Peter Thiel Was Wrong
Please forgive me for spotty posting and comment-approving this week. We are still in process of moving, and don’t yet have wifi at our new place. I have to leave to go somewhere else to read the Internet, to write for this site, and to approve comments. It’s cumbersome. Internet will be hooked up on Friday. Again, thanks for your patience.
I meant to write about this last week, during the RNC, but forget. Here’s a part of the speech of Silicon Valley gay transhumanist uberrich genius Peter Thiel that I wanted to highlight:
When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom.
This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?
Of course, every American has a unique identity.
I am proud to be gay.
I am proud to be a Republican.
But most of all I am proud to be an American.
I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform. But fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline.
Well, look, for all I know, Thiel meant this as a shot to both liberal and conservative culture warriors. But I think it more likely that he meant it at conservatives. Whatever the case, he’s wrong. I will answer his point assuming that he meant it as a criticism of conservatives.
You hear this kind of thing a lot from social liberals who genuinely believe that nothing serious is at stake in the culture war. If conservatives would just roll over and accept that the liberal view is naturally, obviously correct, we could get back to our “real” problems. Thiel is the sort of person who looks at pro-Brexit voters and cannot imagine why they didn’t understand that their material interests were with the Remain side. What people like Thiel — really intelligent people, let us stipulate! — don’t understand is that not everybody values the things they do. Real, important things are being struggled over.
Let me try to explain the sense of siege cultural conservatives are undergoing by referring you to a terrific London Review of Books piece by John Lanchester, explaining the Brexit vote. It’s the best thing I’ve read about it hands-down, and for the discerning American reader, there are things in it to learn about our own situation. Take a look at these excerpts:
To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy. The people who grow up in these places come from a cultural background which equipped them for reasonably well-paid manual labour, un- and semi- and skilled. Children left school as soon as they could and went to work in the same industries that had employed their parents. The academically able kids used to go to grammar school and be educated into the middle class. All that has now gone, the jobs and the grammar schools, and the vista instead is a landscape where there is often work – there are pockets of unemployment, but in general there’s no shortage of jobs and the labour force participation rate is the highest it has ever been, a full 15 points higher than in the US – but it’s unsatisfying, insecure and low-paid. This new work doesn’t do what the old work did: it doesn’t offer a sense of identity or community or self-worth. The word ‘precarious’ has as its underlying sense ‘depending on the favour of another person’. Somebody can take away the things you have whenever they feel like it. The precariat, as the new class is called, might not know the etymology, but it doesn’t need to: the reality is all too familiar.
One of the most important ideas to emerge from micro-economics – or at least, the one with the most consequences for democratic politics – is ‘loss aversion’. People hate to have things taken away from them. But whole swathes of the UK have spent the last decades feeling that things are being taken away from them: their jobs, their sense that they are heard, their understanding of how the world works and their place in it. The gaps in our society have just grown too big.
Now, Lanchester is talking about economics. But let’s take the same point and use it to think about the US culture war. Culturally speaking, to be born in many places in the US is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat. If you come from a culturally conservative region, or family, you understand that the people who make the decisions in this culture are on the other side. At best they regard you as irrelevant. At worst, they hate you, and want to grind your nose in the dirt. Whatever the case, the things you value, that are important to your identity, and your sense of how the world is supposed to work, are either fading away or being taken from you — and you can’t do anything about it.
Consider the bathroom debate that Thiel finds so irrelevant. Thiel lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Perhaps he genuinely cannot understand the sense of violation that many of his fellow Americans feel when they are told that men dressed like women must be allowed to use the women’s bathroom in public places. But it’s real. And maybe he doesn’t get the utter hypocrisy of corporate elites on this issue, captured by one North Carolina Congressman:
Believe me, a lot of us notice. Ordinary people who have never had a thought about theory in their lives see the world they took as normal, as stable, as comprehensible, disappearing in front of their eyes, driven by forces they cannot understand, much less control. Some of the more thoughtful conservatives see the deeper problems at issue. Here’s theologian Carl Trueman on the new mandated LGBT history standards in California schools:
Yuval Levin has written recently that the ethic of modern America is that of expressive individualism. Herein lies the problem: Taken absolutely, expressive individualism has no specific content and thus is subject to those identities which society considers authentic and to which it has thus granted legitimacy. But who decides which identities are authentic? Have you ever wondered why some minorities make it and others do not? Why, say, LGBTQers have pride of place on the California curriculum but foot fetishists, redheads, and people with allergies to latex do not? It is because the latter currently lack the cultural cachet that comes with the imprimatur of the entertainment industry, with the public sympathy arising from publicized marginalization and victimhood, and with the influence of organized lobby groups.
