the haves and have-nots brought on by "unbridled entrepreneurialism," a dramatic increase in both social and geographic mobility, the spread of centralized corporate control over consumer goods and globalizing markets vulnerable to forces far, far away all contributed to a sense of unease and insecurity. Populist fervor swept the middle and lower classes as they felt their livelihood and way of life threatened by collusion between their government and rapidly expanding commerce, industry and mass cultures of transportation and communication.

And so it is today. Midwestern towns are drying up and blowing away like so much tumbleweed. Our inner cities too often function as prisons without bars; suburbia is a blighted, soulless landscape of nowhere; and the yeoman freeholder who was once the backbone of rural America is virtually extinct. Pollsters wonder why George W. Bush isn't getting more credit for strong economic numbers. Perhaps it is because what are signs of health driven by rampant consumerism are experienced by most Americans as symptoms of economic and spiritual rot – their own and their country's.

Americans, many of them at least, are awakening to the truth articulated more than 50 years ago by writer Whittaker Chambers: that the modern world's "vision of comfort without effort, pleasure without the pain of creation, life sterilized against even the thought of death, rationalized so that every intrusion of mystery is felt as a betrayal of the mind, life mechanized and standardized" does not "make for happiness from day to day" – and further, that it may mean "catastrophe in the end."

My guess is that what all the commentators are sensing is something real. Could it be that unconstrained growth, hypermobility and global markets actually produce social and political instability?

In the mid-20th century, economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism – the acknowledged world-historical champion in terms of producing wealth and prosperity – would, by a process he called "creative destruction," eventually undermine the very social institutions that gave it birth and guarded its existence. He pointed out that market capitalism exposed more natural ordering structures – the "ties that bind" – to a brutal new calculus. Commitment to kin, community and place entail making heavy economic sacrifices and provide benefits not easily entered on a balance sheet. The more cost-efficient process of market economics fomented an ongoing progressive revolution that eventually rendered those social and family ties largely superfluous. Lord Acton observed that "every institution tends to perish by an excess of its own basic principle."

This tendency of our political and economic culture toward a state of permanent revolution is the hallmark of any modern progressive society. And if there is one deity today to which every politician, right and left, will pay obeisance, it is the god of progress.

Progressives of all political stripes learn early and often that to get on, they better get out, move on, follow every rainbow. "Oh, the places you'll go," crooned Dr. Seuss, and Americans went and went and went until we became a rootless itinerant people – which, it turns out, is exactly the kind of workers required by an economy built on creative destruction. Nanny-state leftists and corporate-state rightists have long been in bed together promoting the wage-entitlement economy with its instantly mobile and fetter-free worker and 100 percent out-of-the-home servitude.

There is a tremendous cost to the health of the republic, to the common good, that comes with the creative yet destructive power of unlimited economic and political progressivism. The vital role property-owning and self-sufficient families, small towns and regional governments play in a free republic has been recognized for centuries. The civic virtues associated with widespread ownership of land, decentralized systems of trade, commitment to the common good of one's tribe and the moral sturdiness of belonging to a tradition are necessary to the continued independence of a free people.

And the loss of these goods will always strike the middle classes first and hardest. When they are lost, they are felt as loss – loss of an entire way of life. And just as the masses of dispossessed and alienated fought back during the Gilded Age, they are likely to again.

At the 1896 Democratic Convention, the populist lion William Jennings Bryan roared against the elite and monied interests controlling America: "We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked ... We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!"

And now we are on the cusp of a new wave of populism in search of its own Bryan to rise up on behalf of the people and defy their progressive masters.

Progressive masters? Can someone please tell me who my progressive master is? I haven't groveled at his feet lately, and after reading this I'm fearful that I might be due for a major dose of my-place putting in.

Maybe I've been brainwashed by corporate culture, but I just don't see where he's coming from. Kansas just isn't that different than Minnesota, but I feel like I'm hearing from someone in another nation or continent or century. What is Stegall's definition of self-sufficiency, and why don't I have it? Or more importantly, why did some yeoman farmer from Kansas in 1840 have more of it than I do? And how can you be simultaneously self sufficient and deeply embedded in a local community? Aren't the two mutually exclusive? Isn't a community defined by its web of inter-dependencies? Stegall can't even romanticize consistently.

It is very hard to take someone like Stegall seriously. He speaks in platitudes about his romanticized dreamworld, and invokes dire, vague rumors of social plagues and calamities, but it is very difficult to really get at what exactly is sticking in his craw. Is he against technology? Is he against capitalism? Is he against democracy? How far back does he want to wind the clock? Are cameras ok in his world? Radio? The railroads?

