A Pew Study and the Inner Ring

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How convinced should we be of the righteousness of our views?  To what extent are they the product of sober reason or the result of social factors?  David Brooks’s recent column  , which  reviews Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think, wades into this question.   From Brooks:

It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approve”….

[Alan Jacobs’ book] makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it…

Now consider this recent Pew Study.  Unsurprisingly the study shows that on key issues the partisan divide between left and right has grown significantly since 1994.

What’s most interesting to me is that, on most issues, left-leaning respondents have undergone a far larger ideological shift since 1994 compared to those on the right.  One striking example of this is found on the question of whether “immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents.”  Whereas 32% of Democrats / Leaning-Democrat respondents agreed in 1994, a massive 84% agree today.  Conversely, for right-leaning voters, that figure has increased much more modestly, up from 30% to 42% over the same period.

To be clear, there is no single explanation for this.  Those on the left could argue convincingly that the data and experiences of the past several decades have demonstrated the correctness of their views on issues like immigration and climate change.  However, opinion-forming borne of socialization and personal longing to be part of some Inner Ring may also partly help explain the remarkable changes.

The theory is this:  right and left-leaning voters alike, by virtue of both being human, are prone to wanting to hold the “correct” opinions for social rather than intellectual reasons.  But what’s different is that on most of these questions the left-leaning answer has since 1994 increasingly become the elite consensus opinion.  These would be the views most commonly expressed in leading academic institutions and in the educated reader’s most influential media, like The New York Times and The Washington Post.  They are also the views most common found in Hollywood and at top-tier tech giants like Google and Facebook.  The internet age, which began around the same time the data began to be gathered, has greatly magnified the power, reach, and allure of these institutions.   Thus not only are there consistent social reinforcement, but also personal temptation and rewards in espousing the views of the right-thinking classes.

If one believes that the Inner Ring phenomenon is possible – the desire to belong to the cool group, to espouse the right opinions – it clearly also exists on the right.  There is after all the testimony of liberal small-town folks living in red states, including the fear of being ostracized for being in the out-group.  Nor is this to say that there isn’t another kind of allure for some in being truth-peddling iconoclasts against dominant orthodoxies.  It’s just that, on balance, the digital age mass-culture and economic allure of Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi is dwarfed by that of California, DC, and New York.

But I don’t want to over-egg the pudding.  Again, there are clearly a wide number of influences that form our views beyond social pressures.  In its extreme, it would suggest we are incapable of reasoned opinions and scientific policy, and a relativistic world where there are not sometimes genuinely better views.  It also has the danger of being a “one-size fits all” hypothesis, of being broken down endlessly and tediously to explain too vast a range of behaviours, as Freud’s theories once did.  But an honest appraisal of our own lives and views may suggest for you – as it does for me – there could be real explanatory potential in the Inner Ring hypothesis.

As such, our own opinions need honest and ongoing review.  This means not so much Maoist self-criticism exercises as facilitating an awareness of the emotional or social reasons why we think the way we do, together with an honest appraisal of the limits of our knowledge.  “The only thing I know is that I know nothing” may or may not be true, but at least there’s some damn fine company in thinking so.

Giving Columbus the Confederate Treatment

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Americans ritually observed another front in the culture wars this week on Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  An increasing number of cities and states are abandoning the man once revered by most Americans for “sailing the ocean blue” in 1492,  the names of whose three ships children were patriotically required to memorize.   Like all conflicts over historical memory, this one is driven by present-day power struggles, the rhetoric and narrative of which frequently obscures reasoned analysis.  This August in Baltimore,  “the purported first-ever monument to the explorer, erected in 1792, was attacked with a sledgehammer.”     At its root, the Columbus Day controversy poses the question of how America can build a historical narrative that satisfies most Americans.

In the traditionalist view, one purpose behind Columbus Day is the celebration of the chain of events that led to the establishment of the country and to our prosperous democracy, for which we can in many ways be thankful.  It is part of the story of America.  Is it as significant in the American consciousness as Independence Day or as linked to the founding myths as Thanksgiving?  Clearly not, but it has had resonance throughout American history.

Per the Washington Post:

The first reported Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in October 1792 to mark the tricentennial of his voyage. That same year, a French diplomat in Baltimore erected a 44-foot stucco obelisk creating what some historians believe was the first Columbus memorial in the Americas, if not the world.

