In My Day…

I seriously hate declension narratives. Anything that starts out with, “Once upon a time, there was a golden age, and then the barbarians came and wrecked it all…” gets me going for my guns. Even when it’s a reasonable enough story, because now and again there’s something to claims of degeneration, failure and loss. The problem is that even the reasonable arguments drift quickly into the borderlands of exaggeration and from there often just go ahead and boldly march into being a big lie.

A very large number of the popular narratives of decline and fall that have circulated in American society for the last thirty years or so, for example, take conditions that were a brief, specific consequence of the post-WWII reorganization and affluence of American society and start to reframe them first as a general part of the entire 20th Century, then as something basic to American history all the way back to colonial settlement, and then leap the Atlantic and usually plow straight for the Aegean, coming to rest in Greece, Rome or Jerusalem.

If you want to argue that there was some social or institutional condition in 1955 or 1960 in the U.S. that was admirable and is now lost, you might have an argument. If you’re going to start getting all moony about the loss of the entire history of Western Civilization, you’ve got a harder job ahead of you, and typically those who do so don’t treat it as a harder job, but instead puff and blow more insistently the more eye-rollingly hilarious their glossing of the past becomes.

A prime example: this book review by Christoper Orlet, via Erin O’Connor. I hope that it’s not an accurate description of the book it purports to review, since Orlet’s comments are a generic sort of declensionist rant that I suspect he could serve up whether he was reviewing a book about higher education, discussing the new Indiana Jones film, or grousing to his family over dinner about life in general.

Try this passage:

AT ONE TIME the purpose of a university education was to give future leaders an opportunity — before they shouldered the dull burdens of civic responsibility — to explore the purpose and value of life. By instilling a strong sense of history, of reason, of logic, of the best of what has been thought and said, a background in the Humanities would prepare a young scholar for whatever may lie ahead.

This, at least, had been the belief going back to Plato’s Republic.

Or how about this one:

The Sixties Generation broke with this four-thousand-year tradition. If the bugbears of early 20th Century radicals were the consumer-driven economy and the thoughtless pursuit of material comfort, then the Baby Boomers’ bete noire was Western Civilization and all it entailed.

From then on, social change, rather than concerns about work and consumption, would be paramount on college campuses. Such change would not come from the government or the people, but from the university, since the university was uniquely situated to tackle moral issues. After all where else could one find so many smart, morally superior persons? First, however, the university, and its Humanities departments (the propagandizer of the elitist, racist, sexist, imperial tradition of Western culture) must change and adapt.

In the subsequent 40 years the radicals and their political agenda have triumphed unopposed on the college campus, so much so that today’s student is compelled to conform to an intolerant progressive doctrine if he hopes to receive his sheepskin. Students are now told that there is a single right answer and, like the Sphinx, only he, the professor, possesses it.

As I said over at O’Connor’s blog, is Orlet seriously trying to argue that there has been a continuous tradition of scholarly humanistic inquiry for the last 4,000 years that was about liberty, freedom, open-ended explorations of the purpose and value of life, that stood unblemished until the dirty hippies came along forty years ago and turned it to indoctrination?

I can’t think of a better proof of declension in the quality of historical education, if Orlet claims to be historically literate. Seriously, it would help, if you want to complain about the declining quality of the humanities, to not be a historical dunderhead on a fantastic scale, to demonstrate some degree of erudition. I’d really like to hear more about the democratic humanities in the West as practiced in universities and their open encouragement of free-thinking liberalism in 8th Century Europe. Or, hell, why not classical Athens? Right, right, I know, short reviews demand generalizations, just making a point to start debate, the usual excuses.

I think this is a generic kind of fallacy that slips into declensionist stories, and not just conservative ones, a misrembering and compression of the details and messiness of history as we have lived it. I’m not going to be so much of a prig for accuracy as to argue that fantasies about the past don’t sometimes have a constructive, healthy relationship to transformations of the present. The general problem with delusions about decline, however, is that they mislead us into thinking that we are trying to restore some past covenant or arrangement when what we are really trying to do is create something that has yet to exist. On that confusion, both bad and good projects often run aground, but not before they do a lot of collateral damage in the process.

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43 Responses to In My Day…

  1. kieran says:

    Someone needs to listen to a recording of Bright College Days. Or, indeed, Gaudeamus Igitur.

  2. Minivet says:

    My favorite example of imaginary decline: when Bob Hope died, I read a reminiscence by someone of him saying at a show “I don’t wash my hands unless I shit on them,” but this being changed to “go on them” for anything with wider circulation.

    And around the same time, there’s a nostalgic letter to the editor in my local paper, about how Bob Hope was a shining example of how you used to not have to resort to profanity to be funny.

  3. This is interesting, and it’s nice to have a word for it. I had a similar reaction to an article by Alan Kors in the latest New Criterion (a long excerpt is on Erin O’Connor’s blog and another long excerpt is on my blog). It’s a personal perspective on a lifetime scale, not a gloss of thousands of years.

