Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. Continued from here, but you don’t really need to read that first. Part one of specifics.
I think we can safely describe Scott and Polanyi as critics of top-down knowledge. Local knowledge is either ignored or mangled by the structure, which is bad for some reasons but also for other reasons. Still, they both understand how these structures perpetuate themselves. Legibility, economic prejudice, etc. Blame it on an ethical failing (“The rulers did x out of malice”) and you ignore the way incentives work. Ignore the way incentives work, and you’ll recreate the same structure.
That makes them critical of top-down structures, period. Without any political power, the ruled can’t even sneak their data into the pile. It’s telling that to get their point across, both Scott and Polanyi rely on explicitly authoritarian forms of government. That’s not “wrong”, but it does muddy the waters for us, because then you can say: “Luckily, we live in a democracy!” Fine. What does that mean?
First definition: “democracy” is what allows different people to take a piece of the pie, i.e. the already-existing power structure decides to share its spoils.
Second definition: “democracy” is only possible, is merely the expression of, equally powerful people.
The first is vertical, power concentrates at the top but you can participate in it. The second is lateral. The second can easily become the first, the first is much harder to change into the second; if someone has to grant you power over and over, you never had it in the first place.
This makes Polanyi, Lasch, and Scott partisans of the second definition of democracy. If the former is simply “giving” you power, it’s always going to be on the government’s terms, i.e. with epistemic knowledge behind it. I know which I side with, but choose your own adventure. What concerns me is not activists of either but their coexistence. In any given protest, one slogan will imply one, and the next slogan will imply two, and the fact that the partisans aren’t garroting each other makes me extremely suspicious that something else is going on.
Note also that the first definition is what our entire political apparatus runs on. Something something American as apple pie.
I’m not going to redefine narcissism, take Lasch:
…the character traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the every day life of our age: dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings.
A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive impulses (projected onto others and then internalized again as inner “monsters”) attempts to compensate himself for his experiences of rage and envy with fantasies of wealth, beauty, and omnipotence. These fantasies, together with the internalized images of the good parents with which he attempts to defend himself, become the core of a “grandiose conception of the self.”
There’s already a problem here. If narcissism is about lacking power and fearing one’s own (as “fear of aggressive impulses” due to lack of self-control) then it makes definition two very hard to achieve. Moving on.
Polanyi has an explanation for why the ruled might resort to epistemic language: it’s the only way possible to communicate your demands. You petition the ruled in their language. That explains it as a tool, but that doesn’t necessitate that the ruled think of themselves in those terms. They have no need to perpetuate it, to reintegrate it into daily life. I use mathematical language all the time as a tool, but I don’t blame calculus for failing to get this piece out on time. Here’s the more disturbing question: why would a society willingly perpetuate a top-down structure?
This is where Lasch speaks up. The Culture of Narcissism is about that process – epistemic knowledge – being decentralized. No, that’s not “definition two” any more than Papal Hierarchy is “democratic” just because everyone buys it. Stop getting confused by words; it’s definition one being mainlined by society.
I don’t mean to imply that someone saw the end result and decided “let’s do it” (then again if Lenin would’ve changed plans too had he known about [the history of the Soviet Union]). No conspiracy creates a narcissistic society. It’s the end result of ten thousand little steps, each one better at justifying itself and better at defending against change.
“The system” is a useful metaphor, but it should never be construed as human agency. The system is incentives, it’s carrots and sticks and/or bullion and billyclubs, all of which result in the same: The ruled adopt a top-down structure into their own lives, they turn it against themselves and everyone around them, and thus it repeats in perpetuity.
Last time I said that narcissism is dialectical. It moves: paternalism->image obsession->invasion of the self-> and all of these combine into the identity protection characteristic of narcissistic defenses. You might add an arrow from “invasion of the self” to paternalism, because paternalism is what stops development of proper inner defenses against invasion. Finally, you might want to make this a circle, and our current question is what does that look like in practice?
Lasch is an external commentary using this rough model. At some point, the combined apparatus of American culture (the state, capital, media, political agitation) tried to make things “better”. To better its citizens required new social controls (paternalism). The taylorism employed makes things more focused on image, and this results in a more warlike society. Happened with “authenticity” last time and also [everything below]. To deal with this invasion, society turns to narcissistic defenses. Narcissism is self-centered, but it’s an expression of dependence on others, and specifically on the others’ validation of the narcissist’s image. What would you do? Correct answer: demand more paternalism, specifically more aesthetic paternalism, which makes the cycle continue for forever.
I tried to explain this with education last time, but I bit off more than I could chew. I’m going to move through it slowly, and if that means this particular series takes more time than I planned, so be it. Lasch is critical to understand not just on his own, but because he explains how Scott and Polanyi are “allowed” to function in a democratic society. In other words: the enduring relevance of everything bad I’ve taken from them.
This isn’t going to come up right now, but it’s something to keep in the back of your mind: nearly all of this comes from a good American desire for “free” citizens. Our Taylorism was designed to make people powerful, and the phrase “empowering [blank]” should be your first thought. First definition of democracy, yeah, but more generally: even the crudest definition of power requires the ability to do things for yourself. If you can’t do that, then you don’t have power.
Society can provide the image of power, it just has to come at the expense of actual power. So, of course, that’s exactly what we’ve spent the last [long time] doing.
“I tried this with education last time.” And like clockwork, NPR interviews Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California’ community college system. He’s wondering: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra?
[Eloy Ortiz Oakley]: The second thing I’d say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy — which is unforgiving of those students who don’t have a credential — the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It’s what has kept them from achieving a credential.
It’s unforgiving of those with a credential as well but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
It’s astonishing that not once does Oakley question the value of the credential. If algebra is out then philosophy is already putrescent, so I don’t expect him to start from first principles but still. Really? I have no idea if algebra is useful or not for his students’ life (yes, it is), but there’s a difference between “use of doing algebra” and “display of having done algebra”. He’s arguing against the former, but he’s only in a position to provide the latter. I’d call this “a confusion”.
First problem: what if “algebra” actually is something necessary for a certain level of independence? If everyone is talking in a language you can’t understand it’s a lot easier for them to pull a fast one. Whatever, we’ll come back to it.
Second problem: Assume that credential x equals (y + algebra). If you flood the market with credential y all candidates with y look identical. Suddenly a candidate with x comes along and boom, hirenrolled. Sorry, variables are confusing. The point being: if education is a signal then whoever has the best signal wins. Remove part and the “credential” looks the same but the signal itself changes. I don’t even buy a hard form of signal theory of education, but people like Oakley are trying their damndest to prove me wrong.
“Credentialism,” yeah, but why? It sucks if some poor kids fail algebra, and no, it’s not always their fault. Maybe they’re working full time and have a kid, maybe daily tragedies pile up, who knows, life is suffering. I’ve met plenty of bright-as-hell kids who look ten-times worse on paper than they should, and the circumstances are well beyond their control. Still.