His grip on the public imagination grew after Washington Irving penned a biography of Columbus in 1828.  And an increasing number of Catholic immigrants latched onto his story as an apt symbol of their own arrival. Near the time of the Columbus quadricentennial in 1892, the Columbian Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago was a sensation. Memorials began going up around the country, including a huge fountain sculpture in front of Washington’s Union Station.

Cynics may observe that Columbus Day has also been a vehicle for the Italian-American community to celebrate its culture and promote its Americanness.  To draw upon a scholarly source, the characters in the Sopranos certainly thought so.   His “discovery” is also based on myth – that he proved the earth was round, not flat, is one such piece of nonsense.  But the figure of Columbus obviously had important and positive historical resonance with mainstream American society as well.  Why?  Because his “discovery” set in motion the chain of events that made the USA possible, from the pilgrims until the present.

For supporters of Indigenous Day, conversely, the issue is a morally simple one.   Not only were the actions of the man himself questionable even by the standards of his own day, but his “discovery” enabled the genocide and centuries of displacement and cultural degradation that followed.  The indigenous victims of the expansion still feel the effects of centuries of displacement and genocide to this day, a fact which few observers of the average indigenous quality of life could deny.

Is this view the correct one?  It is a very strong argument.  One thing that is certain is that by attempting to extirpate Columbus Day from the calendar by substituting it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionalists can understandably view it as an implicit attack on the legitimacy of the American tradition.  At the very least, it is at least a change in historical focus.

This change in emphasis is part of a broader overall shift.   Traditionalist Americans may resent a history that casts their ancestors as aggressors and other people as victims – even though that narrative often has truth to it.   It is a newer narrative that frequently casts older America myths and traditions not as things to be celebrated, but rather reviled.

Another way to adjudicate this question is in the parallel recent issue of statutes honouring the Confederacy, which are now coming down throughout the USA.   This parallel is useful because, while the two issues are part of the same broad question of historical narrative and have many of the same players on both sides, they are still different enough that the response to one does not necessitate the same feelings about the other.  The core animating issue of the Confederacy was its desire to keep other human beings as slaves – that which was positive about it was at best a certain kind of aristocratic gentility, which was in any case highly romanticized and built upon the scarred backs of chattel slaves.  Confederate statutes, erected decades after the Civil War, more obviously represent something odious with few redeeming features, and their removal is warranted.

Conversely, presenting Columbus as an icon of genocide, whose memory must likewise be cleansed and purged from the public square, is a more difficult moral judgement. If his discoveries made possible the evil that came after, they also made possible a great good:   setting the process in motion that culminated in the democracy enjoyed today by hundreds of millions.   None of that, however, detracts from the fact that Indigenous Peoples have excellent cause to protest celebration of the man.

For the time being, while I celebrate the empowerment and celebration of indigenous peoples, I am uneasy about seeing Columbus’ memory increasingly displaced from the public square or as a target of iconoclast ire.  While recognizing the grave historical injustices that occurred and whose effects are still ongoing to this day, I do not subscribe to the broader “aggressors and victims” narrative of American or western history.  It is too simplistic, too divisive, and too antithetical to a healthy national identity.

It is disconcerting that there is no obvious resolution to this question.  Of course, historical myths needn’t be logical or even wholly true, so future myths and holidays that more easily include and satisfy most Americans may still be possible.  That is made more difficult when such questions are not adjudicated by dialogue and discussion, but rather by hammers, ideologues, outrage police, and Nazi thugs with tiki-torches.

Many Roads Led to Trump, but Look to the Swing States

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Rust Belt Economic Decline

On the night of November 9, 2016, a new political quiz emerged.  It’s both revealing and simple, consisting of a single question:  “why did Trump win?”  Common responses include racism, economic anxiety, misogyny, progressive overreach, the prevalence of self-contained “bubbles” on the left and right, and Russian interference.   Whatever your preferred answer is, it tells a lot about what you think is today’s most significant social issue.

Most moderates would agree that “all of the above probably played some role, to greater or lesser degrees.”  This is correct and should be the foundation for further analysis, but it’s also a bit of a bland truism.  It bears passing mention here as, sadly, it is not always a widely-held notion among ideologues.  This is demonstrated by the shrill and polemical character of many explanatory pieces, like this ludicrously self-assured piece by Mr. Monomania, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So the correct follow-up is:  okay, all the above factors may have played some role, but is there one that’s weightier than the others?  I admit I’m most partial to economic anxiety.  Here’s why and what it says about folks like me.