    In this case, it’s an idealized negative impression of the present that facilitates the “delusion of decline,” not a golden-age vision of the past (though there may be some of that, too). The past, in this case, is marked by intellectual integrity and openness–exactly what’s missing from the present, but also what’s missing from Kors’ analysis, which strikes me as awfully hypocritical. It’s pure culture-war stuff, and clearly not meant as a scholarly analysis. Still, the deep intellectual compromsises Kors is willing make to purify his declensionist narrative are remarkable.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s the kind that irritates me the most: the stories of decline in intellectual or scholarly standards that are profoundly anti-intellectual or unscholarly in their content and claims.

  5. Back in the old days people couldn’t get away with that kind of crap. It’s sad what we’ve come to.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    For four thousand years, you had to support your claims with evidence, and then bam! came the culture warriors.

  7. prof.e says:

    Robert and Tim: Were those sarcastic comments supposed to be witty? Before the feminists came and ruined the classics, real wit required Latin, with maybe a little ancient Greek.

    Seriously, this semester, for a class on theories of culture, I taught Allan Bloom’s Closing. It really is true that after reading Bloom, these more recent narrative of decline seem like thin gruel.

  8. Britta says:

    Hey Tim,
    Maybe you just feel guilty that your older siblings destroyed 4,000 years of intellectual thought?

    Though seriously, aren’t narratives like this kind of the bedrock of conservatism? Conservatism (big or little c) relies on the idea that there’s something in the past that is currently under attack and must be “conserved” from the forces of change. It’s a world view founded in concepts of loss and degeneration, and includes both a mourning for what has gone as well as an attempt to preserve the remnants. It spans all sorts of movements, from environmentalism (the concept that early man lived in harmony with nature, which the industrial revolution ruined– which, if you look at extinction patterns of large prehistoric mammals, you realize that “early man” basically hunted 90% of large mammals and marsupials into extinction), to nativist/populist movements on the right and left (the idea of a happy pastoral “volk” whose way life has been ruined by immigraton/modernization) to “moral” movements, etc. , none of which hold up to much scrutiny.
    As an anthropology student (well, about to start a PhD program), I get really irritated by the anthro version of this narrative, which is that some “pure” culture from the halcyon days of yore gets “corrupted” by outside human interaction, as though until 200 years ago, people existed in small, ethnically-homogenous, and culturally-static groups with no intra-group conflict. This isn’t found much in modern literature in the field, but is common in the media and among some activist movements.

  9. back40 says:

    Things do change. Those who are uncomfortable – environmentalists, anti-globalizers, culture conservatives etc. – have some justification for their concerns.

    Scholars can help by resisting the urge to mock and instead providing useful information and analyses that admit the threats while showing how they aren’t as dire as feared; there’s change, but not always loss.

    Timothy once posted something of this sort. It used gamelan as an example of lossless change. Yes, the people of Bali have been influenced by other cultures, but their culture has in turn spread across the world, even when those who are influenced by it aren’t aware of the source of the new sounds. Everyone is enriched.

    A current news item about tejate tells a similar tale.

    However, this is more work and less phun than mockery, and makes a poor political bludgeon.

  10. Cala says:

    Since the dawn of time, man has wondered why civilization is in decline, and the answer is because…..

  11. Jason says:

    I stopped reading O’Connor’s blog a long time ago – the subject matter doesn’t seem to have changed much. Though I did appreciate the last question from Mike (? I think) in the comments – as someone trying to enter the field (engl.), I haven’t actually been worried about going “brain-dead” by focusing on method, pedagogy, classroom structures etc., so much as I’ve been worried about being less employable. That also affects the way I read this kind of outrage-baiting: it makes a difficult process seem that much more annoying. If the reward for getting some job security here in PA is a perfunctory trip to some new version of the HR 177 hearings, thanks, I’ll take a career in web design.

    Which is odd, as that course of action seems (to me) more appealing for those constitutionally incapable of becoming full-fledged progressives, yet find themselves mixed in categorically with “the” radicals Orlet condemns. Apparently we don’t have a choice; since the only public speech I see from campus Republicans are sophomoric gestures (like painting a huge “Merry Christmas” on the Union’s public billboard and chortling over the “un-PC”-ness of it all), I feel like I’m more likely to be forced into a political alternative or simply forced out of the profession. Therefore I’ve never really been quite sure who O’Connor is trying to convince, or even what’s being advertised over there.

  12. hestal says:

    My father said that the complaints about how the present is a degraded descendant of the past, for which there is no evidence, come from people who do say, “In My Day…” just as Herr Burke points out, but who really should be saying, “If I Had My Way…”

    He said that there are people who naturally want to get the upper hand, and if the present is rejecting their grasp for power, they naturally seek a way to change their predicament. So they begin to fantasize about a world into which they personally successfully fit.

    In Texas, this is the key to fundamentalist religion. These people who want to rule others, to have their way with the world, can define a culture on their own terms. And they do it every day in many ways.