“That’s unfair.” It is, but you made it worse. Let’s really twist the class-war: this is America, signals can be bought. Too dumb for algebra but too rich to know it? Your father can drown tutors in money until you pass. If that doesn’t work, he’ll send you to an elite academy. Not coincidentally, private academies are where high-school grade inflation is at its worst (same with private colleges). Who pays the bills, and will they pay more for an A or a C?
The desire was for things to be “equal”, by which I mean: equal parties in power. But power doesn’t work like that, and trying to make it so brings out worse inequalities. Yes, it’s unfair that [dumb rich kid] gets a degree while [smart poor kid] doesn’t. This particular solution exacerbates the problem, and the guy in charge never once asked himself: “Is the degree the same as the education?” Of course, to do so would be insane, he’d have to be running counter to all his instincts. No, no, the instinct isn’t “keep my job”, although true. The instinct is: “the image is the same as […]”
At a certain point you throw your hands up and say “It’s all the will of the gods!” but the gods never imagined something as cruel as this. Fortune may have a wheel, but it’s not the rack. Only men do that to themselves.
I agree with him about one thing: this absolutely is a civil rights issue. Oakley runs community colleges, code that, =poor=minority. Credentialism is worse there. When everyone has identical credentials, then all you can judge by is image, appearance. For a minority, sorry, that means everything that gets attached to being a minority.
“Then we’ll ban asking about college degrees!” Sure, because banning personal achievements works swimmingly. I don’t even have to do the groundwork here, see Scott Alexander:
It starts like this – a while ago, criminal justice reformers realized that mass incarceration was hurting minorities’ ability to get jobs. 4% of white men will spend time in prison, compared to more like 16% of Hispanic men and 28% of black men. Many employers demanded to know whether a potential applicant had a criminal history, then refused to consider them if they did. So (thought the reformers) it should be possible to help minorities have equal opportunities by banning employers from asking about past criminal history.
The actual effect was the opposite – the ban “decreased probability of being employed by 5.1% for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9% for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.”
In retrospect, this makes sense. Daycare companies really want to avoid hiring formerly-imprisoned criminals to take care of the kids. If they can ask whether a certain employee is criminal, this solves their problem. If not, they’re left to guess. And if they’ve got two otherwise equally qualified employees, and one is black and the other’s white, and they know that 28% of black men have been in prison compared to 4% of white men, they’ll shrug and choose the white guy.
“Racism!” True, but not from any given agent. It’s easy to point fingers, which is why everyone does it, but not one person wanted this outcome. Go on:
Acme Widget Co receives a zillion applications for the tech department. These converge on candidates with identical credentials: ivys, straight A’s, etc. One of them is black, so run_program:”diversity_quota”. If the company is below he gets hired. If they’re at full capacity, then all those other signals come out. “Subconscious biases” maybe but plenty are conscious, and all of it results in [white guy] getting the job.
Your first instinct is to attack the company, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do. No, sorry, your first instinct is to attack me, as though me saying that is “racist”, but I’m not saying what you think I am. I bet the black kid worked ten times harder for his degree than Chadwick, but that doesn’t matter, that’s not a signal the system recognizes. “It should.” How could it? With every attempt to make it you just make every other signal more valuable, and Chad has more money to buy them. Even attacking the company is off base: they did what you wanted, right? They hired according to a quota.
I’ll give you one agent out of this system, and you’re going to hate it. It wasn’t there before, but now it’s in Chad’s economic interest to preserve racial stereotypes. Those signals will help him get the job, no matter what he thought about racism before. Only images, forged-pseudo-equality, gave an agent that desire. “Oof.”
Here’s something obvious which nevertheless explains how insane our society is. If Acme Widget is over its racial quota, then it hires the white guy over the black. This is explicitly because black has racially coded symbols. “What a racist company!” True, but that same company will be lauded by the media for being a “paradigm of racial diversity” – it’s filled the quota, after all.
And that, children, is how we beat racism.
This isn’t Oakley’s fault, and I’m damn near positive that a pressure group pressure cooked him. The question is why that pressure group wanted it. Who trained them to look in terms of image?
American culture works top-down, and top-down power can only see things a certain way: quantification. You can’t quantify without data, and data has to be empirically observed. In other words, there’s no way to measure “potential” without seeing what someone actually does, be that test or degree or job. So if you want to make things “equal”, “empowering” (read: look equal, look powerful), you have to mess with outcome over potential. This is going to be sloppy. More importantly, what did you teach people? Action is not an expression of who they are, the result is unimportant.
In trying to engineer outcomes, you make the surest expression of “who they are” their bundle of inexpressible signals. You don’t even need psychology for this one, it’s strictly economic. If identity gets you the job better than actions, then that’s going to be the thing you jealously guard. It’s all anyone cares about now, right?
The psychological expression for this is “I am so much more.”
Better thinkers have theorized about signals and worse people have propagated the theory. I’m about to drop the terminology because of that, but let’s first return to its roots. Assume that everything is a signal. [Random ivy grad]’s tell me: >130 IQ, strong work effort, conscientiousness, etc. and let’s assume that all of those are true. “Signal” (economics) comes from “signal” (biology), and the biological definition is “a real quality, an underlying genetic fact, that cannot be expressed in itself”. Yes, there are dishonest signals but whatever, [Ivy]’s are honest by design.
[Ivy’s] signals say he ought to be absolutely murderous were they expressed, so why does he need signals? Why can’t he express those on their own?
Look, I get that this has all been said before, but it’s important to understand: credentialism is a symptom of another problem. Better: its effects aren’t just “more credentials”, nor are they merely economic.
Not even some insufferable pressure group bears the guilt of a nation, because the issue is American culture’s infatuation with image over substance. Here it looks like “equality”, there it looks like “power”, anywhere else it looks like “I’m a good person.” As equality “many American minorities have degrees!” hides the underlying problem, so too all other forms worsen imbalances, scurrying them off to multiply in the darkness. This may make us feel nice but it doesn’t redress imbalances, and it certainly doesn’t do anything for minorities.
The general form of this is image>substance. This makes life more warlike, and it reduces power while giving one (read: making one desire) the image of power.
“More warlike”, well, yeah, of course. I really cannot stress that enough. If everything becomes a signal then everything becomes a signal. Chadwick gets caught in it too. Ten thousand Chadwicks apply to the same job, all of them are festooned in ivy, all of them were straight-A students (inflation, of course). The only way to determine who to hire is going to be “what are their other qualifications”, i.e. what’s on their facebook page, where do they summer, how hot is their girlfriend. What happens to your relationship towards [everything] in those circumstances?