Unless he wants to return us to the primeval forest, Stegall will have to pick a milestone of civilized development in which his idealized society can be realized. But undoubtedly Stegall would prefer that his world remain fixed in time at that milestone. The problem is that in order to reach that milestone, civilization progressed through the very same process of creative destruction that he finds so abhorrent in its current form. Mankind is not a species that will tolerate a status quo for long. Every civilizational milestone in our history was merely a snapshot in time of a constantly evolving reality. Radio, cameras and the railroads were the disruptive technologies that built the social milieu for which people like Stegall think of as the halcyon past of traditional ways. His Golden Age was the Brave New World of his great-great grandparents.

And lest we curse all civilization and pine for the authenticity of the noble savage, Spengler provides a timely antidote in this article from the Asia Times:
Two billion war deaths would have occurred in the 20th century if modern societies suffered the same casualty rate as primitive peoples, according to anthropologist Lawrence H Keeley, who calculates that two-thirds of them were at war continuously, typically losing half of a percent of its population to war each year.

This and other noteworthy prehistoric factoids can be found in Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, a survey of genetic, linguistic and archeological research on early man. Primitive peoples, it appears, were nasty, brutish, and short, not at all the cuddly children of nature depicted by popular culture and post-colonial academic studies. The author writes on science for the New York Times and too often wades in where angels fear to tread. [3] A complete evaluation is beyond my capacity, but there is no gainsaying his representation of prehistoric violence.

That raises the question: Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does popular culture portray primitives as peace-loving folk living in harmony with nature, as opposed to rapacious and brutal civilization? Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which attributes civilization to mere geographical accident, made a best-seller out of a mendacious apology for the failure of primitive society. Wade reports research that refutes Diamond on a dozen counts, but his book never will reach the vast audience that takes comfort in Diamond's pulp science.

Why is it that the modern public revels in a demonstrably false portrait of primitive life? Hollywood grinds out stories of wise and worthy native Americans, African tribesmen, Brazilian rainforest people and Australian Aborigines, not because Hollywood studio executives hired the wrong sort of anthropologist, but because the public pays for them, the same public whose middle-brow contingent reads Jared Diamond.

Nonetheless the overwhelming consensus in popular culture holds that primitive peoples enjoy a quality - call it authenticity - that moderns lack, and that by rolling in their muck, some of this authenticity will stick to us. Colonial guilt at the extermination of tribal societies does not go very far as an explanation, for the Westerners who were close enough to primitives to exterminate them rarely regretted having done so. The hunger for authenticity surges up from a different spring.

European civilization arose by stamping out the kind of authenticity that characterizes primitive peoples. It is a construct, not a "natural" development. One of the great puzzles of prehistory is the proliferation of languages. Linguists believe, for credible reasons too complex to review here, that present-day languages descend from a small number of early prototypes, and splintered into many thousands of variants. Wade says (p 204):

This variability is extremely puzzling given that a universal, unchanging language would seem to be the most useful form of communication. That language has evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident. Security would have been far more important to early human societies than ease of communication with outsiders. Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and to identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths.

What brought about civilization, that is, large-scale communication and political organization? Conquest is too simple an explanation. We have from Latin five national languages and dozens of dialects, but no comparable development out of the Greek of the earlier Alexandrian empire. Latin and its offshoots dominated Europe because Latin was the language of the Church. The invaders who replenished the depopulated territories of the ruined Roman Empire, Goths, Vandals and Celts, learned in large measure dialects of Latin because Christianity made them into Europeans.

Even in Christianity's darkest hours, when the Third Reich reduced the pope to a prisoner in the Vatican and the European peoples turned the full terror of Western technology upon one another, they managed to kill a small fraction of the numbers that routinely and normally fell in primitive warfare.

Native Americans, Eskimos, New Guinea Highlanders as well as African tribes slaughtered one another with skill and vigor, frequently winning their first encounters with modern armed forces. "Even in the harshest possible environments [such as northwestern Alaska] where it was struggle enough just to keep alive, primitive societies still pursued the more overriding goal of killing one another," Wade notes.

A quarter of the language groups in New Guinea, home to 1,200 of the world's 6,000 languages, were exterminated by warfare during every preceding century, according to one estimate Wade cites. In primitive warfare "casualty rates were enormous, not the least because they did not take prisoners. That policy was compatible with their usual strategic goal: to exterminate the opponent's society. Captured warriors were killed on the spot, except in the case of the Iroquois, who took captives home to torture them before death, and certain tribes in Colombia, who liked to fatten prisoners before eating them."

However badly civilized peoples may have behaved, the 100 million or so killed by communism and the 50 million or so killed by National Socialism seem modest compared with the 2 billion or so who would have died if the casualty rates of primitive peoples had applied to the West. The verdict is not yet in, to be sure. One is reminded of the exchange between Wednesday Addams (played by the young Christina Ricci in the 1993 film Addams Family Values) and a girl at summer camp, who asks, "Why are you dressed like someone died?" to which Wednesday replies, "Wait!"