    But, in my view, environmentalism is not a conservative function. When there is harm being done to our species then we are to do something about it, not try to conserve it. Dealing with environmental danger is the same thing as dealing with the dangers of infectious diseases. This is a liberal function.

    In fact, in Texas, which is conservative to the extreme, environmentalists are regarded like carpetbaggers must have been. Texas is the greatest destroyer of the environment in the nation. Conservatives destroy the environment because it gives them money and money gives them power. But as Jimmy Carter points out in his book, “Our Endangered Values,” fundamentalists, in spite of their longing for the past, still embrace modern, even liberal, capabilities that enhance their safety, comfort, and wealth. Implemented conservatism is all about self with no regard for others.

    And I am not alone in this view. John W. Dean wrote “Conservatives without Conscience,” and then “Broken Government.” In both he advances the theme that some people, conservatives, don’t give a damn about the harm they do others so long as they get what they want. This is one of the characteristics of Antisocial Personality Disorder as defined by the American Psyciatric Association. And Martha Stout, in her book, “The Sociopath Next Door,” starts with the APA’s definition and shows that an absence of a conscience in such persons adds up to sociopathy.

    So conservatism as a political philosophy may have an admirable pedigree, but as a code of conduct by actual human beings it is a disease.

  13. Britta says:

    It’s amazing how people who call themselves “conservative” are anything but! I agree, it’s often the people who are actively working to give themselves an upper hand in society who rely on these declension narratives that have little to do with the truth. Their versions of history always rely on some historical, conveniently static, value or institution carried down through the ages unchanging, only to be destroyed by a fairly contemporary group of people. For example, I’m always amazed by the abstinence only groups who continually talk about how women “saved themselves for marriage” conveniently overlooking that over a third of colonial era brides were pregnant on their wedding day.

    In terms of environmentalism, I was drawing a link between conservationism – conservatism. Perhaps they’re quite rare in Texas, but there’s a breed of quite vocal radical environmentalist where I live (Portland, OR) who hearkens back to a day before technology when we lived in harmony with the earth. (We also have eco-terrorists who take a more active approach)

    Thinking about declensionist narratives and fundamentalist Christianity, it struck me how much the current evangelical church movement is similar to the medieval Catholic church, though less comprehensive, obviously. Narratives about the “fall” are a cornerstone to Augustinian Christianity, and were perhaps the most powerful tool in the Church’s spiritual arsenal to keep people in check. While the average person was consumed with ideas of sin and eternal damnation, to the extent of buying indulgences, the Church’s elite lived a profligate lifestyle, capitalizing on the peasants’ fear of hell (can you tell I was raised a Lutheran?) Of course, I think Original Sin and human’s fall from Eden is probably at the root of most of these narratives, because even though many of us have cast off religion, cultural memes left from centuries of Christian heritage are harder to shake. (Yikes! I hope that’s not a sweeping over generalization. Anyone who knows more about this feel free to correct or contradict).

    From my experience studying Chinese culture and living in China, I feel that there’s much less of this sort of “we’ve all gone to pot” narrative lurking in public (or private) discourse, which is striking especially in comparison to how Western scholars treat Chinese history. I’ve wondered if it is due to the lack of Augustine’s influence. I don’t know if those who’ve spent time in/are from other cultures without an historical Western Christian influence have found the same thing.

  14. hestal says:


    Thanks for your comments. I am working on a project that will benefit from the ideas you expressed. So I alert you now that I plan to steal them for my own purposes.

    I am not an expert on religions. But I am an expert on living as a non-Christian in the fundamentalist world of the Southern Baptist Convention. R. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville Kentucky, is one of the most influential leaders of the SBC. For example he was the leader chosen by the SBC to respond to Jimmy Carter’s very public resignation from, and castigation of, the SBC in 2000. He has recently published a book that he calls, “Culture Shift, Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth.” He actually should have called the book, “Fundamentalist Christian Manifesto,” for it is a declaration of intentions, motives and views. In the very first chapter he recalls Augustine’s “… monumental work, ‘The City of God.’ As Augustine explained, humanity is confronted by two cities—The City of God and the City of Man.”

    He defines the two cities to suit his own purposes. He is trying to motivate the faithful to engage the City of Man politically. He wants them to vote. He touches on the usual villains: homosexuals, abortionists, the ACLU, liberals, and those who defy God. He talks about the victims of the tsunami that killed thousands around the Indian Ocean with some sympathy, but, he explains, we are not able to understand God’s plan so we should just shut up about it. But he talks about the destruction of New Orleans as understandable and justifiable. God did it and he was right to do it. New Orleans is a modern version of Babylon, and San Francisco and New York may soon be destroyed as well. I found no sympathy from him, Christian or human, for the drowned and dispossessed of New Orleans.