Obvious, but Lasch was writing about this pre-internet and one has to wonder just how much worse it is now. Take two facts: a) the internet is a bastion of free-speech, where any opinion can be joyously expressed; b) within any subculture, every single person has the exact same one. “Hive mind sheeple herds.” Bullshit, talk to most of the individuals confidentially and they’ll break. Answer, more frightening: “What if I say the wrong thing?” Twitter might be the genuine worst for this, given how easy it is to fuck up 140 characters. So of course that’s the medium we report on the most, the increasingly official “account” for all public figures. Which reminds me: follow me for embarrassing bullshit, hey. Like Wire and [timely Mooch joke] know –
This makes people hyper reliant on social appeal. That goes a long way towards explaining why “narcissism” doesn’t result in a bunch of DIY creative types but extreme conformity. Yes, I know that some people nowadays have purple hair, I mean conformity within a group. It also explains in-groupishness: if the value of your identity is based on the cachet of the clique, then loss of their status is loss of yours. (This, by the way, is what makes the Overton window such a brutal fight. Think about it.)
All of that is bad for “individuals” and possibbly the aesthetic of society. Far worse is what underlies it. The system may appear to be growing “equal”, but it’s actually getting is more segregated. Yes, by race and class and etc., but what I really mean is by power.
I see three major ways this happens:
- signals can be bought, and any dumbass with will dominate the meritorious withouts, see the algebra example above.
- Outcome is your own, as in: if you know you can do [thing], then you should do [thing]. The ideal of capitalism is that if competence allows for freedom: i.e. someone fucks you? Start your own business and undercut them. Whether that’s “real or not” is irrelevant, it’s an expression of the general freedom most ideologies desire: agency. “Perception” of competence, on the other hand, means that there must be a perceiver, which means…
- The perceiver holds all the cards.
This last one is the most important.
Power doesn’t just go away because you want it to. Some people have more, some have less, and people with more are going to have more powerful perception. It doesn’t matter if your mom thinks you’re a real standup guy, but it might if your boss does. Channel that all the way back up and eventually you’ll arrive at the screaming gears behind America.
Make no mistake it: this is a specific form of what I generally termed “Taylorism” last time. Rather than freeing one to fail, the top swoops in and chooses your life for you.
Blame [anyone] for Taylorism and you’ll find a good historical argument. A wide variety of ideologies (read: all) all accepted it to one degree or another. I know that the Right likes to blame the Left for this (“nanny state!” “Socialist fascism!”) and the Left blames the Right for this (“plain old fascism” “corporate control”), and I think they’re probably both right and wrong in equal turns. I think it started for a wide variety of reasons, take your pick, I’ll get to them in the conclusion to this series.
To understand why this is critically important: if Taylorism sets off narcissism, and narcissism is the defense mechanism of modernity, then the continued existence of Taylorism, the perpetuation of its mechanisms, is the problem to discuss. It doubles back on itself, because narcissism’s danger socially is not “self-absorption” but dependency. If that dependency plays out on a larger society, it looks like demands for Taylorism. And if even the people fighting it are narcissists, then it looks like adopting the trappings of power, i.e. furthering the power of the perceiver. All of this says: repeating the top-down structure, organically weaving it into your life.
The question I started this essay with is not “from whence Taylorism” but why does it perpetuate. Why do we reappropriate it into our lives?
“We don’t.” Yes, we do. Watch it go:
I say we have a new federal policy based on Oakley’s students. Instead of federal aid to community colleges, America cuts a check to non-algebraists. No questions asked, you can’t do algebra, here’s a stack of capital. Americans: “He hasn’t earned it!” I thought the point was that the “degree” we bought him also isn’t earning anything. “That’s a waste of money!” Wait, what? Why? “They won’t spend it well!” Sure, maybe, at worst they buy booze and drugs. Are you saying “alternative math classes” are a better investment than getting drunk? The opportunity cost, at least, is much higher, and I’m sure there are externalities. Possibly some kind of angry psychic sludge in the air.
I admit that “hella baked on Tuesday” looks worse on a resume than Associate’s Degree, but a) this is capital, what makes you think that a bright kid won’t use it to do [anything else] and, b) kind of the point. Follow the logic: “We know full well that this degree is useless, but we’ll invest in your future if it’s an image we can understand, one that makes us feel better about ourselves.” How do we understand it? Someone told us it’s valuable. He “fits the part”.
Yes, this means that you have no say in your life, whatever, everyone knew that. Stop whining about personal problems, the issue is systemic. The issue is that all validation is still coming from above, as in you (person judging what they should do with their money), you (pural, as member of what the state says they should), and perceivers (as in: whoever determines “good” for you).
“I don’t think that,” well then take the yous rhetorically. How much of America does think? My uneducated guess is “a billion”. Inaccurate measure of the population, accurate measure of how strongly they feel that way. I’m not trying to explain why yet, even if it should be obvious. This is a movement, and so far we’ve gone paternalism – > image – > warlike. Next is defenses.
Part of the Uruk Series
top image from Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild
25 thoughts on “Reinventing the Wheel of Fortune”
Nice, keep going… you are expanding the surface.
Let me know if you ever want a post pre-editor for typos, punctuation, and general smoothing. Minor stuff, but some of the Alone-style asides could be clearer at some points. And I love the intentionally-over-clever bits.
Thanks. I’ll let you know – as of right now, editing problems are mostly a function of time. I probably put out essays a day or two too soon. Ideally, I’d give up the weekly post quest until I have more free time. Realistically, I’m stubborn. I do try and go back a couple days after publishing to clean stuff up. I don’t know if that’s considered bad form or not, but eh.
My schedule clears decently in September, so maybe I’ll be a better writer then.
Geez, reading this stuff is like working through the social-science equivalent of an involved math proof. I’m still scratching my head over “Note also that the first definition is what our entire political apparatus runs on. Something something American as apple pie.” The leaps of logic that are your version of “clearly”, “trivially”, and “left as an exercise for the reader” may be great (ahem) signalling, but they aren’t helping me understand your argument.
Insofar as I can understand it, I like it a lot and suspect that it’s really important (if actionable), which makes the density all the more frustrating.
“..apparatus runs on,” I suppose I should have given specific examples. They’ll be coming in the next one. I mean that much American discourse presupposes that the government (specifically the federal government) is the center of power in American life. That might be requests, i.e. “there’s [problem], how will the president resolve it?” or it might be complaints, “the economy has [problem], what has the state done to destroy it?” The played-out “Thanks, Obama” joke is a good (albeit kind of ridiculous) example of this, as is “Something bad happened, which is evidence that the president hates [group/idea].”
I’m not saying that these are always wrong, nor that the state doesn’t have disproportionate power. Just that that it’s often a quick, off-hand assumption, which says a lot about how people view the political sphere. It’ll probably make more sense next time.
“Apple pie” thing was a joke about taking a piece of the pie (first definition of democracy).