Unlike the agitprop of Mr. Coates, I admit my explanation has its weaknesses .   The most glaring is that people with an income of $50,000 were more  likely to vote for Clinton.    There isn’t any way to entirely explain this fact away.  It clearly does suggest that the relationship between having a low income at the time of the election and voting for Trump is at best muddied.

However, there is also much more to the data than just that point.  As was observed elsewhere, Trump’s victory hinged on a very small number of votes.  According to this analysis in the Washington Post, the “election was effectively decided by 107,000 people” in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.  These three states also voted very decisively for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 .    The decisive swing-state of Ohio, which likewise voted Obama in 2008 and 2012, went Trump in 2016.  Given that the traditionally Republican states voted along party-lines as always (90% of Republicans voted Trump), the kingmakers were in fact the voters in these swing-areas.

What do these states have in common?  Are they particular hotbeds of racist activity in ways they were not in 2008 and 2012?  That strains credulity.  Ockham’s razor tells us the simplest answer based on these states’ commonality:  that the Rust Belt has been hit especially hard by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs.  Trump’s message of bringing back manufacturing jobs, though likely a con and a fantasy, had particular resonance with these voters as evidenced by this key switch in allegiance in 2016.  Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden certainly thought that this issue was of prime importance and blamed the Democrats defeat on it. 

Other factors are also worth considering to explain Clinton’s support among those earning less than $50,000.  Clinton voters were also much younger, including for the 18-29 demographic (55-37) and the 30-44 group (50-42).  This is significant as younger people are more likely to have a lower income, but still enjoy prospects for future income growth.

None of this is to say that other factors didn’t play a role.  White identity politics assuredly motivated some Americans to support the man whom Pat Buchanan called “the Great White Hope”  and the message of voting Trump to prevent the appointment of progressive Supreme Court justices was also a common refrain during the campaign.  However, based on where the election was actually decided, these explanations ultimately lack the explanatory power of Bill Clinton’s 1992 observation “it’s the economy, stupid.”  After all, not only did these same swing states vote Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Trump also captured more Latino voters than Romney did in 2012.

What does it say about you if you believe that economics was the key factor behind Trump’s election?  It may mean that you think that it is economic inequality that is giving rise to our most serious challenges.  It probably means that you’re critical of Republican’s simultaneous worship of big business and offshoring on the one hand, while offering little of substance to those left behind.  It could potentially mean that you’re likewise critical of the Democrats’ neglect of economic concerns relative to the weight progressive causes receive.   Finally, there’s a good chance you feel both parties are adrift.

Trump’s exploitation of the economic issue was the key that allowed him to overthrow the Republican Party establishment (which did not appear to be giving the issue much importance) and then capture the Rust Belt swing votes necessary to defeat Clinton.  But sadly, Trump’s voters have been taken in by a conman driven by ego whose economic playbook seems to be the cribbed notes of a tired, Regan-era ideology.   Whether out of his desire to be accepted by the wealthiest elite or out of some other concern, he has also filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alum, a prime bête noir during his campaign and the very symbol of offshoring, shareholder value, and plutocratic disinterest in the working person.

The reality, of course, is that the complex nature of technological change and the global economy make promises of restoring the manufacturing prosperity of 1964 a wistful fantasy.  Though many have pinned their economic hopes on him, Rust Belt voters may have a while to wait before “the greatest jobs president that God ever created” delivers.

Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and Our Fractured Society

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Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option Concerns All Moderates

The societal fissures of our times are demonstrated in Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option, in which Dreher puts forth a two-part thesis. Firstly, the worldview of small-o orthodox Christians not only no longer occupies a privileged place in western culture, but is actively under assault from mainstream society.  Secondly, Dreher holds the appropriate response to this situation is for orthodox Christians to retreat to smaller, more self-contained communities, akin to the eponymous St. Benedict’s foundation of Christian monasteries in the Dark Ages as bulwarks of faith and classical learning.

Critics have taken issue with Dreher’s thesis, arguing that Christian claims of persecution are overblown and that a Benedict-style retreat is inappropriate.  Many of the criticisms are merited.  Yet the reality remains that orthodox Christians would be dangerously complacent to assume that their faith will survive in its traditional form.  While there may be too many obstacles for believers to adopt the Benedict Option on a meaningful scale, moderates should be alarmed by the merits of Dreher’s points.