Why all this nostalgia for places and times that none of us have experienced? Is prosperity too heavy a burden to bear?


Blogger Bret said...

Duck asks: "Why all this nostalgia for places and times that none of us have experienced? Is prosperity too heavy a burden to bear?"

The grass is always greener elsewhere. That same dissatisfication with the status quo that leads to creative destruction also leads many of us humans to be, well, dissatisfied with the status quo.

Given dissatisfaction with the here and now, we can either long for the past or long for the future. Stegall picks the past.

Now, the grass isn't actually greener on the other side of the fence, it just looks that way from over here. If you go over there, you see the same dirt in between the blades of grass, the same weeds, and the same bumps and holes. And if you thought about it, you'd realize that, and then that grass over there wouldn't be so enticing.

Prehistory wouldn't look so hot either if we could actually examine it. But the beauty is that we can't actually examine it (directly). That means we can each construct our own creation myth (that's what I'm very slowly attempting in my Pointifications series).

I mostly completely buy in to Wade's assessment of prehistoric man's violent nature, but it's not quite yet proven, at least not to people like Stegall, Rousseau, etc. Thus they are completely free to create their own creation myth. And I'll admit that the noble savage concept does have quite some appeal. If I could get myself to believe it, I'd probably enjoy embracing it too! It's just that I don't believe it.

So anyway, I think the answer to your first question is that it's easy to have nostalgia for a creation myth of your choosing.

I think the answer to your second question is actually very simple but almost nobody will agree with me. I think that the vast majority of happiness (and therefore the ability to bear burdens) is brain chemistry. Within certain bounds, a given person will achieve more or less the same level of happiness regardless of their situation in life.

I have observed several things that lead me to this conclusion.

(1) Suicide rates, which I consider a proxy for (un)happiness, have a fairly low correlation worldwide with any sort of prosperity or other environmental factors.

(2) Anti-depressents seem to make people happier even when the underlying situation remains exactly the same. When I use SAMe (an OTC mood booster), I'm simply happier. It changes brain chemistry a bit. For some people, religion (or meditation) is the same sort of thing.

(3) Changes in my personal situation have made little difference to my happiness. When I was younger, I'd keep thinking, "if only X would happen, then I'd be happy." X would happen, and I still wouldn't be any happier at all.

So the "bearing" of the "burden" of "prosperity" would be nearly exactly the same as bearing the burden of non-prosperity. It seems pretty unlikely to me that prehistoric man had easier burdens.

If only the world would listen to me I'd be happy.

July 13, 2006 9:24 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, it's possible to yearn for a world that never was and simultaneously yearn for a future beyond dreams of avarice and be happy as a clam. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ronald Reagan, who joined the horse cavalry in 1938 and set off on Star Wars around 1982.

And was so happy all the time you'd think he'd had a prefrontal lobotomy.

Keeley's book, I think it was called
'Prehistoric Warfare,' is well worth reading. Be careful of Wade. I could tell you stories about him.

This guy Stegall is as ignorant as a river rock and there is no reason for anyone to take him seriously. A sort of brain-dead Kirkpatrick Sale, he sounds like.

Even in the happy days when the Midwestern towns now allegedly blowing away were building and rebuilding themselves, and were the sinews of a hardy and self-sufficient yeomanry -- that is, when land under the Morrill Act was free -- about a third of the population of Iowa was a landless rural proletariat, because although the land was free, it required about $50,000 capital to wrest a quarter-section from the prairie, and I ask you: How easy was it to come by $50,000 in 1876?

Anyhow, I pretty much agree with Bret. People have individual relationships with the world and the society they find themselves in, and it's unusual for their outlook to change a lot, even if their circumstances do. Which is why Izaak Walton and John Bunyan are almost the only 17th century English writers that ordinary people still read for pleasure.

July 13, 2006 11:23 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

When I read the Stegall passages you excerpt, I get these sepia-tinted images of black-clad frontier families hacking up to church in a strong wind, and words like 'dustbowl' and 'Death Valley', and that bit at the end of Grapes of Wrath where she suckles the grown man.


I also agree with Bret that prosperity doesn't eliminate unhappiness.

But it does give you choices about what you can do with your life - which is much more important than something as intangible, fluid and subjective as 'happiness'.

I know a man who goes on week-long charitable trips to Zambia, helping to build school rooms and other community facilities in destitute villages. He has on a couple of occasions asserted that "they are happier than we are" despite (or because of?) their poverty. Yet he still wants to eliminate that poverty. Any ideas?

