Sunday, 18 September 2016

What shall be our mythology?

Malhar Mali has some interesting things to say about "moral communities" in his interview with author James A. Lindsay before this blog entry descends into a morass of misinformed nonsense about Marxism.
I was looking for the generalization of religion that accounts for things like political parties or social movements.  What is the religion like thing, the one that's broader and yet that religions are all examples of?  What's the thing where groups behave like religions without necessarily being one?
He wanders into well trodden territory here; Eric Hoffer was reaching for a similar concept back in the 1950s when he wrote in what is, perhaps, the greatest treatise on political philosophy ever written, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements when he suggested that religions, nationalist movements and social revolutions were all interchangeable as far as his true believer was concerned.  For Eric Hoffer, precisely what was believed in was of lesser importance than the willingness of the True Believer to put absolute faith in it.

Particularly good was this observation/question that Mali put to Lindsay:
I would speculate that on the Left, religion has been on the decline.  Are people picking up these ideologically motivated moral communities such as social justice, 3rd wave feminism as substitutes?
 To which Lindsay gives the obviously correct answer of "Absolutely."  He goes on to describe "moral tribes" in the following terms:
This moral tribe idea is exactly what I was looking for; it's a moral community that has become ideologically invested.  It's taken its moral values and equipped them with sacredness, which is super high value - infinite value - according to the moral psychologist and professor of business ethics at New York University Jonathan Haidt.  Often, members have these "sacred" morals central to their core identity.  They think what makes them a good person is that they hold these values.
So there's every reason to believe that these people we are talking about - social justice warriors, they're often called - are acting in a way that is analogous, even isomorphic to religion. 
I've been saying this for a long time now.  The progressivism of the late 20th century mostly warmed over romanticism from the summer of love era, itself a reboot of a much older way of thinking that arose as a substitute for religion in the late 18th century.  The SJWs did not emerge in the second decade of the 21st century by accident.  What was needed was for iconoclastic anti-religious authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to publish their withering deconstructions of religious - especially Christian - doctrine, undermining belief in God and religion.  Especially among younger, tech savvy libertarian minded people like those found in Silicon Valley and the early adopters of social media more generally.

The so called new atheism was, and could have been, only half successful.  They undermined the credibility of religion and faith, but seemed ignorant of man's deeper need for religion and faith.   If religion itself should fail, something else will step in and take its place.  Comparisons of communism and nazism with religions are old hat now, with no less a luminary than the present Pope Francis observing correctly that "Karl Marx didn't invent anything."  Indeed, ideas such as the community of goods and even the idea of "to each according to his need" have biblical precedent.  It has also been argued, not without merit, that millenarian cults and mystical anarchists of the middle ages interpreted the "prophecies of a final struggle between the hosts of Christ and Antichrist melded with the rootless poor's desire to improve their own material conditions." Simply add this to the Jacobin anti-clericalism of 18th century France and the rest is, as they say, history.

Let's face it: overarching narratives of good vs. evil are quite popular.  George Lucas openly admitted that he drew heavily from Joseph Campbell's exhaustive studies of mythology when he created Star Wars.  J.R.R Tolkien drew from a near bottomless well of European pagan mythology and Catholic doctrine (an odd pair) in his own now iconic mythology.  Indeed, it's hard not to see the entire fantasy genre, in literature, film and gaming, as being anything other than a postmodern revival of archetypal mythology.

This Manichean world view may well not be a human universal.  These tendencies in western thought were doubtlessly exacerbated by the nightmarish transformation of the best and brightest the modern west ever had to offer - 19th century German philosophy and romanticism, into the mind-bending nightmare of Germany in the 1930s and 40s.

But even there, Hitler was dealing in Manichean absolutes: the Aryan was pure and benevolent, the Jew was all that was evil.  Since then, I think that the appeal of a lot of our favorite pop-culture narratives (Lucas and Tolkien again, among others) is that they are, at least in part, a re-fighting of WW2.  Essential to successful myth, it would seem, is ritualized or metaphorical re-enactment of existential struggles what were won, but could have gone the other way, and would have if God, right, natural law, historical materialism or some other transcendent power for good not been on our side, and so made our victory inevitable.  For who else's side would supreme good be on?  More comforting to believe such notions than to face the existential dread invoked by the fact that these struggles were anything other than foregone conclusions.

In light of all of this, should it surprise us that these kinds of themes appear in our politics?  Richard Hofstadter's brilliant article on the Paranoid style certainly seems to think not, wherein adherents to one or another modern, secular equivalent to the millenarians see themselves as pitted against a "vast and sinister conspiracy," perceived as being a "demonic force of almost transcendent power."  This is central to the construction of the world view of a moral tribe.  Belief that some or another form of "social privilege" as an extension of a system of oppression so pervasive and evil that the ends of defeating it justify any means is the heart and soul of the SJW world view.  And a major factor in its rise and spread in a post-religious culture.

This is an important question for the emergent alt-left.  Especially given how rationalistic and enlightenment the alt-left tends to be.  Perhaps more important than the question of what shall be our political program is the question of what shall be our mythology?  I do not pose this question with the intent that we fabricate mythical explanations for scientifically understandable phenomena in the manner that religions do.  That was never what religion was really about, and failing to realize that was a failure far grander than all the success that the new atheism had in debunking God belief.

In asking what shall be our mythology, I ask what is the good that we fight for and the evil that we fight against?  Is this struggle significant enough for people to devote themselves to it and find meaning in it?  I defy anyone to find a successful political movement in history that did not pose this question to itself.  If not intellectually, at least instinctively.

A mythologized world view is not without its dangers.  It can all too easily descend into a morass of self righteousness, dogma, demonization of out-groups and puritanism.  Precisely what happened to the SJWs.  Given that cool headed enlightenment rationalism is, I think, the alt-left's greatest virtue, to descend into such fever swamps ourselves would be tragic.  But without some sort of heroic narrative, world views fail to engage people on more emotional levels and fail to tap into that eternal wellspring of archetype that so galvanizes human action, especially collectively, to a degree that makes real change possible.  As such, we're playing with fire here, and it's easy to lose control of it and get burned.  But not playing with fire would have resulted in mankind never getting out of the stone age.

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