Vavilovian Philosophical Mimicry

by John Holbo on December 3, 2019

It’s been months since I posted! I’ve migrated to twitter. (The flesh is weak – but feel free to follow me!)

I’m going to try to start doing the sane thing. Long posts at CT, like God’s infinite mind intended. Short thoughts on Twitter, like humanity’s mayfly attention span tolerates.

Today I propose a new term in political theory. Vavilovian philosophical mimicry!

It denotes a type of relation between ideal and non-ideal theories. It posits that the former evolves as protective concealment for the latter. [UPDATE: Sometimes. The claim that this is the ONLY possible relation between ideal and non-ideal theories is not plausible.]

To get where the term comes from, read the Wikipedia article. Weeds evolve, under selective pressure, to resemble crops. If you didn’t know that happens, you might deduce it, back of the envelope. (But now you know its name – you’re welcome.)

You might also think: congrats, Holbo, you’ve invented a new, longer word for ideology!

Maybe, but maybe there’s more. To fix ideas, an example. The famous Southern Strategy – Atwater’s infamous statement. Let’s be blunt: you are a racist neo-Confederate. You can’t sell that, as such. But you can emphasize parts of it that sound kinda sorta more libertarian.

Under Vavilovian pressure, white supremacy evolves, rhetorically, to outwardly resemble libertarianism – a philosophical crop plant – to ‘pass’ in environments in which outright expression of white supremacy would be weeded ruthlessly.

You may even get into a situation in which most outward expressions of libertarianism are, as it were, mere mimics. (Because the real deal is a delicate, seminar room varietal. Whereas Vavilovian fake strains are heartland rugged.)

So what thought does ‘Vavilovian’ allow me to express, about relations between ideal and non-ideal political philosophies, that I couldn’t get at with ‘propaganda’ or ‘bullshit’ or ‘spin’ or any of that? (Hell, if I like Russian, what’s wrong with ‘Potemkin’?)

Let me reference an old post, in which I tried (as always!) to defend our Corey from his mistaken critics.

Basically, the perennial knock on Robin on the reactionary mind is that his account is not ‘ideal’ enough. He is thus guilty of uncharity towards conservatives. But the proper defense, as I explain in that post, is that Robin’s theory is not just (moderately) realistic, as opposed to idealistic. But also more unified. Theoretical unity is, after all, an ‘ideal’ value. So Robin is doing ‘ideal theory’ but of a different sort.

We have all these philosophical things we may call politically ‘conservative’, at least in certain lights. Why call them all that, from Ayn Rand to Zarathustra, from Friedman’s “Free To Choose” to Scalia’s Catholicism? Burke, Kirk, Oakeshott, Nozick, Maistre? If you construct the ‘best’ each can be (most ingenious, most seminar room coherent, most intensely true to their ‘better’ angels, most tightly wound around their axiomatic mainsprings) they fly apart. The best version of Nietzsche won’t have anything to do with the best version of Antonin Scalia. But actual Nietzsche and actual Scalia? Those two have a bit more in common. There are plenty of possible Nietzsches and possible Scalias who have interesting things in common.

So, while it is fine to do ‘ideal’ theory by being as charitable as you can to Nietzsche, then Scalia, individually – retail; there is a different sort of ‘ideal’ theory, equally valid, that aims at outlining, as it were, the-best-Nietzsche-that-is-also-related-to-Scalia. The best coherent philosophical conservatism in the wholesale aggregate.

What Robin suggests to fit the bill is, basically, this (I quote this in the other post as well):

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, and agency the prerogative of the elite. Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom. (pp. 7-8)

I think this is basically right. If you read all the things we may call ‘conservative’, in a political philosophy sense, you see something of the sort in ALL of them. And there isn’t anything else we see in ALL of them. Hence this ‘theoretical voice’ is the unifying undertone. Ergo conservatism’s ‘ideal’ voice, in a sense.

To this I am adding: let’s posit, on top, more superficial, Vavilovian harmonics as well.

In a liberal democratic society – one based on egalitarian principles – animus against that is attacked as a kind of alien weed. So expressions of such animus will survive and thrive better if they mimic something that looks consistent with liberal democracy. So: the logic of philosophical conservatism is as follows. A variety of distinct, basically anti-liberal impulses come to resemble each other, philosophically – but superficially! – due to a selection process through which they individually learn to express themselves so as to ‘pass’ as liberal.

UPDATE: It occurs to me I sort of skipped a step here. This is ideal theory-related because – well, let’s take the white supremacy-libertarianism case again. You are proposing doing something that would keep African-Americans down. Why are you doing that? Because that’s what you want. But you can’t say that. But: you can plausibly pretend it’s a (merely temporarily uncomfortable) stage on the way to some sort of ideal libertarian night watchman end-state. The advantage of ideal theory is that it’s – well, not real. Yet. So it’s low commitment, in practical terms. Nominal commitment to some distant, ideally liberal end-state covers a variety of present, anti-liberal sins.

So philosophical conservatism should be theorized in terms of the following four factors:

1) an element of aristocratic anti-liberalism (animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.) Cf. Robin.