    At the end of his book he encourages the flock to develop plans for withdrawing their children from the public schools – everywhere. I don’t know about the rest of the nation, but most people in Texas’ rural areas are Southern Baptists. Such a withdrawal would have a serious impact on our social fabric. But this idea is part of a larger dream – to return to a better time, a time when God ruled the earth through the wisdom and understanding of men like R. Albert Mohler.

    I mentioned Martha Stout’s book, “The Sociopath Next Door,” in my upthread comment. She is a psychologist in private practice and she served on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry of Harvard Medical School for twenty-five years. She said that 4% of our population is sociopathic. If that is the case then 3,000 pastors of the 75,000 Baptist churches in America are sociopaths. And, of the 23.5 million inhabitants of Texas, 940,000 of them are sociopaths, many of them armed. This place is crazy.

    I should have said that Ms. Stout defines a sociopath as a person without a conscience, who also meets the diagnostic criteria of Antisocial Personality Disorder as defined by the American Psychiatric Association. In my experience “antisocial” means more than just preferring to sit alone at parties, it means “hostile to the well-being of society.”

  15. A reflexive, idealized, and even militant belief that things are going to hell and someone oughta do something about it is definitely not restricted to one side of the political spectrum. It seems like environmentalism is a special case, though, since unlike purely cultural concerns it’s easy to point to the real-world things at stake–forests, ice caps, animals, etc. It’s not obvious, in the face of all that, where more or less rational reactions give way to largely ideological ones.

    As a musician and composer, I tend to be sympathetic to the sense that of loss that informs the purely cultural forms of declensionism. I look back to the days of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, or to the late-30s Webster-Blanton edition of the Duke Ellington band and feel like giants once roamed the earth but we’ve been reduced to something much more prosaic. Then I get a grip. But spending time with composers a generation or two older than me, I’ve come to understand a little about how it feels to see the world lose touch with and devalue something you feel is precious and beautiful.

    The beginning of the Alan Kors essay I mentioned was like that, in fact–a beautiful evocation of the intellectual atmosphere that changed his life when he was a student at Princeton before the upheavals of the 60s. Something surely was lost between then and now, and it’s seems to me to be a fine thing to highlight that and try to put it into perspective. The strange thing is that Kors celebrates the intellectual openness of the old days and then turns the whole thing on its head with a narrow-minded gloss on the present. But the declensionist impulse seems to go hand in hand with a polarizing one–people who are in touch with the narrative of the good old days and the corrupted nowadays seem naturally to map that, in the present, onto the decent, sensible folks (typically an embattled minority) and the misguided, rotten folks (generally numerous and powerful/rich/ruthless/dominant/etc.).

    I’ll have to dig up Prof. Burke’s post about gamelon, that sounds like good stuff.

  16. hestal says:

    Robert Zimmerman,

    I appreciate what you say, with a minor exception. In my experience the “people who are in touch with the narrative of the good old days,” usually regard the “decent, sensible folks,” as part of a great majority who are oppressed by the evil, rich, ruthless, powerful minority. Nixon nailed it when he appealed to the Silent Majority, or was it the Moral Majority? In either case the people who long for times gone by think of themselves as the majority — and in Texas, they actually are.

  17. It was the silent majority. And yes, I guess that is the more typical narrative.

    Since I wrote my comment this morning I’ve been thinking about how much alike it is to find that the beautiful forest you played in as a child is now a strip mall, and to find that the orchestra that used to play Beethoven and Mahler is now doing pops concerts with aging rock stars.

  18. Carl says:

    When I moved to California in 1986 it cracked me up that people moving to the state would start wringing their hands about how all the new people were ruining the state the moment they themselves crossed the border.

    I have a colleague, an economist who should know better, who is working on a book project about how beautiful places he likes to go to are ruined by all the people who go to them.

    I wonder if the common denominator on all of this is the feeling of specialness from belonging to something larger than oneself – an increasingly difficult feeling to tap into, as Durkheim predicted. The feeling of election is intensified by threat to the holies, but it’s an anxious sort of effervescence because the change, and hence the threat, are real.

    So Robert, I agree that this is quite a common experience. And hestal, you’re right that when sociopaths get a hold of it a whole new level of crazy erupts; but people defending their image of society against another always look sociopathic from each other’s perspectives. I’m not sure how far realizing that gets us.

  19. Bill McNeill says:

    Declension narratives seem to be prevalent when talking about academic standards or social mores. (As a linguist I’ll toss in another kind that drives me crazy: every time a new piece of slang gets invented some worrywart will start to dourly proclaim that the English language is being ruined. This has been going on roughly since the time of The Canterbury Tales.) So are there corresponding triumphalist narratives? Are there other domains in which people cherry pick examples of improvement and then groundlessly extrapolate those imagined trends back to the dawn of civilization, or whenever? Obvious examples would be a uncritical faith in historical progress or technological boosterism. I have an intuition that these are different varieties of speciousness, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s an interesting dimension of this, Bill. I think there *were* triumphalist narratives of progress, increasingly in Western Europe and the U.S. after 1800, but they’ve become less common since 1975. (A declensionist story of stories about progress!)