To begin, many critics of Dreher’s thesis have a hard time understanding why some orthodox Christians feel like victims.  Such criticisms are many:   that the First Amendment appropriately relegates religion to the fringes of public life for the freedom of non-believers, that traditional Christian teachings on women and sexuality propagate hate, that Christian marginalization is merely a consequence of the triumph of scientific progress, or that (white) Christian claims of marginalization are ludicrous and inappropriate given the discrimination faced everyday by other minorities.

While these arguments are not all without merit, many traditional Christians see things much differently.  For them, their faith is gravely threatened from within and without in a way unknown since pagan times.  Some of these concerns are familiar and long-standing  – for example, the decades’ long lament over abortion and a hostile mainstream media with its paucity of programming supportive of a traditionalist Christian worldview.  The rise of smartphones and internet pornography has heightened this trend.

Recent legal and political events have caused many traditionalist Christians even greater concern.  Notable is the famous case of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, which supposedly threatens religious freedom and for traditionalists raises the spectre of an activist judiciary rooting out traditional elements of the faith.  Then there is the perceived sudden and aggressive explosion of the transgender movement, including in schools, which many Christians fear takes power away from parents in favour of a new and not-up-for-debate ideology.  Elsewhere, British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, though he voted in favour of gay rights and abortion, was still grilled and criticized severely over his Christian faith, a fact which played no small part in his resignation.  It’s difficult to overstate how much these trends have freaked out traditionalist Christians.

Another area of concern for Dreher is the erosion of the faith through popular indifference and a poorly catechized faithful.  The indifference is evidenced by statistical decline in the numbers of traditional Christians in the US.    For those who do call themselves Christian, the lack of education in the fundamentals of the faith gives rise to a variety of heresies, most notably “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).   In a nutshell, MTD is the belief that God basically wants us to be happy and good to each other, but does not place many further demands on us.  To outsiders, this may be a viewpoint more compatible with our 21st century liberal society, but it is decidedly not traditional Christianity.  Finally, there are the problems of the prosperity gospel and the subordinating of Christian teachings to the Republican Party.  Most of these are problems for which Christian communities only have themselves to blame.

Regardless, whether one is sympathetic or not to the orthodox Christian worldview, by putting oneself in their shoes (an increasingly difficult thing for many of us nowadays), it is not difficult to understand their concern over the erosion of faith.   Yes, we do not know the path of future events and what seems alarming today may in a decade prove to have been a flash in the pan.  However, given the above concerns, there is simply no reason to assume the orthodox Christian worldview will survive.

What then about the proposal of an orthodox Christian withdrawal from society?  Dreher has used a Dunkirk analogy to explain this – a strategic withdrawal and strengthening so as to prevail in the long-term.  Parallels can also be drawn to other groups who live in small, tightly-knit religious communities, including Orthodox Jews or Amish communities.

Realistically, however, Dreher’s proposal faces a number of huge obstacles.  Mainstream Christians have not been isolated and marginalized for centuries the ways many Jews have and so to come together in smaller communities like Dreher envisions would require a serious shift in Christian culture unseen since the early days of the faith.  Retreat also appears to contradict the demands of Christian evangelism and the Great Commission and will no doubt be opposed by some on these grounds.  There is also the danger that such communities would be isolated, intolerant of new ideas, or unappealing places to live.   Lastly, such communities would need to be economically viable in a 21st century economy, an enormously difficult task.  Though possibilities discussed include a more economically traditional community, this could be tough to achieve.   Of course,  alternatives to the Benedict Option, like an increased emphasis on a more rigorous catechism and evangelization through social media, face their own uphill struggles.

Why should the rest of society care what happens to traditionalist Christians?  The answer is this:  Dreher’s thesis was not part of mainstream Christian thought even fifteen years ago and highlights the extent to which our society is fracturing.  One may cheer Christian marginalization as the victory of science, freedom and equality, but there is no doubt that that faith has shaped our civilization deeply and that its disappearance would lead us down unchartered paths.  The history of twentieth century atheist states and the current trajectory of an increasingly post-religious USA should at the very least give one pause.  Nor does it seem clear that an increasingly post-religious US population is any more “rational” and “tolerant” than before.   If this historic element of our society does go into full retreat – and with it potentially a minority that no longer feels it has a home here – is that really a “win”?