July 14, 2006 1:23 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I think the answer to your second question is actually very simple ... the vast majority of happiness ... is brain chemistry.

I couldn't agree with you more. I read a article somewhere recently that asserted happiness as a very odd thing: no amount of searching will find it; happiness happens for mysterious reasons, then vanishes just as opaquely.

I'm sure there are some correlations with stress, but that only substantiates your assertion that it is largely about brain chemistry.

As for the article, Stegall is giving Maureen Dowd a real run for the winner of the "Why is anyone publishing this drivel?" competition.

July 14, 2006 4:36 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

All good comments, especially about happiness and brain chemicals. As one who takes antidepressants, I can speak with authority on this. Brain chemicals aren't totally responsible, circumstances matter too. But without the rignt brain chemistry, there are no circumstances that will bring about the desired state of well being.

I think part of the problem is that we are wired for conflict. Prosperity has defeated many of the bugaboos that we were wired by evolution to look for and struggle against. Though we don't need to fight off wolves anymore, we no longer live in small tribal clans, and so it is much harder for our social status subroutines to place us in a comfortable social niche in relation to our community. I think that this is what really bothers Stegall and others like him. We don't live in clans anymore. I, for one, an grateful for that. I am not the clannish type. I need my breathing space. And I really don't want to play chimpanzee status games with every social interaction with my clan-mates, trying to figure out who is vying for alpha male, and who is trying to step up to the next rung above me. I don't see such close-knit communities as the warm group hug that others imagine them, but more like "Survivor" or "Big Brother" status gaming.

My suspicion of the Stegall types is that they imagine themselves as alpha males by virtue of the power of their personality, but don't care for the merit-based treadmill that grant the closest equivalent to alpha male status that our modern society provides. Call me antisocial, but my vision of Hell would involve waking up in some altered reality, a la Twilight Zone, in some M Knight Shaymalan "Village" where everyone knows everything about me.

July 14, 2006 6:05 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Caught a snippet on local radio this morning about Vanuatu, which ranked first in one of those 'happiness indexes' but is not even in the top 200 nations ranked by GDP.

Of course, the day before, the same program was crowing about a big advance on Vanuatu: recruiting women for the police, because it is a male-dominated society.

Happiness is hard thing to evaluate in other people. We keep hearing these Muslim women say they are wonderfully happy, though their circumstances are what American women say are oppressive and unhappy.

Somewhere Dickens, I think, writes about the difference between coming in sixpence under expenses and sixpence over.

I believe it may be true that rich people worry about money, but I think it is a qualitatively different kind of worry from what poor people enjoy.

July 14, 2006 10:38 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The grass really is greener in the future.

The problem is that the only way to get to the future is to wait, whereas we can replicate most past eras without much trouble.

If anyone wants to become an American subsistence farmer living in a sod hut, that lifestyle can be had for around the $ 50,000 that Harry mentions.
And, that's based on Central Colorado land prices, for a 40 acre spread plus well. Kansas, Eastern Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas can be cheaper.

But there's a reason that people all over the world leave the farm to go to the city - subsistence farming is brutally hard, you're always at risk of starvation, and farm life is boring.
Actually, I think that Harry has said much the same in past comments.

If anyone wants to replicate the lifestyle of the 18th century North American backwoodsman, like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, it's dirt cheap to live in an American or Canadian National Forest. It can even be an easy lifestyle.

However, the problem remains that mere survival is a pretty boring way to live. Davy Crockett moved to the city and became a politician, for instance.

The comments about the origins of and conditions for happiness seem to explain lines like this, in the original editorial:

suburbia is a blighted, soulless landscape of nowhere

In other words, sounds like a personal problem to me. I've lived in almost every conceivable circumstance, from urban to suburban to exurban to rural, from dorms to apartments to houses to tents in the middle of nowhere, and for me the very best situation is suburbia.
The attractions of the urban area aren't too distant, and the population density is fairly low. I just don't get the "soulless" - maybe one has to have a soul to begin with, to appreciate the unfrantic, subdued beauty of the 'burbs.

July 14, 2006 11:02 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Harry -

It's the Micawber Principle, from David Copperfield:

""Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

July 14, 2006 4:11 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


That got a laugh.


suburbia is a blighted, soulless landscape of nowhere ...

My little chunk of suburbia is 28 miles due north of what is truly a blighted, soulless, often abandoned and burnt out landscape of nowhere: Detroit urbia.

Hawks, owls, deer (rats in cute outfits), foxes and wild turkeys abound.

My chunk of suburbia has so many varieties of plant life as to make the nearby forests appear monocultures by comparison.

Somehow, I get the feeling Brit had recently: it would take quite awhile before I tired of punching his gob.

July 15, 2006 3:43 PM  

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