2) an element of Vavilovian, pseudo-liberal mimicry. Anti-liberalisms that survive in a liberal environment will tend to look like each other because they are all, as it were, trying to look enough like liberalism to not get weeded out as too anti-liberal. But these resemblances, because they are protective mimicry, are actually misleading. At least superficial.

3) considerable liberal democratic DNA. It’s rare to run into a real, dyed-in-the-wool Joseph de Maistre-type.

4) 2 may result in 3, over time, via ‘fake it until you make it’, if you see what I mean.

I would say more – about Trump – but I promised myself: keep it under 1000 words.

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Tyler 12.03.19 at 2:22 am

God I wish you guys (like ALL you blog-era guys from all the websites, but you specifically Holbo) would not do the getting sucked into twitter thing. Blogs-plus-RSS is all anyone ever asked for and you (all) personally are ruining everything.

2

John Holbo 12.03.19 at 2:27 am

It’s a fair cop. I resisted until this year. But, once you get there, – well, it’s a drug.

3

Tyler 12.03.19 at 2:31 am

You did hold out an admirably long time

4

Dr. Hilarius 12.03.19 at 2:43 am

I think Robin is correct in looking at the function of conservatism rather than its self-serving self description (in multiple guises). Conservatives differ on who exactly is part of the Elect and who is relegated to the Preterite but are unified in knowing they themselves are the Elect. Rules, like taxes, are for other people and other people’s pain is easy to bear.

Trump may be viewed as an experiment in reducing the strength of Vavilovian selection; no need to adopt protective mimicry, the wild type strain can flourish in its undiluted form.

5

Ebenezer Scrooge 12.03.19 at 2:46 am

It works outside political philosophy and practice, as well. Just think of all those Nurse Ratcheds inhabiting corporate HR departments who use the rhetoric of academic lefties a generation ago. Or for that matter, PR specialists.

6

Agnes Callard 12.03.19 at 2:50 am

I like that John is on Twitter please stay it’s much more fun with you.

7

John Holbo 12.03.19 at 2:52 am

“Trump may be viewed as an experiment in reducing the strength of Vavilovian selection; no need to adopt protective mimicry, the wild type strain can flourish in its undiluted form.”

Yep. I was going to say, more like: once the fake strains come to predominate over the real crops, the whole thing just goes to the weeds more and more.

“It works outside political philosophy and practice, as well.”

Yep. Absolutely. It’s a dynamic that is known under various names. It’s also known as ‘teaching to the test’, for example. Whatever benchmark of acceptability you set, unacceptable things will try to disguise themselves as things that pass it. In general, conservative rage against PC is a symptom of the struggle here.

8

Alan White 12.03.19 at 4:58 am

The Monarch is a fluttering-about orange creature whose actual poisonous nature is quite well-identifiable in its outrageous coloration; the Viceroy gets by only having evolved a mimicry scheme despite being non-poisonous. You not only have Trump and Pence there, but Pence seems particularly to have lots of party offspring.

My condolences on Twitter-addiction; our bits of time is the only real bitcoin that matters.

9

Murali 12.03.19 at 5:50 am

Nominal commitment to some distant, ideally liberal end-state covers a variety of present, anti-liberal sins

John, this cuts in all directions and is hence useless as an analytical tool. Pretty much anytime someone makes a tradeoff between liberty and equality in actual circumstances violates what looks to detractors like core liberal commitments. Consider minimum wage laws. The minimum wage is something that infringes people’s liberty. Certain contracts and agreements are taken off the table. People no longer have the option to take those contracts if they choose to. This is of course done to ultimately serve equality (I’ll grant for the sake of argument that it actually does enhance equality). We can describe it, on the one hand, as some tradeoff that liberal societies might choose to make. Or, we might describe it as one of the anti-liberal sins of people who have some distant liberal goal.

Your point 4 cuts against Robin’s thesis that conservatism is basically just people who covertly or overtly want to oppress their social inferiors. Insofar as 2 becomes 3 over time, conservatives who are more 3 are a) conservative and b) espousing an ideology which has considerable liberal democratic DNA and are therefore not just covertly people who want to oppress their social inferiors.

To assert that people who are 3 count in favour of Corey’s thesis seems to commit something like the genetic fallacy. The ugliness or pristine-ness of the origins of an ideology is irrelevant to whether it is currently good or bad.

10

nastywoman 12.03.19 at 6:02 am

so ”twitter”?

but nobody goes there anymore as it is too crowded?

11

Orange Watch 12.03.19 at 6:26 am

It feels like this analogy – while tempting because it’s a very appealing analogy in rhetorical terms – does not work on as a descriptive model unless we add so many degrees of abstraction on top of it so as to render it unwieldy or even useless. The fundamental problem is that it’s top-down rather than bottom-up – it’s framed as though ideologies have agency, and people who adopt them choose abstract but real things to believe. It’s not the case that non-egalitarian ideologies “living” in a liberal democracy will take on aspects of liberal democracy; it’s that the ideology’s adherents will accept some but not all of the ideology’s precepts, as well as some but not all of liberal democracy’s precepts – but unless we’re strictly talking about a coarse-grained analogy to convey a broad understanding of what’s happening, the contradictions between the two types of ideology are better understood as cognitive dissonance within the minds of however many agents adhere to the intersected ideals than as ideologies engaging in Vavilovian mimicry.