Traditionalist Christian communities have much to grapple with and, yes, atone for, as their treatment of gays (frequently hypocritically elevated above all other “sins”) has often been shameful and destructive.   Their own internal struggles in navigating the sexual revolution and balancing the sensitivity they show to those who are different while still maintaining their core beliefs will be very difficult.  Many such communities must also disentangle themselves from the Republican Party.  But extremist hyperbole aside, orthodox Christians aren’t ISIS, whose destruction would be an obvious societal good.  Dreher’s solution may not be the correct one, but its popularity and degree of merit – even if his is ultimately not the correct answer – must be viewed with alarm by all moderates.

The Centre Will Hold: The Purpose of Moderate Might

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Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”  Almost one hundred years later, Yeats’ pessimistic observation seems as relevant as it did in 1919 or 1968.  The increasing lack of social consensus, the growing wealth gap, and the increased presence of extremists in the streets and at the ballot boxes have furthered our unease.  The post-war consensus appears to be unravelling, no longer bringing the economic returns to many it once did.  It is challenged by visions of Islamists, utopian progressives, and reactionary proponents of closed societies and is still unsure of how it will accommodate the rise of China or respond to post-Soviet Russia.  In the United States, both the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s decimation of the Republican establishment and defeat of Hillary Clinton reveal a population increasingly looking to perceived outsiders for more extreme solutions.  In an echo of the frayed political culture of Weimar, today’s Nazi and Antifa radicals are willing to use street violence to achieve political ends.

Yet contrary to Yeats’ gloom, the centre can and must hold.

What exactly is the centre?  The center does not necessarily define itself either by simple maintenance of a status quo or by constantly readjusting itself in comparison to the major political forces of the moment.  If the Democrats tomorrow announce their program is “2”, and the Republicans that theirs is “3”, “2.5” does not somehow become the correct position.  The center arrives at “2.5” only if it makes sense, not out of a robotic desire to hew towards the middle under the mistaken belief that “the truth is always somewhere in between”.

Instead, what makes the centre dynamic is that it does not need to adhere to a particular tribe.  Ideally, the centre will instead evaluate each issue on its merits, allow for free and robust discussion, and arrive at a careful conclusion, supported by the evidence.  In practice, this will not always happen; after all, nobody is free from bias, self-interest or the influences of culture and era.  However, the centre is decidedly non-utopian, recognizing that almost all policies come with certain trade-offs and that knee-jerk ideological solutions are dangerously simplistic.

This is why the centre tries to hold a minimum of ideological positions.  It acknowledges the obvious superiority of democracy, rule of law, and at least a certain degree of market economy.  It understands that, with the exception of a well-trained police and army subordinate to elected officials, political violence is anathema to democracy.  Even these beliefs are grounded in overwhelming empirical evidence.   After all, the superiority of the democratic system is evidenced every day by global immigration patterns while that of market economies – which would include both Sweden and Hong Kong – is proven by hard economic data.

On more specific topics, such as immigration, the centre is open to continued discussion and analysis.  It studiously avoids both the ideological magic-thinking that leads to conclusions like “the need to protect the race” or “borders are racist” as well as the fear of thought-crimes that would discourage frank discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the various forms of immigration.  It may recognize the many advantages that free trade brings, while remaining acutely aware of the arguments of its critics and of the potential need to consider remedies or even a degree of recalibration to better serve the many communities left behind.  It understands black communities in the United States have been horribly disadvantaged by historic abuse and inequality (and that there is very good evidence some degree of this still maintains) and therefore there may well be a continued need to redress this, but could still remain skeptical of the efficacy of many of the individual attempted solutions or actors.

This website is unabashedly centrist as defined above.  It holds with the power of free speech to arrive at conclusions not already predetermined by tribe or ideology.   It does not live in fear of offending the sacred cows of left or right and has no need to “dog whistle” to racist fools or “virtue signal” to censorious social justice warriors.  Its only program is to facilitate dialogue and to serve as a moderate-but-firm voice in today’s marketplace of ideas.  Both its leanings and its goals are moderate – hence the website’s name, Moderate Might.

The website itself will be updated with a new posting at least once a week.  Topics discussed will include culture, media, politics, and education.  Your comments and support are appreciated in keeping the project continued and dynamic.  If the worst are indeed “filled with a passionate intensity”, it is imperative for us in the centre to reassert our convictions with purpose and with courage.