Thus, the California curriculum is a symptomatic codification of the aesthetic preferences of the current political culture. As such, it raises question far beyond whether schools rather than parents should teach children sexual morality. For years, the in-house question for historians has been whether history can survive as a discipline despite the proliferation of micro-narratives and the collapse of the possibility of grand theory. But now that academic question has more immediate real-world consequences: Can the nation state, or maybe society in general in the democratic form with which we are familiar, survive in anything like its current shape, when history—which is vital to the nation-state’s legitimation—is fracturing into the myriad identities to which expressive individualism is ultimately vulnerable? When you add to this the other forces militating against social unity—immigration, globalization, etc.—the institutions and processes built on a deep sense of social unity and cohesion look profoundly vulnerable.
The action of the State of California may well be driven by the trendy politics of the day, but it represents a phenomenon of comprehensive social and political importance, not just the ascendancy of a particular political stance. The new curriculum represents the confusion that lies at the very heart of modern Western identity; it is far more significant than merely putting the name of Harvey Milk into the minds of the young. It is part of an ongoing and perhaps largely unwitting challenge to what it means to be human, and thus to the way the world is currently organized. But, as George Orwell once commented, “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” Indeed it is. And we may all be about to be burned.
It’s about identity. And it goes even deeper than that, as Trueman explains in a subsequent post:
The Civil Rights movement was built on the egalitarian assumption that African Americans shared with those of European ancestry a common humanity which transcended and ultimately undermined racial categories; by contrast, LGBTQ politics assumes that self-determined individual sexual identity trumps everything. It is thus built not on the foundation of a common humanity but on the priority of the individual’s will.
This is not a stance unique to LGBTQ activists. In fact, it is one of the major assumptions in the contemporary political climate. Much of modern politics—right and left—operates with an impoverished, solipsistic definition of selfhood. The result is that we have lost the classic liberal balance between the constraints rooted in the concept of a shared humanity and the rights of the individual. The late modern self would seem to be understood primarily as a self-determining agent whose desires are curbed only by the principle of consent when brought into relationship with the desires of another self-determining agent.
The idea here is that there is no such thing as a shared human nature, that human beings are defined not by nature, but by their own wills. More:
This demolition of the concept of human nature started centuries ago and is now firmly ensconced in art, in literature, in social and material relations, and in legal and political institutions and the standard news and entertainment media narratives. It thus has tremendous momentum. Anyone wishing to defend the unborn or traditional marriage has a much greater task on their hands than that faced by those who oppose them on these issues.
Assuming that he is a conservative, the man sitting across from me in the coffee shop where I’m writing this post probably wouldn’t be able to discuss the culture war as a fight over human nature itself. But it is, and however inarticulate he may be, even in explaining this to himself, he dimly senses that this is what is happening.
Of course, Peter Thiel is a transhumanist, and by definition he believes that human nature is determined by our own wills. Of course the culture wars are “fake” to him. He believes culture warriors are contending over something that doesn’t exist.
There is a widespread sense that the way the socially liberal globalist perceives the world is the end of history, as opposed to something constructed and particular to this time and place. In a typically prolix and brilliant post on Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander defends what he calls “universal culture.” I can’t possibly do justice to the scope of his post with a few excerpts, but I’ll try:
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
An analogy: naturopaths like to use the term “western medicine” to refer to the evidence-based medicine of drugs and surgeries you would get at your local hospital. They contrast this with traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which it has somewhat replaced, apparently a symptom of the “westernization” of Chinese and Indian societies.
But “western medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection. Indeed, “western medicine” replaced the traditional medicine of Europe – Hippocrates’ four humors – before it started threatening the traditional medicines of China or India. So-called “western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.
The same is true of more intellectual “products”. Caplan notes that foreigners consume western gender norms, but these certainly aren’t gender norms that would have been recognizable to Cicero, St. Augustine, Henry VIII, or even Voltaire. They’re gender norms that sprung up in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and its turbulent intermixing of the domestic and public economies. They arose because they worked. The West was the first region to industrialize and realize those were the gender norms that worked for industrial societies, and as China and Arabia industrialize they’re going to find the same thing.
Can ideas be likened to material products? Alexander again:
Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products. Coca-Cola spreads because it tastes better than whatever people were drinking before. Egalitarian gender norms spread because they’re more popular and likeable than their predecessors. If there was something that outcompeted Coca-Cola, then that would be the official soda of universal culture and Coca-Cola would be consigned to the scrapheap of history.
The only reason universal culture doesn’t outcompete everything else instantly and achieve fixation around the globe is barriers to communication. Some of those barriers are natural – Tibet survived universalization for a long time because nobody could get to it. Sometimes the barrier is time – universal culture can’t assimilate every little valley hill and valley instantly. Other times there are no natural barriers, and then your choice is to either accept assimilation into universal culture, or put up some form of censorship.
