A New Zealand reader sends this short piece by Russian-born Dmitri Orlov, the resilience guru, in which he laments how cultural politics in the US get in the way of people talking about what they need to do to survive in the case of a serious economic or civilizational collapse. Orlov is going to the Age Of Limits conference next week. He hopes it goes better than last year’s, which got blown up because of American cultural politics. Excerpt:
I hope that this year we will be able to focus the discussion on the physical, organizational, cultural and psychological problems that must be solved in order for resilient, self-sustaining communities to form.
Last year’s conference was the second venue at which I gave that talk. The first one was at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior, an hour’s drive from the Canadian border. There, the talk was very warmly received, by the students and the community elders alike, and resulted in very purposeful discussion. You see, this school is very popular and very successful at teaching a wide range of traditional skills. Many of these skills are directly applicable to creating independent, resilient lifestyles within the setting of a small community. But forming such a community is a problem: real estate is expensive, transportation costs are high, jobs are few and far between and pay less and less, and there is a great deal of financial and regulatory overhead that stands in the way community self-sufficiency. After some brainstorming, a potential solution was hit upon: the school would create a colony for its graduates, allowing successful graduates to become part of it. Since, in turn, the colony would embody the principles taught by the school, it would help strengthen the overall effort.
When I gave the same talk a month later at last year’s Age of Limits conference, the reaction was rather different. There was almost no discussion of impediments to implementation or ideas for overcoming them. Instead, the conversation veered off into gender politics, with some amount of booing and hissing from the female members of the audience. You see, the examples I picked, which included, among others, traditional, religious communities with patriarchal gender roles, were said to be ill-suited as models for such a “progressive” group. (By the way, I never proposed that they be used as models, only as examples from which general principles can be uncovered.) Then there followed some harsh (and, to my mind, ridiculous) criticisms of the Amish, who were said to abuse their wives and children. Compared to the focused and productive discussion at Grand Marais, this one turned out to be a complete waste of time. I was flabbergasted by this reaction, only later realizing that I had blundered into an American cultural war zone. I later realized that none of the criticisms raised had the slightest bit of relevance to the topic under discussion.
Orlov goes on to say that America’s “vast landscape of societal failure is obscured behind a verbal veil of political correctness.” It becomes more important to say the “correct” thing than to speak the truth. It becomes more important to see the “correct” thing than what’s right in front of your eyes. I have no idea what Orlov’s politics are, and I don’t really buy his diagnosis of how the rich divide and conquer everybody else by distracting us with the culture war. I don’t buy it mainly because nobody has to make us fight over these things; we want to fight over them, because they’re about something real. The problem is not really that we disagree, but that we are so absolutist about it, to the point of gross imprudence.
A year ago, the TV host Mike Rowe wrote something responding to a fan who saw him on Bill Maher’s show, and wrote Rowe to say that he used to like him, but now that he (the fan) sees that Rowe is a liberal, he won’t be watching him anymore. Rowe’s response was pretty commonsensical. Excerpt:
Bill Maher is opinionated, polarizing and controversial. I get it. So is Bill O’Reilly, which is probably why I heard the same comments after I did his show. (“How could you, Mike? How could you?”)
Truth is, every time I go on Fox, my liberal friends squeal. And every time I show up on MSNBC, my conservative pals whine. Not because they disagree with my position – everyone agrees that closing the skills gap is something that needs to happen. No, these days, people get bent simply if I appear on shows they don’t like, or sit too close to people they don’t care for.
What’s up with that? Is our country so divided that my mere proximity to the “other side” prompts otherwise sensible adults to scoop up their marbles and go home?
Yes, Mike Rowe: we have nothing at all to learn from people who don’t think and feel and behave exactly like we do. Even if what they have to teach us might save our lives, or at least save us a hell of a lot of money and trouble.
UPDATE: Reader Edward Hamilton, in the combox, reveals once again why he should have his own blog:
The comment that attracted the attention of a few commentators above, about the question of whether “elites exploit cultural issues to deflect attention from economic inequality”, is one I’ve been pondering for the last 20 minutes or so.
I agree with Rod that these issues are “real”, or that at the very least they are symbolic proxies for real transformations in society that deserve to be vigorously debated. But I also see a definitely cynicism in the way in which the political class engages with them, and that suggests that the political appropriation of these issues arises from less organic and more tactical reasons, the way Orlov proposes. The number of politicians who have blissfully switched around their views on both abortion and gay marriage in the last 40 years exceeds the political migrations I’ve seen on pretty much any other issue. Democrats and Republicans believe most of the same things they did about minimum wage laws, say, or the welfare state, or tax policy, relative to their positions back in the 1960s. But they have fluidly swung between different positions over the course of the same 50 year period on these supposedly deep-rooted cultural issues. If people naturally care about these issues for reasons independent of utilitarian political calculations, it seems particularly perverse that so many formerly pro-life Democrats were casually willing not merely to redefine themselves as aggressively pro-choice, and then impose this as an absolute litmus test on things like judicial appointments — and (in fairness) vice versa for ex-moderate Republicans like Reagan and Bush-senior. The same story is occurring but with even greater disinterest in logical consistency on gay rights, where an enormous number of Democratic politicians (not just Clinton) will effectively run to the broad youth/minority electorate in 2016 by frantically denouncing Republicans for holding centrist positions (like “unions yes, marriage no”) identical to their own carefully worded positions just a couple cycles earlier.
These “evolutions” have grown incredibly artificial and calculated, where we can swing from a world where everyone understand that it’s better for individuals to privately negotiate their economic transactions involving controversial goods and services to avoid conflict, into a world where the government needs to be a direct participant in telling people they need to sell birth control or bake cakes for gay weddings. This approach takes established ways of applying libertarian economics to defuse cultural tension and erases them from public view, so that the tension is intensified as those libertarian mechanisms for compromise are systematically dismantled by rhetorical absolutism. (“Moral objections to homosexuality are on par with racism so government must actively endorse gay marriage using a civil rights paradigm of public celebration events”, or “Not paying for my birth control is substantively equivalent to advocating a ban on birth control”, etc) Politicians presently have incentives to structure these debates in an apocalyptic framework that remove the consideration of compromise options, and that framework is radically far removed from the more sensitive way you’d discus any of those issues with a family member or close friend. (Or else I’d wager your holiday gatherings must be pretty miserable affairs.)
I’m not saying that the average American doesn’t care deeply about these issues on the basis of their intrinsic merits and implications, just that the political imperative to adapt and survive is that much more powerful than these natural passions. But I also think we need to admit that the ability of the government to proactively influence the direction of, say, military appropriations or banking regulation is far broader than on cultural issues, where social transformation is driven by the entertainment media and technology, and politicians function mostly in a reactive mode that doesn’t so much drive the debate as simply adapt to it.
That’s still consistent with Orlov’s thesis, which is that elites ARE still driving these debates, but in a low-key and indirect way — by adjusting expectations for what we encounter in the workplace, in books and television, and in advertising. Note that the “elites” here aren’t politicians, but rather the people that bankroll the politicians and shape the topology of the political playing field. But I would agree with Rod that the mechanism is less a collusive one, where elites think consciously and collectively about how best to cooperate with one another to keep the public distracted from demanding economic reform, and more a self-interested one, in that they realize that people who are worked up in a perpetual lather about gay marriage are more likely to donate money, click on links, and transform certain consumer products into statements of cultural identity.