I’ll try and be clearer. If it makes you feel better, Lasch is insanely dense on this stuff. Perhaps I should have just explained him before synthesizing with all the others.
This (I think) cleared up a major misconception I had from your previous post. Even though you were very clear that narcissism is a response to Taylorism (something you should never stop trying to find new ways to articulate, because it still hasn’t really stuck for me), I kept expecting to be able to point at some direct mechanism in the evolution of capitalism (like, IDK, stagnant wages or something), and go “Ah-Hah! It was you all along.” But if a major part of the point of your Polanyi post is about how the top-down social reforms in response to the transformations of capitalism were as damaging to society as the transformations themselves (or moreso), then I’m starting to see it. Everything bad is an attempt to wrangle our way out of a fundamental inequality that is, perhaps, insurmountable. That’s…a real bummer, and not where I thought we would end up, although it makes sense given your introduction to the piece on Scott.
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Taylorism isn’t dependent on capitalism, though; capitalism is one of the ways that it shows up to ruin everything, sure, but it’s not the only avenue for it. I don’t know if you’ve read Crawford’s “Shop Class As Soulcraft”; it’s maybe not as rigorous as the texts discussed here but he goes into quite a bit of detail about how Taylorism was adopted just as eagerly by the early Soviet Union as it was by the industrializing West, with essentially the same results w.r.t. degradation of labor.
Also (because it is my shtick), I can’t help but point out that one of the oldest philosophical dialogues in existence is basically “why its better to be good than merely possess the appearance of being good, where the two conflict.” So this seems at least partially like a basic glitch of the human condition reappearing again, albeit writ really, really large.
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This might be a tangent, but then again since you’re making an argument that encompasses at least the last century of human civilization, maybe it’s relevant.
Angry Philopsopher brought up “ban the box” earlier, and since I’d never heard the phrase before, I googled it and found that same article by Alana Semuels at the Atlantic. Here’s a quote that brought me up short:
But banning the box may actually be hurting some of the exact groups of people it was designed to help,
Wait, which groups were we trying to help, again? The human interest bit at the beginning of the article is about an ex-con who shot somebody in the back of the head, but the negative effects apparently fall not on ex-cons, but on black people in general.
Here’s what is to me an incredibly obvious question: How on earth would banning the box help black men with no criminal records? I cannot see how it possibly would. It seems like it might help black people with criminal records, but you’ll notice that basically none of the statistics in that article ever address how the employment prospects of black ex-cons change after ban the box is implemented. As far as I can see, the only direct reference to the difference banning the box makes to ex-cons is:
White ex-offenders were actually helped by the rule, they found, possibly because employers assumed white applicants were unlikely to have criminal histories.
So, a rousing success all around, then. I would think personally, that there is a possibility that ban the box could at the same time, reduce the hiring prospects of black men in general while increasing the hiring prospects of black ex-cons, because it could, so to speak, spread the weight of prejudice across the entire race, rather than concentrating it on actual convicted criminals.
Or of course it could create so much discrimination that neither group would benefit; it’s not like I’m gonna crunch those numbers.
Here’s the thing: The hypothesis seems to be that, when criminal background checks are banned, employers start to see all black people as potential criminals. Which suggests that if we allow criminal background checks, employers can more efficiently weed out the actual ex-cons, and hire the black men who haven’t got a criminal record.
This seems like it might be less than ideal, from the perspective of all those black criminals who are being weeded out of the job market.
Something is going on, in this article and in the discussion in general, that people drift so quickly and so easily away from the question of the hiring prospects of criminals.
I think it’s supposed to help blacks in general, under the theory that black criminals are pushed into crime by racist discrimination and social conditions etc. and therefore criminal history is not a meaningful distinction among black Americans (additionally, there is the large number of blacks who committed minor drug crimes rather than violent crimes). At any rate, this is how I would steelman “ban-the-box”. Hence, the question of “does it help who it was designed to help” is naturally answered by its effect on the black population in general.
Obviously, I think that this theory is total and complete bunk. Many groups in history were far poorer, less free, more suppressed, etc. than black Americans today, and yet mass criminality is not a general trait that they share. In fact, I consider the modern trend of blaming criminality more on social conditions than anything else (and therefore the trend of society often sympathizing as much with the criminals as with the victims) to have the effect of encouraging it; it makes it more acceptable, harder to punish, etc. It is true that social conditions in our “ghettoes” cause criminality (though this is almost entirely divorced from white racism at this point); but excusing crime is not the solution, it only reinforces the problem.
In The GULAG Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes of common criminals in the system: they were considered “socially friendly”, i.e. that they were misguided proletarians who could be reformed, as opposed to the real class enemies who had to be broken. Therefore, the murderers, rapists, thieves, etc. were given much more lenient treatment than the political prisoners and even given power over the political prisoners. The effects this all had on the mindset of the average prisoners and society as a whole are fairly obvious. Something similar seems to be happening here – a black criminal is often regarded as a misguided ally, while a white thought-criminal is considered irredeemable. Hence the effort to rehabilitate black criminals – even those who committed horrific acts – into normal society, while at the same time trying as hard as possible to destroy the lives and careers of white “racists”.
a black criminal is often regarded as a misguided ally, while a white thought-criminal is considered irredeemable.
Which of them has a job? Kind of a trick question. The white guy might be able to find a group of political backers to stand up against accusations of thought-crime, or he might not.
Let me ask you another question: Of the people in Slate or Salon arguing for rehabilitation and leniency for black ex-criminals, how many of them ARE black ex-criminals? It’s all well and good to be tired of left-wing mollycoddling, but that mollycoddling doesn’t actually extend into widespread employment; outside of rare activist circles, the black felon is not, in fact, ordering a bunch of white thought criminals around. The white thought criminal is being ordered around by a different, militant white guy.
Or, in other words, the rapists and thieves might have had privilege, but don’t forget who’s running the Gulag.
The thing is, once we decided to deal with criminality through limited periods of incarceration we also obliged ourselves to re-integrate those criminals into society. I mean that in the broadest sense: If we don’t kill or banish them, they occupy a space in American society. Alternatives to having a job in modern American society include:
Becoming a ward of the state and living off welfare.
Living in a tent in an alleyway on whatever you can scrounge or beg off passing citizens.
None of these strike me as particularly good outcomes for anybody involved, which is why in general this vogue for trying to get people fired all the time isn’t something I really support.
Sorry, I wasn’t being clear. I wasn’t trying to compare the situations (a) in the USA now and (b) in the USSR between 1918 and 1954. There is obviously a wide gulf between these. [I can imagine certain consequences of my opinions, like having a hard time finding a job, but I can’t imagine I’ll be sent to a camp in Alaska.]
I was comparing the social theories of (a) the modern American left and (b) the USSR, and in particular the similarity regarding how “socially friendly” people are viewed versus political enemies.