  21. Bill McNeill says:

    Another consistent area of declension narratives is the state of public education in America. By now we’re probably down to just three high school seniors who can locate Germany on a map.

  22. Western Dave says:

    Re: Triumphalist narratives. My mother always told me there were only three narratives in history. One: The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Two: The world is getting better and better. Three: The more things change the more they stay the same. I have spent most of my adult professional life trying to escape these three narratives.

  23. Carl says:

    That’s a good point, Western Dave. I’d say the fourth historical metanarrative is “change.” Not better, not worse, not the same, just different. And not completely different – specifically different in ways we can track, specifically the same in some other ways, but with the samenesses inflected by these new contexts.

    What I’m talking about is eliminating the judgments from our examination of historical unfolding. Because we’re situated in contexts and dispositions that generate judgments automatically and to which we have certain pre-rational and strategic commitments, it’s very hard to do. (And of course looks amoral from within those commitments.)

    The fifth historical metanarrative is ironic; it’s embedded in postmodernism although not often executed well because of those pesky contexts and dispositions. In an ironic metanarrative the story of history’s arc is understood explicitly to get told and judged differently depending on one’s contexts, dispositions, ideologies and so on; there is no metacontext that ‘truthifies’ any such perspective, although in principle we can reach this more comprehensive ironic consciousness by leveraging other perspectives against our own.

    My intent is not to tell you anything you don’t know, just to take my turn in moving the analysis along.

  24. Western Dave says:

    Hm, I was taught that the ironic historical narrative was the turf of the consensus historians of the 1950s.

  25. jpool says:

    Universal progress and contemporary declension seem like two sides of what Britta points to as the standard conservative coin (though there are by all means liberal and radical versions of this as well). I think of Lynn Cheney’s account of U.S. history as some sort of magical movement towards greater and greater freedom and equality (with the necessity of struggle for such things being swept conveniently to one side), with the corralary point being, “And that’s why we must keep those people from screwing it up!”

    To be parallel a contemporary triumphalist narrative would have to argue that for thousands of years humanity did poorly, or just not that great, and then this thing came along and things will be much better from now on. I think that the psuedo-Habermasian praise singing of the internet that flourished ten or so years ago would qualify. There is also the on-the-other-side-of-the-crisis version of this that appears in prophetic movements, whether of the Marxist or millenarial varieties

  26. Carl says:

    Bill, I wonder if what the varieties of speciousness have in common is something like ‘bias’. Each version of cherry-picking, ungrounded extrapolation, and uncritical recitation is a filtering of the enormous complexity of history through the judgments and agendas of their authors. Each of those histories is accordingly (as Nietzsche said about philosophies) an autobiography.

    Well, if I want to read autobiographies I’ll go to that section of the library. If I want to read about history I’d like the author to exercise some kind of reflexivity where the book is recognizably about history and not just about them. Some sort of standard of cross-perspective reliability has to be in play, which comes back to the original point about intellectual rigor and commitment to evidence.

  27. Bill McNeill says:

    Two interrelated guesses at differences between declension and triumphalist narratives:

    1. Triumphalist narratives emphasize inevitability (you can’t stop progress), while declension narratives emphasize personal responsibility (those damn kids better straighten up and fly right).

    2. Triumphalist narratives present the broad sweep of history as uniform while declension narratives perceive the present moment as a unique time of crisis.

    Maybe very broadly triumphalists are lumpers and declensionists are splitters.

  28. Bill McNeill says:

    Actually, Western Dave has hit it on the head. Frame things broadly enough and all narratives appear equally probable. Then the act of choosing between them merely becomes a Rorschach test of whether or not you’re an optimist.

  29. Carl says:

    Cool. Is declension triumphus interruptus then? Or are the declensionists in perpetual crisis about something or other?

  30. Bill McNeill says:

    Carl, I agree that some sort of unwarranted bias is going to play a role in both forms of speciousness. I’m trying to figure out of there are different kinds of bias. (I guess I’m playing splitter to your lumper here.)

  31. Bill McNeill says:

    To cite a metanarrative from a different field, linguistics takes a “the more things change the more they stay the same” view of language change. So though Chaucer’s English differed in vocabulary, sounds, and grammar from what we speak today, the two possess the same degree of expressive capability. (Assuming you could measure such a thing.) I’m fully in the mainstream of linguistics on this point and find this stance convincing, but I will admit it’s also a bit of a dogma. Furthermore this dogma is in part a reaction to obviously bogus folk prejudices about language that go the other way, with people claiming that teenagers’ IM-speak is rotting their brains, or pointing out how you can tell that their ethnic group is more civilized because they speak “grammatical” English etc.

    The point being that is a case of a “the more things change…” metanarrative that is actively held as a matter of principle rather than merely put forth as a difference-splitting compromise.

  32. Carl says:

    I sometimes try to interest my students in the kind of epistemic analysis you’re doing, Bill, by talking about ‘default theories’. A default theory is where you start without thinking too hard and where you end up without thinking further if it works at all, just like the default drive on a computer.