Imagine that Tibet wants to protect its traditional drink of yak’s milk. The Dalai Lama requests that everyone continue to drink yak’s milk. But Coca-Cola tastes much better than yak’s milk, and everyone knows this. So it becomes a coordination problem: even if individual Tibetans would prefer that their neighbors all drink yak’s milk to preserve the culture, they want to drink Coca-Cola. The only way yak’s milk stays popular is if the Dalai Lama bans Coca-Cola from the country.
But westerners aren’t banning yak’s milk to “protect” their cultures. They don’t have to. Universal culture is high-entropy; it’s already in its ground state and will survive and spread without help. All other cultures are low-entropy; they survive only if someone keeps pushing energy into the system to protect them.
Hold on. This is circular. “Universal culture” is whatever is dominant in a given moment? That’s hardly a culture, is it? A useful digression: Amelia Sims discusses the relationship of cult to culture:
Culture comes from the cult: people joining together for worship. From this primary association, the body of worshipers can cultivate community.
According the the great historian of Western Civilization, Christopher Dawson, “A social culture is an organized way of life which is based on a common tradition and conditioned by a common environment. . . . It is clear that a common way of life involves a common view of life, common standards of behavior and common standards of value, and consequently a culture is a spiritual community…Therefore from the beginning the social way of life which is culture has been deliberately ordered and directed in accordance with the higher laws of life which are religion.”
Taking the cult out of culture leaves a residual set of customs and ideas that no longer tie people together because they lack the unifying center. A culture that has lost the cult becomes a culture with many cults. Today the fragmentation of culture has lead to a narrow mass culture only united on the surface, but really fragmented.
Without this religious center, every aspect of culture has its own version of a cult, usually of personality. There is no longer unification between worship, art, sport, and beauty, but a great divide- celebrity vs. celebrity, cult vs. cult.
We’re getting close to an answer here. Back to Alexander one more time:
I think universal culture has done a really good job adapting to this through a strategy of social atomization; everybody does their own thing in their own home, and the community exists to protect them and perform some lowest common denominator functions that everyone can agree on. This is a really good way to run a multicultural society without causing any conflict, but it requires a very specific set of cultural norms and social technologies to work properly, and only universal culture has developed these enough to pull it off.
So: the ‘cult’ of universal culture is the sovereign individual. It is the worship of the Self. Alexander, who is a physician (Alexander is not his real name) identifies as a liberal. I assume he is an atheist, though I could be wrong about that. If you are an atheist, you are a materialist; you believe there is no such thing as transcendent meaning, that things only “mean” what we decide they mean. To someone like that, so-called “universal culture” seems rational. But to someone who believes in God — the God of the Jews, or the God of the Christians, or the God of the Muslims, and on and on — “universal culture” is … untrue. Why should anybody believe that “universal culture” is true? Alexander answers: because it works. Well, what is “works”? Alexander calls universal culture an engine of “progress.” To assert that, you have to have an idea of what constitutes progress. Alexander is smuggling teleology into his argument. What he considers to be progress sometimes looks to people like me as regress. By what standard does he call it progress?
What he probably considers to be progress is the liberation of the choosing individual from constraints on his choice. OK, fine. In this conception, there is no good and no evil, only choices that “work” and choices that don’t. But you can only decide which choices (and the values that inform them) “work” if you have an idea of what it means to “work.” You see what I’m getting at here? What looks like cosmopolitan universalism to the Alexanders and Thiels of the world is really a form of advanced parochialism, one that conceals its own cultic preferences from itself.
Alexander admits in his essay that he has more in common with readers of his blog in Finland than he does with his neighbor, who he has never met. That kind of ethic “works” as long as we remain a rich, stable, technologically advanced society. But if the power goes out for any length of time (literally and metaphorically), the real differences between Alexander’s house and Finland will assert themselves fiercely.
Back to Thiel’s assertion that the culture wars are not real. They are certainly real, in that they define what it means to be human, what it means to be a member of society, how we are to live together, and so on. I doubt a gay man in 1980s rural Alabama would say the culture wars aren’t real. Similarly, a traditionalist Catholic living in San Francisco in 2016 wouldn’t say the culture wars aren’t real. “Universal culture” only seems so to people who live in its artificial bubble.
One last point: social and religious conservatives should understand clearly that the culture wars are over in the Republican Party. It has nominated a man who doesn’t care about the culture wars. The only culture war that counts is the one orthodox religious communities and their members are going to wage privately against the “universal culture.” This is what my Benedict Option project is about. But I’ve gone on too long here.