While the American social theory has not produced political prisons (preferring ostracism and career-wrecking), I do believe that it is having the same effects on crime as the Soviet attitude – that is, it results in much more crime among those who are already deemed “socially friendly” by default. Basically, what I wrote about in the second paragraph of that comment.
Some of your other points I think also work in favor of the analogy, like when you mention that “the white thought criminal is being ordered around by a different, militant white guy” or ask “of the people in Slate or Salon arguing for rehabilitation and leniency for black ex-criminals, how many of them ARE black ex-criminals?”. In the USSR too, the top jobs were not occupied by proletarian common criminals but by the equivalent of “militant white guys”. Within the camps, criminals were lording it over politicals (which does not have an American parallel); but outside the camps, the lording was done by Party officials and the commissariat (which does have an American parallel).
So I basically agree with everything you wrote, but I think you might have misunderstood me. I probably was not as clear as I should have been.
Your “Modest Proposal” of welfare for the algebra-deficient skips the most obvious criticism, which is that it creates perverse incentives. Learn algebra, become poorer!
In any case, I largely agree with you, though I do wonder what exactly the difference is between “narcissistic defenses” and regular old defense of identity which I think is pretty much universal. One can defend one’s identity in two ways: (a) work hard and accomplish things, or (b) don’t even try, and maintain that you would have accomplished things if [external condition] because [inner “true” self]. The first is usually healthy, the second always poisonous. Is this the difference between non-narcissism and narcissism?
But I do see a lot of identity-defense-by-working, it’s just that it’s working at all the wrong things, i.e. “changing the world”, leftist political activism, etc, which I view as disastrous even if it doesn’t seem to me at all narcissistic. [Of course, this “working” is a distraction from actual productive activity, and is in service of the “culture of victimhood”.] Nor do I see why “narcissism” should confer a particular political bias, i.e. New Leftism. Hence my model of it being a product of the culture wars.
[In particular, I’d respond to your view that it’s equally the fault of the Right and the Left by pointing out that the pathology produces a left-leaning political bias, which – while not proof – at least suggests that it is much more the fault of the Left. This pathology has also been on the rise at the same time as the Overton Window has moved sharply leftwards.]
A while back I mentioned that I had mostly finished an essay on a similar topic. It is finally actually finished: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/helplessness-blues-1f3e0a411d1d
And as long as I’m self-promoting, I might as well link to what I consider my best writing: https://email@example.com/on-patriotism-a-tale-of-two-americas-9343b60a8f60
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In any case, I largely agree with you, though I do wonder what exactly the difference is between “narcissistic defenses” and regular old defense of identity which I think is pretty much universal. One can defend one’s identity in two ways: (a) work hard and accomplish things, or (b) don’t even try, and maintain that you would have accomplished things if [external condition] because [inner “true” self]. The first is usually healthy, the second always poisonous. Is this the difference between non-narcissism and narcissism?
The Last Psychiatrist used “defence” as a sort of generic term for the mental processes you use to avoid change. And you haven’t, at all, exhaustively listed those defences at all. Here’s a third:
“I’m a loser and everybody knows it. I might as well just give up and never try.”
Anyway, I just finished Lasch’s book, and I’m not sure I’ve digested it correctly, but a major part of narcissism involves what I would call personal branding. Lasch doesn’t use that term, but I think it gets across one of the things he was observing about society.
The thing about branding is that consistency is paramount. Every Barbie package uses the EXACT same shade of pink. The same font. The same logo. Also, as a company, all of your actions contribute to brand perception. At least, the actions other people see all do. There is nothing that is neutral. It either extends your brand or hurts it.
What Lasch saw was that people were selling themselves as brands, which results in a kind of anxious, calculated sincerity. The sincerity is obvious; if I start to associate a brand with lying about itself I sure won’t buy it. The calculation is because it’s not enough to be sincere; you have to be consistent. You have to figure out what the other person wants to see and show it to them. The anxiousness is because everything you do contributes to your brand perception.
What this means, for Lasch, is that certain kinds of behaviours become increasingly difficult and frightening. Spontaneity, play, and role-playing become extremely difficult.
Spontaneity threatens the consistency that you need to build a brand; nobody at Pepsi will ever say “Eh, let’s make the cans green and purple for one day. Just because.” Play, by its nature, involves spontaneity and letting go. The inability to play a role is something Lasch focuses on a lot. It’s hard to “Fake it until you make it” when you are trying to brand yourself as an authentic, individual person; faking involves stepping into somebody else’s brand. Pepsi doesn’t put coke labels on their bottles. It also hinders you from stepping into societal roles. You can’t say, “I’m wearing this suit here at the office because that is what one does when one goes to the office.” Because now wearing a suit says something about you, personally, always, every time you do it.
Narcissism both relies on others for validation, while resenting that reliance on others.
Lasch calls it “other-directed”, I believe. An obsessive compulsive person might need to check, again and again, whether the oven is really off. They might need to do it even if everybody tells them the oven is off. They need to see it for themselves, no matter how trustworthy those other people are. Those other people are more or less irrelevant.
The narcissist needs you to know that he turned off the oven. And you knowing that he remembered to turn off the oven is more important than whether or not the oven was actually turned off.
Fair enough on the definition of narcissism, and I can see how narcissism / “image-management” is becoming a huge defining part of modern life. Still, there are aspects that I think it doesn’t really explain, especially things like the New Left political trend which has come along with this. Does narcissism have a political affiliation?
Perhaps you could say that both Left and Right are becoming more narcissist. It is certainly interesting to consider, but it doesn’t strike me as very helpful. Lou, and Alone before him, talks a lot about “gaining the trappings of power while surrendering actual power”. I can’t cite the exact phrase, but it seemed clear to me that they consider the methods of modern politics to fit this description. But how, exactly, is protesting and activism a surrender of “actual power”? Did your typical college undergrad at the Women’s March have power to surrender? Who did they surrender it to?
Let me pinpoint where the root of my disagreement with Lou lies: Lou writes that “even the crudest definition of power requires the ability to do things for yourself”. But what about the ability to inflict harm or punishment on others? I think it’s basically indisputable that this is also a form of power, even if it doesn’t allow you to do things for yourself. The asshole cop who gives you a hard time for no reason has power over you, even if he’s got no chance for promotion or advancement. The SJW student groups who can pressure their universities into punishing others have power, even if when their members graduate they have a hard time finding a decent job.
To keep things clear, let’s call the first “self-reliant power” and the second “social power”. Activism is the gaining of social power; it is debatable whether it by definition causes a decline in self-reliant power. Perhaps as a matter of my own individual action, political activism loses me more power than it gains me, and I should just stay focused on my studies; but as a group action activism is clearly a winner. The New Left is under the grip of a sort of gri-gri ritual in which they believe that they are gaining power on an individual basis; which in the end gives their side all the social power. If the Right is becoming “more narcissistic” by trying to fight off the New Left, well, I don’t really see the alternative – again, the fact that Google fired that guy seems proof enough to me that something needs to be done.