    So to the question “Why does stuff happen?” some people will default to:

    Fate/ destiny
    God’s/ gods’ will
    Chance (shit happens)
    ‘They’ did it
    I did it – good me
    I did it – bad me

    I think the specifically modern forms of metanarrative we’re talking about involve default theories with simple conscious agents, as you’ve begun to suggest. Fate and its associated stoicism are out of the picture. So in the religious version hestal’s been pointing at, everything happens because it’s God’s will unless we/they screw it up – bad us/them.

    The progress forms of the same basic default look like Pangloss or Hegel or Croce – it’s all happening for God’s reasons and it will work out great in the end. Bad things that happen are actually good, we just don’t have the infinite consciousness to see the bigger picture.

    Running alongside the persistence of this simple agentic theism in which God has the power (except perhaps for humans’ corruption) is simple secular individualism. Everything that happens is because someone did it, intentionally. Because individuals are/ought to be empowered like this (like little gods, it’s really the same primitive thought-structure), the default explanation for good things happening to me is good me doing it, and the default explanation for bad things happening to me is either bad me doing it or some specific them evilly thwarting me.

    I don’t actually think it comes down to the optimism/pessimism split. I think it’s people with really primitive default theories either getting their way or not getting their way.

  33. hestal says:

    The narrative is the eye of the beholder, eh?

    Then that explains what struck me this morning. I read an excerpt, 13,000 words, from John C. Calhoun’s “A Disquisition on Government,” which he started in 1842, finished in 1849, and which was published posthumously in 1851. In it he introduced his theory of “the concurrent majority.”

    In many ways it was a rearguing of James Madison’s Federalist Number 10. Calhoun talked about the role of government. He talked about the rule of the “numerical majority,” versus the several minorities–each made up of interests. Madison called these minorities “factions.” So Calhoun tried to find a way for the government, ruled by the majority, to be stopped from bulldozing the rights of the “interest minorities.” Madison, on the other hand, tried to find a way to keep “factions” from destroying liberty.

    After much conversation Calhoun comes back to a “negative power” that each minority, or faction, can use as it wishes. He goes on to say that this negative power is equivalent to “veto, interposition, nullification, check, or balance of power.” He also says that many humans are unfit for liberty and therefore should not be forced deal with it.

    So at the end, these two men, each an example of the two varieties of humankind, looked at the problem of governing our nation and came up with two different solutions. One variety is Varietas Tyrannus, the other is Varietas Libertas. Our history since the beginning has been a byproduct of the Darwinian struggle between these two varieties of our species.

    As I mentioned upthread, psychologist Martha Stout writes about sociopaths whom she describes as having no conscience and satisfying the diagnostic criteria of Antisocial Personality Disorder from the APA. These people are tyranni. There is no example of a libertus in the APA’s diagnostic manual because V. Libertas are regarded as normal in our culture.

    Ms. Stout puzzled over the problems caused by sociopaths. She wrote:

    “All of this begs the question of whether the absence of a conscience is a psychiatric disorder or a legal designation—or something else altogether.”

    The answer, in my view, is “something else altogether.”

    Which leads me to a question of my own. If by some weird warping of the fabric of biology it turns out that there really are two living varieties of homo sapiens, and they are V. Tyrannus and V. Libertas, would the narratives written by historians be any different? Would they find value in considering these varieties in their work? Well, that was two questions.

  34. hestal says:


    I think I was writing my last comment while you posted your last comment and I missed it. But…

    You wrote: “So in the religious version hestal’s been pointing at, everything happens because it’s God’s will unless we/they screw it up – bad us/them.” And I agree with you as far as it goes. But because the mechanism that drives my narrative of history depends on two varieties of homo sapiens, V. Tyrannis and V. Libertas, I think I should amplify my remarks about religion.

    I was talking about fundamentalism, primarily the Southern Baptist Convention. Not all churches are like the SBC. Christianity is based on the liberto-principles and teachings of Jesus Christ, but the individual sects reflect the nature of their leaders more than they do Jesus’ teachings. So there are two kinds of Christianity, based on the variety of their managers. Thus we explain the great problem of Christianity, its hypocrisy. It is based on liberto-principles which favor one action, but its leaders are tyranni and they take tyranno-action. But there some sects with liberto-managers and they are not hypocrites. So we have two kinds of Christianity: liberto-Christianity (in the minority) and tyranno-Christianity.

    Most of our national institutions are divided in the same way.

  35. Carl says:

    TB, sorry to hijack your thread – I hope this has all stayed roughly on point.

    Hestal, Calhoun’s argument as you report it reminds me of Lani Guinier’s in The Tyranny of the Majority. She’s following up on Madison, who did worry about both the threat of factions and the tyranny of the majority; but doing it from the perspective of minorities who always lose, so she does argue for some kind of effective veto or at least turn-taking. Tocqueville and Durkheim both had a notion of secondary powers mediating between the state and the individual to accomplish the same interception of anarchy and tyranny. I think some folks notice and attempt to address both sides of the danger.