I think you’re just getting hung up on the terminology. The major, major problem of the last 50 years is this:
We have society where nobody will admit to hating black people anymore unless they want to be a pariah. And simultaneously one in three black men will serve time in jail, and the income gap between black and white people hasn’t changed in half a century.
If you don’t want to call that “the appearance of power” call it whatever you like, but the social power wielded by the left is clearly insufficient to accomplish their actual strategic goals, even as they maintain the power to control huge swathes of communication.
Or, put it another way: Now that that one dude was fired from Google, the company’s hiring practices are going to become much, much more diverse, right? I mean, that one dude’s manifesto was all that was stopping google from completely mimicking the demographics of America, yeah?
Bar none, the scariest thing to me right now is watching the right decide to adapt the left’s ideology of powerlessness, because look at what that dynamic has done to the left over the last two decades:
The left achieves a symbolic victory! We got that guy fired from google!
Google’s overall hiring patterns remain unchanged.
This proves that we’re still completely powerless, waging a desperate war of self-defence against a monolithic power.
Soon, we are going to have a war between two desperate rebellions, each explaining that They are all powerful, that of course We would compromise but They in Their every action indicate that They never will, that any questioning of Our polices only serves Them, in a time when We are far too powerless and They will crush us if We show any weakness.
That is insane. Let me put it a third way: Donald Trump just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in American history. One of his top advisers is Steve Bannon, who can’t stand the academic left. The Republicans control congress and, thanks to stonewalling at the end of Obama’s term, get to put a new justice on the Supreme Court.
But some 22 year old barista in a black mask set a police car on fire in Portland, so none of that matters.
That is an extremely bad situation, for just so many reasons. Exchanging self-determination, and even the hope of self-determination, for the ability to exert control over how you are talked about seems both narcissistic and doomed, ultimately, to make society worse.
The trouble is that once you choose to pursue New Left goals, what you call “powerlessness” is the only route open to you. Suppose you, personally, wanted to make Google’s hires match the demographics of America. How would you go about it? As far as I can tell, you do exactly what the New Left is doing – fire anyone who openly questions your objectives, exert ideological control, etc. Otherwise, how would it possibly be achieved, ever?
Nor do I agree with your characterization of this as totally ineffective. Nobody on either side expects that one firing will cause Google’s hiring practices to shift completely to conform to New Left political expectations. But have enough of these firings… Basic facts – (statistical) innate differences between the sexes, etc. – make the New Left goals completely impossible to achieve without having effectively totalitarian political control over Google’s HR department. So these “failures” serve an important purpose in the New Left playbook; they give them an excuse to move to a more totalitarian stance, which is the only stance which could possibly create “gender equality” (by their perverse definition) at Google.
But this mechanism doesn’t necessarily apply to the New Right. Maybe our goals too will run afoul of human nature and facts; but I’m afraid I don’t see it. So I believe that the Left and the Right are fundamentally different, and that the Right is in fact not adopting the “powerlessness” attitude of the left – because it’s baked right into the New Left vision of an ideal America. Marxism too was not overtly totalitarian at the start, but all Marxist movements became totalitarian by necessity because the ideology clashed so badly with human nature.
I do understand why you see a sort of equivalence between the two sides, as they both paint their opponents are Super Powerful Oppressors, etc. But I think when you examine the actual arguments which make up both these claims, the Rightist claims come out mostly vindicated and the Leftist claims disintegrate. The symmetry breaks.
[I also think you badly mischaracterize my views when you say that “any questioning of Our polices only serves Them”. You saw how I responded to Samuel Skinner and you know what I think of Heartiste, after all.]
Suppose you, personally, wanted to make Google’s hires match the demographics of America. How would you go about it? As far as I can tell, you do exactly what the New Left is doing – fire anyone who openly questions your objectives, exert ideological control, etc. Otherwise, how would it possibly be achieved, ever?
Let me answer your question with a question of my own:
It’s ambiguous whether that last question is your own thinking or that of the New Left, but like, you know, lots of damn ways.
Let me tell you a story. There’s a sign outside the restaurant where I work, which I think is confusing, and we shouldn’t be putting it out every day. My boss disagrees. Do you think the sign goes out every day?
Most corporations are not actually democracies. They don’t put each hire to a vote. The problem with your example is that I really think you’ve chosen an example where it is entirely feasible for Google to achieve parity with American gender demographics. And it could be easily done: Orders come down from on high, hiring standards are massively relaxed, and women applicants are hired no matter how unqualified they are. You do this until you hit parity. If some guy doesn’t like it you do the same thing my Boss does and go, “Well, I’m the manager, so that’s what’s happening.”
My boss doesn’t have to fire everybody he disagrees with, nor does he need my approval to hire whoever the hell he wants.
The only way facts could make this course of action impossible is if there are so few female applicants to be google programmers that even a 100% admission rate of female applicants wouldn’t allow them to reach parity, and I highly doubt that’s the case.
Yeah, but that would be terrible for the company, and probably illegal!
So? That doesn’t effect my argument, which is essentially, “Firing this guy is neither sufficient, nor at all necessary, to achieving gender/race/whatever parity in Google’s hiring practices.”
The goal, as you’ve identified it, is actually achievable. It might be achievable only at tremendous cost to Google, but it is entirely possible. So why aren’t activists forcing Google to eat those costs?
The bugfuck crazy reaction to this guy’s open letter thing can’t be explained with “They have to get the image, because the reality is scientifically impossible”. Neither can it be explained with “They have to get rid of this guy, because getting the reality is impossible as long as he’s employed at google.”
Something else is happening here, and it’s very, very bad. This is no time to rest on our laurels with an easy explanation like “We won’t go crazy because we want achievable things.” That’s not where the crazy came from, it’s much deeper, and much, much more widespread than I think you realize.
It is indeed possible when you limit the goal to Google by itself… if Google is, in fact, willing to ignore the costs of making sub-optimal hiring decisions. And that’s not exactly something tech companies are traditionally known to be willing to do.
But when I wrote “Google”, it as a metonym for “the tech industry as a whole”, and I don’t feel I was being unclear about this.
The activists are not Google executives, they are not tech executives anywhere. They can’t just declare that Google will hire women until “parity” is reached. What levers do they possess? Basically, they have only social power, but a hell of a lot of it, and in all the right places. So they make it impossible to question their stance, at the penalty of career suicide. Google still hires in “discriminatory” ways, but if the culture shifts far enough into the New Left view, there are several ways their goals can be achieved – either by new laws or because the Google executives themselves will do it (to some degree the Google executives already bought in, as they fired the guy). Firing this guy was absolutely necessary to this strategy, they have to demonstrate that defying them will only cause you grief. And if Google’s hiring practices don’t change, hey, it just proves they need more power…
The point is that changing the culture, censoring opposing viewpoints, etc. is a perfectly viable long-term strategy. I think your point of view is far too narrow, time-wise. You see a firing and think, “but Google won’t change its hiring practices to equality”. But (a) this could well affect Google’s hiring in small ways in the short term, and (b) in the long term, it does put the New Left closer to their goals.
“A republic, if you can keep it.”
Lasch does actually identify political narcissism with the New Left (more or less), as well as the more ID-focused right wing that comes after it. Which are, of course, the ones I focus on. He and I both think it started with what I call “taylorism”, but it’s not a random term, as Chris is saying.
I think what Chris is saying, and I agree with, is that certain goals are impossible. Period. Even if the whole tech industry falls under a particular ideological sway, there will always be a further diversity quota, as you yourself point this out. The question is one of time management: in the fight to make tech perfectly 50/50 m/f, then to make [industry] 0/50, you can’t pressure for other political goals. What do you lose, what do you gain? Is having google 50/50 a noble goal, does it give power to your final cause, as much as [other desirable thing]? Who does it really benefit, outside of a few already-wealthy engineers, and are there goals that would help more people than that?
Long term is important. Social power can be used for certain things but not others. In focusing on it exclusively, and looking for something as hollow as the appearance of equality, you sacrifice certain aspects of power. I think that’s for all kinds of reasons, but time itself is enough for this conversation.
For your earlier comment: We disagree on what power is. I don’t think that harming an individual is particularly powerful, inasmuch as it’s actually quite easy to do with a mob. I think power might be better defined by the opposite: ability not to be harmed. Fuck you money is more powerful than saying “fuck you”, in other words, even if the “fuck you” comes in a chorus. Social power always puts you at the mercy of whatever is “social”. That’s for the individual, certainly (I think for every googleguy the left has it much worse, see: http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html), but even moreso for the ideology of the group. Opinion can give you power, but it can easily take it away.
Part of the problem is that there really is no left response to the contents of the google document. I don’t mean that just as responses to psychological differences between men and women, which is obvious. I also mean in terms of power dynamics. I have a strong suspicion that the left just doesn’t understand where it has power, much less (more disturbing) how to properly use it. One would expect overreaction and underreaction from people who aren’t trained to think in uses of power but in terms of the image of power. I think one way you really see that is in the articles that make him a metonym for “tech”, despite even google’s response to him. It’s really, really fucking strange.
Tech is probably more left-friendly than any industry (academia and media aren’t quite what I’d call industries in this situation), so of course it’s the one that gets focused on as the center of all evil. That’s not a result of having broad power, it’s a result of having very limited power in one group and misunderstanding it. Only places that open the stage for you to condemn them will appear to be places that everyone is condemning. It’s an insanely bad sign that the left takes this and goes “ah, yes, everyone is condemning this place so it must be the worst” rather than understanding their place in the ecosystem. At the risk of self-congratulations, this is everything that my social state series was about.
I think there ought to be a distinction between goals that are ‘asymptotically’ possible and those that are flat-out impossible. To borrow an example from Alone, “knowing kung fu” is impossible in that you could always be better than you are at it, but if you practice you will measurably progress; whereas “drive a mile at 25 mph and then return (in a straight line) so your average speed is 51 mph” is logically impossible. To give these two types of goals names, let’s call the first “unbounded” and the second “infeasible”.
Lots of progressives I know consider “social justice” as an unbounded problem – we could make things fair for women at Google, but there’d still be cis-normativity at Facebook, etc. In fact, this is the view of the absolute worst, most rabid totalitarians among them. By contrast, I consider the orthodox progressive ideal to be infeasible, as it rests on the following ideals: (1) “intellect” and “intellectual achievement”; (2) egalitarianism, “everyone is equal” (and this definition of ‘equality’ rests on ‘intellectual achievement’ as measure of personal worth); (3) personal freedom.
[If you question the idea that “intellect” is the primary measure of social worth, nobody doubts that men are more athletic, taller, etc. than women, but the mere suggestion that maybe, possibly there are innate statistical differences in preference and behavior can, well, get you fired from Google.]
Because these statistical differences exist, the orthodox progressive utopia cannot be realized – give everyone personal freedom and these differences will be expressed. One of the three axioms has to go, and progressivism, as a movement, has decided that (3) is the expendable one. The rationalization from the mainstream progressives, of course, is that this is a purely temporary measure to destroy the “oppressive structures” blocking progress – once equality is achieved, any totalitarian methods will be unnecessary and will be discarded. Of course, we’ve heard that one before, regarding a certain “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the state “withering away”.
[The real radicals think that X privilege (where X = white, male, cis, whatever) is so strong that they will need to maintain these totalitarian measures on a permanent basis. In a way, this is more realistic than the starry-eyed moderate view (they merely mix up “structures of oppression” with “biological facts” rather than getting the nature of their task wrong), but it’s no less scary.]
Perhaps we are getting at the same point from different angles; but when I try to trace the roots of the destructive tendencies of the New Left, I invariably reach the basic ideology in the end. And I don’t see the same problems in, say, the basic ideology of Steve Sailer (not to say I agree with him on everything).
Regarding power, I simply don’t agree that the power to harm people is negligible. The human brain is wired to take great pleasure in joining a mob, chanting with them, “feeling their strength as yours”. If you want to call that “the image of power”, I won’t stop you, but (a) this phenomenon is prehistoric (and therefore cannot be attributed to any modern trend) and (b) if my enemies have a mob it seems quite reasonable to me that I should seek one of my own. The left settled on social power because it was the handiest tool for their purposes, and they had it in all the right places – and because it was highly rewarding to an ancient part of their brains.
Finally, about tech being “the most demonized industry”, I sort of agree and sort of disagree with you. I don’t think most progressives I know would say tech is the “worst” (they’d probably say “oil” or something similar is worse); but I do think they believe tech is the most important (intellect-worship, belief in ‘progress’ which is a weird mash of technical progress and social progress, etc.) and therefore requires sharper vigilance. And it also happens to be the place where they have the strongest power base, and can actually get people fired. Nobody likes to join a weak mob, after all.
if my enemies have a mob it seems quite reasonable to me that I should seek one of my own.
I would actually divide power into at least three categories:
The ability to hurt others
The ability to be secure from hurt.
The ability to make decisions and have them stick.
I think the internet is doing a lot to destroy communication, through the following process:
Peter Progressive: “Something hetero-patriarchy something white privilege.”
Carl Conservative: “What? White privilege? What a bunch of bullshit! I’m working my ass off and I can barely afford my house payments, my car is 15 years old, and I don’t know what I’m going to do when my kids enter college. I can’t believe Peter Progressive thinks I have privilege! Something something innate differences something reverse racism.”