    Your two varieties of h. sapiens strike me as consistent with Lakoff’s argument in Moral Politics that Americans use one of two dominant metaphors of the family to organize their thinking about politics: the authoritarian father (V. Tyrannis) and the nurturing parent (V. Libertas). Cultural ecologists like Ogbu might say that this is no genetic split but a basic developmental response to different life circumstances and prospects. It’s no accident that conservatives and fundamentalists tend to prevail in agricultural regions and liberals tend to prevail in urban/suburban environments. The kind of person who ‘fits’ those environments differs and parents build their children accordingly from generation to generation. I’m describing trends, of course, not destiny.

    E.g. agricultural life at its best stays the same; at its worst catastrophically declines. Or it cycles between these poles of subsistence and disaster. Urbanity is associated with progress narratives, although only for the urban; for rural folk, city folk just look like dangerous clueless twits who don’t know they’re upsetting the delicate balance of things. Hence some of the very worst atrocities of the last couple hundreds of years have ironically occurred when rural folk have been transplanted to and gained power over the cities – Cultural Revolution, Khmer Rouge, Stalin purges.

    So what I’m pointing at is contexts and dynamics producing situated responses and outcomes, rather than two inherent ‘types’ of us. That said, I encounter those two types in my daily life with great regularity, so for diagnosing a situation I think there’s a lot of traction in your classification.

  36. Western Dave says:

    How in the world is Calhoun a representation of either liberty or tyrrany? He’s a walking bundle of contradictions: a nationalist, a States’ Rights man, a slaveholder who saw slavery as a positive good, a man concerned with human freedom. Like any of us, Calhoun was unable to reconcile his contradictions in his lifetime. Your setting up a “the more things change, the more they stay the same” argument. Not useful for understanding either Calhoun or Madison.

  37. hestal says:

    Western Dave,

    Calhoun did take contradictory positions, and maybe some of them were genuine. But the principal difference between V. Tyrannis and V. Libertas is the way they each treat other people. Tyranni are willing to take the lives of others in order to have their way, and the taking can take many forms: murder, blackmail, extortion, economic exploitation, bribery, assault, torture, rape, decapitation, robbery, fraud, spousal abuse, child molestation, wars of aggression, lynching, slavery, shootings, bombings, stabbings, immolation and other horrors.

    Calhoun was comfortable with slavery and all of its horrors. He was a tyrannus, mentally tortured perhaps, but he was willing to use force to make other human beings do his bidding, and the bidding of his tyranno-brothers.

    You are what you do — to others.

  38. Britta says:

    In terms of triumphalist vs. declension narratives, I remember hearing once that conservatives view human nature as inherently bad, while liberals/progressives view human nature as inherently good. It makes sense that if you view human nature positively, over time increased collective wisdom and knowledge will produce progressively better societies. In contrast, if human nature is inherently evil, the more time we have to express our evil natures, the worse off everyone will be.

    The foundation of Soviet Union was a pretty clear example of the idea that a leftist utopia would eliminate negative human traits like greed, selfishness, or envy. In fact, any sort of Soviet government was to be temporary, as the new improved “Socialist man” wouldn’t need any governmental control. (At least to the early Bolsheviks. It’s pretty clear Stalin didn’t hold much stake in leftist ideology.)

    In a theocracy, every human action must be policed in order to protect humans from their inherent sinfulness, and modern technology/institutions are merely new and more insidious manifestations of human sin. Nazism too played up the idea that early Germans were pure and noble, uncorrupted by modern degeneracies such as “civilization.” (Of course, they used the latest technology build a police state and wage war/genocide on their neighbors.) On the hand, other Fascist movements thoroughly embraced the modern, but then I’d hesitate to call Fascism “conservative,” even though elements of it were. Certainly, both Fascist and theocratic states believed that intrusive government was necessary to control the populace, even as out of the side of their mouths they praised their citizens as “children of God” or “the master race.” In contrast, although it never worked out in practice, communism is fundamentally an anarchist ideology.

  39. hestal says:


    The thrust of Madison’s analysis was that “factions” were political parties which favored policies that were “adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Madison’s 18th century definition of “faction” is still the same in my late 20th century dictionary. A political party that favored the aggregate interests of the community did not have a special name.

    So Madison’s position was that the majority could not bulldoze a minority when both favored the aggregate interests of the community. If the majority held a position favoring the aggregate interests of the community then a minority that disagreed deserved to lose. It is a close call in the conceivable case where the majority acts against its aggregate interests and a minority is in disagreement.

    But Mr. Calhoun’s position is that any minority can have a veto even if it is acting against the aggregate interests of the community. He had no choice but to take this position because he was defending policies that were adversed against the aggregate interests of the community, and which were adversed to the rights of other citizens. No wonder it took him 7 years to write his “Disquisition.” He must have been trying mightily to make a sensible argument, but he couldn’t. Madison had him at his definition of “faction” in Federalist 10.