Peter Progressive: “What? After all the evidence I’ve given about income gaps and discriminatory practice Carl Conservative isn’t convinced? That’s crazy! Come on, twitter, let’s tell his company that we don’t want to buy from people who are bigoted like that! Powerful people need to shut up and listen to those of us who don’t have power!”
Carl Conservative: “I just got fired from my job for things I said on twitter! I used to think that privilege stuff was bullshit, but now I realize it’s insane! They got me fired and I’m the powerful one? Also I still need to pay my mortgage. He has a mob backing him up, I need one backing me up, it’s the only way to defend myself. I’m going to call Breitbart news.”
Peter Progressive: “A mob of crazy people have been calling my company and my family talking about how awful I am. I’ve gotten dozens of death threats and people talking about raping my wife and children, and Carl Conservative thinks I’m the powerful one? He’s not just blinded by privilege, he’s fucking crazy and intractable. If I’m going to defend myself from this, my mob has to be even bigger and more threatening…”
Repeat until… I don’t know, the stupidest civil war in history?
Both Carl and Peter can hurt each other. Carl thinks Peter must be powerful because Peter can hurt him. and vice versa. They each have the first version of power I talked about.
But neither Carl nor Peter feels powerful, because neither of them has the second kind of power. In modern America, they probably don’t have much of number three, either.
But I think those latter kinds of power are most important for psychological well-being. If you only have the first kind of power, but not the second or third, you don’t feel powerful or contented.
Each of them is going to keep calling on bigger and bigger mobs in an effort to feel secure and content, but it’s not going to work, because the mob is a means of creating the power to hurt others.
The source of my extreme anger towards the left was coming to realize that. Especially as a white, cis, hetero man, that mob was only going to have my back as long as I said certain things, and they were extremely, profoundly uninterested in listening to ways I might not be secure. If I wanted something concrete that would help with those second and third powers, I’ve learned that not only were they not really able to provide it, I should actually voice those concerns as far away from the mob as possible, lest they turn on me.
It’s not good for the right to be busily building parallel mobs, because angry mobs give you the first kind of power, they aren’t good at what I would consider the more crucial forms of power.
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Chris, I don’t really disagree with anything you said – especially in light of, ahem, current events.
Nevertheless, I do think you have one thing not quite right, which is that the prevalence of mob action on the left is much larger than it is on the right. Peter Progressive and Carl Conservative are not mirror images of each other.
For evidence, I can simply point to my left-wing friends, who fear left-wing mobs more than right-wing ones (and I, as a right-winger, don’t really fear right-wing mobs at all, I fear left-wing ones).
Admittedly, I and my friends are in a field (academia and tech, broadly speaking) where the left-wing power vastly outstrips the right-wing one. Perhaps if I were living in a small non-college town doing [blue-collar work], this would be different. Nevertheless, the Left does have something correct, which is an assessment of what fields determine the future of America. America follows academia’s lead, not the other way around – and hence the New Left’s mob power within academia is much more salient than the New Right’s mob power elsewhere.
Well, that was interesting. I agree with hnau about the… well… legibility issue. The topic is fascinating, your writing is fan, but when I try to understand if the larger-picture argument connects with the life I know, I can’t be quite sure if I didn’t get it or if there was nothing to get behind the clever turn of phrases.
I go with “didn’t get it” for now though, so go on 🙂
Another thing I found that bothers me is that I don’t think “authenticity” is the narcissism factory you describe it as. It surely enables a lot of narcissism, but in its root, authenticity is a moral value, not a nihilistic defense mechanism.
I take this insight from Charles Taylor. He criticizes both our modern notions of the self as atomistic snowflake and thinkers such as Lasch that think the source of this culture is emptiness. His argument is that although much of our culture exhibit ridiculous herds of ‘unique individuals’, this is not what authenticity supposed to look like. Its sources are: A. the notion that meaning in life is detached from the society and people you live with B. treating the actual people in your life only as an instrument for your passions.
b leads to your inability to hold meaningful conversation and form an actual meaning for your life, a prevent you from noticing, and behold! We get emptiness, narcissism and the other Malaise of Modernity. If we will understand the ways our atomistic individuality prevents us from forming actual meaning, we could do it by having conversations of meaning in relationship with meaning and really be authentic (this argument vaguely maps into the second version of the masquerade you presented in the previous essay, I’m not sure what I think about this similarity).
Now, Taylor doesn’t quite contradict Lasch, but he tries to put his argument in a better framework for having a conversation. If your society is SICK with narcissism, it invites outrage and isolation, if it doesn’t understand its own values, it invites conversation about values and meaning.
I think this distinction is important
I’m really starting to sour on authenticity, personally, although of course that’s a word with dozens of meanings and we all bring our own baggage to it.
“Atomistic” is an interesting word for this. I don’t know enough social history to say if people use it this way, but “atom” means “indivisible” and I think this links into authenticity. Our idea of the modern, authentic self seems to see it as being indivisible.
This makes communication alarming. People will use any dumbass thing you say on Twitter as a synechdoche for your entire personality, because, basically, you can’t be divided up; you have a sort of atomic personality that always has to be the same, whatever the context. In a situation like that, every communication becomes intensely fraught, because everything that you do becomes a way to judge your worth.
“Fake it until you make it” is also good advice, in lots of cases, but in a modern society that values “authenticity” it can also feel… well, immoral. Like, surprisingly intensely immoral. But at the same time we live in a society that highly values social prowess, the building of personal brands, and things like that, which means a withdrawn sense of confusion and uncertainty is often the exact last thing you want to project if you’re aiming to succeed.
This in turn leads to an intense bitterness. “I’m being as authentic as I possibly can be and I’m not succeeding. And all around me are phonies who are doing better than I am, the sons of bitches.”
To go even deeper, this can lead to advice that essentially says “Maybe success in that way just isn’t you. Maybe you should have different goals.”
Authenticity, I feel, can inhibit change.
Again, I agree that the process you, Lou and Lasch describe exist and is a problem. I disagree about the presume inevitability of its source – being authentic isn’t about social prowess, its about being yourself, or more precisely – finding meaning for\in your life and living them in the way that best suited for you. looking for power for its own sake is not what you do when you have meaning in life, its what you do when you have non, but want to look like you do. Success is better understood according to your values, not your values according to their usefulness in achieving power.
And so, the project Lou undertaken here is very important, but not because he shows you can’t be yourself, or that the very notion is harmful, but because he shows how our society is systematically interrupting and destroying the institutions that let us form meaning, and replace them with vague shadows of meaning supplied top-down from the state and\or the market.
In other words – don’t illegitimate widely held value because its not well understood. We need to revitalize it, not to treat it as a threat.