    Of course Mr. Washington agreed with Madison in two places in his Farewell Address.

    But there is still the problem when the majority is adversed to the rights of other citizens, like the majority is now adversed to the rights of homosexuals. If Calhoun had argued that the majority had no right to enslave a minority he would have been on the side of the angels. But of course Madison had him there too when he made his famous “if men were angels…“ statement. But Calhoun makes the argument that the majority does have a right to enslave a minority, and that minority loses even if it tries to cast its veto. So again I say that these two men represent the two living varieties of H. sapiens and they look at the same problems and develop two different and opposing solutions, because of their natures.

    So we are left with the cases where the majority is adversed to the rights of other citizens.

    On the question of genes and destiny there can be only one answer. At some point, because of some factors, probably the interplay of genes and the environment, we become a finished product. We become what we are to be. We become either V. Tyrannis or V. Libertas. There are degrees in each situation, but our instincts and inclinations are set. It is possible that a libertus can be raised by tyranni and start life acting in tyranno-fashion, but he is also acting against his nature. It is possible that he will revert to type. It is also possible that a tyrannus can, through self-control, act against his instincts and follow the liberto-path.

    As for the habitat of fundamentalists, they favor urban/suburban settings. In Texas they thrive in large cities. The fundamentalists that led the fight against JFK were found in Dallas, Texas at the First Baptist Church, and W. A. Criswell was their minister. In cities throughout the South the fight was carried to the ballot box. Even today the largest and most influential churches in the fundamentalist world are in large cities. In Dallas there is a huge fundamentalist church in the suburb of Plano, itself a large city, that is called “Six Flags over Jesus” because of its huge theme-park nature.

    Sure there are fundamentalists in the small places, they are everywhere in the thinly populated 20,000 square mile part of Texas I live in. The Creation Evidence Museum is not far from my front door. The KKK has an active chapter only 25 miles away in my old hometown. The leader of that chapter now lives on the farm that I grew up on. Blacks are still not permitted to overnight in my home county. So the small towns are the most extreme, but the big towns attract the largest congregations because of money. Fundamentalists like money, they really, really like it, and you just won’t find it in small town America, certainly not in small town Texas.

  40. As a somewhat different and more limited example, a number of accounts have been written about the history of literary criticism and, in particular, about its professionalization in the academy. I’ve not read any of the books, though I’ve read an article or two. I gather that one narrative that emerges is about a decline from evaluation and aesthetic interpretation into mere analysis and interpretation. In the course of this decline the discipline has turned its back on the public and become perversely obscure. What seems to be missing from this history is that the discipline also has roots in philology, which has always been a specialized academic pursuit. Perhaps that part of the story doesn’t fit the “fall from grace” template.

  41. Western Dave says:

    Ok, how is Madison V. Libertas? Or is Mr. Madison’s war a misnomer?

  42. hestal says:

    Western Dave,

    Liberti can be incompetent and that is apparently what Mr. Madison was with respect to this war. But I see no evidence that he was going to war to impose his will on others through the use of force for his own benefit, unlike Mr. Calhoun. Mr. Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war as the head of a sovereign state. When the war was over, I think it very unlikely that he would have made slaves of the British.

    If you want to ask me how he could qualify as V. Libertas and still own slaves, I would have to answer that it is a close call. He didn’t free his slaves upon his death, nor did Jefferson. I think that if the Union had split over slavery during Jefferson’s and Madison’s lifetimes they might well have gone with the South.

    But Madison did not work as hard as Jefferson to preserve the agrarian ways of the South, ways that depended on slavery.

    My take on both men is that they spent much of their lives promoting liberty for all. Calhoun did not do that.

    A third Virginian of those days was George Washington. He is clearly V. Libertas. He more than anyone else is responsible for the existence of this country. He freed his slaves on his death and left funds for their education. I think that he did about all he could do at the time. If he had tried to change the economic structure of the South, or even that of Virginia, he would have gotten no help from Jefferson or Madison, and probably would have been shot.

    And he knew that the deal made to keep the South in the Union in 1787 was a bad one, but he went for it. I think that I can do no better than he did. He warned that the Constitution had “imperfections” and that they could not be “remedied” at that time. He expected “evils” to arise from these imperfections, and he relied on future generations to correct them. I think that we have not been very efficient in executing our assignment.

  43. Brian H says:

    Having lived/studied through one of the most blatant takeovers of a university by the Rampant Left in living memory (Simon Fraser University, ’60s), I have strong declensionist sympathies. PC opinions got much higher marks than non, except in rare cases. But the consensus was so overwhelming that only the most obvious abuses attracted any attention.

    It took many years to wear off, and for my 3 younger siblings, now in their ’50s, it still hasn’t.

    There is a core belief-test standard that is imposed, and failing it relegates one to the ranks of the non grata, on whom permanent open season applies.

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