I suppose my question is whether you’re presenting this idea strictly as a neat analogy, or extending the analogy to model that can yield insights or offer some degree of predictive power WRT how such overlapping and/or contradictory ideologies will interact and behave.

12

Neville Morley 12.03.19 at 7:12 am

“Whatever benchmark of acceptability you set, unacceptable things will try to disguise themselves as things that pass it.”

Which also offers an interesting perspective on left-wing claims (in happier times) to have shifted the political discourse as right-wingers now have to argue on their turf; no, you’ve just produced much hardier cockroaches.

13

John Quiggin 12.03.19 at 7:23 am

I’m also struggling with the Twitter temptation. A snarky dialogue like this gets 1000 likes and 200 retweets, whereas a longform blog analysis is lucky to get 20 comments before the thread derails.

14

John Quiggin 12.03.19 at 7:29 am

As with the meme analogy, it’s intelligent design, or maybe Lamarck, not Darwin.

15

Adam Roberts 12.03.19 at 9:02 am

I like this idea. Indeed I think it goes back a long way. Imagine you’re an 18th-century Englisher. You like the fact that African slaves are bought and sold because it makes you rich. But you can’t say you approve of slavery as such, since being a moneymaking 18th-century Englisher requires a certain commitment to freedom (of trade, and therefore of person). And since the Somersett v Stewart lawsuit of 1772 (where the Judge, Lord Mansfield is supposed to have said ‘the air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe’, although my understanding is that the story is apochryphal) there are no slavery in Britain. But the triangular trade continues: slaves from Africa to the West Indes and America, tobacco, cotton and sugar from these plantations to Europe, rum and various goods from Europe to Africa. You’re getting richer. But, watch out, here comes William Wilberforce proposing parliamentary legislation to abolish the international slave trade. Now you don’t want to support this (what with the British political climate being so nervy about the French Revolution, increasing radicalism at home and slave revolts in the French West Indies, plus the thing you can’t say aloud, that slavery is making you richer) and the bill languishes unpassed despite several attempts to get it through the House. But then in 1792 Home Secretary Lord Melville proposes an amendment to the bill: ‘gradual abolition’ over an unspecified number of years. With this the bill is passed, and with a stonking majority (230 to 85 votes); but the point of the compromise is to ensure that actual abolition would be delayed indefinitely. You’ve passed a bill protecting the slave trade that looks, in Vavilovian style, like a bill abolishing slavery. Well done you.

I suppose the question is: does this always run one way? Is this weeds imitating crops, which is to say the loony right imitating moderate conservatism? Is there a left wing equivalent?

16

sebastian 12.03.19 at 10:06 am

Ehhh, this seems reductionist past even the point of caricature. Belief that you are part of an elect group that needs to rule society applies to various Marxists(Lenin and beyond for instance). While certainly Nietzsche and Scalia might agree on some things are those really the factors that define either? Would either of them actually agree that those were their core ideas?

The most that could be said about Nietzsche was that he was split-personality: on the one hand rejecting societal values to the point of nihilism while also celebrating Great Men – though never quite defining what made them Great. Historical impact invariably implies a whole bunch of people paid attention to you and changed their actions because of you. That has too much of a crown from the gutter feel to it for Nietzsche to address it honestly.

If you ignore Nietzsche’s revolutionary nihilism… do you even get a reactionary? He wasn’t pro-religion. He wasn’t pro prussian constitutionalism or pro absolutism. He hated the rich. His one consistent thought was that the future needs to be different from the present.

Is Burke a good example of a modern conservative? His strongest argument can be summed up as basically: don’t break contracts. If he lived today he’d be defending welfare states against neoliberal fiscal reactionaries – after all society has grown up around the welfare state for generations.

That being said I like the idea that taboos influence discourse. All societies have certain dogmas that may not be denied and (most) public intellectuals seem to contort themselves around those.

Similar effects: eastern bloc intellectuals paying lip service to various soviet doctrines, enlightenment era thinkers finding a way to fluff up their royal patrons, modern public intellectuals making sure to point out that capitalism and liberal democracy are the best systems possible despite whatever horrible imperfections their work points out.

17

nastywoman 12.03.19 at 10:11 am

– or as twitter – still – feels far too… involved –
can’t we have ”something” where it is allowed to use just one word?

”Stoked”?

18

casmilus 12.03.19 at 10:14 am

Example: anti-Islamic people who pose as concerned about gay rights etc.

I think “classical liberal” is now the preferred codeword amongst UK right-wingers. It means something like “wished Enoch had said it in Latin”.

19

reason 12.03.19 at 10:32 am

JQ @12
Yes, but you surely would be absolutely the first to insist that quality is more important than quantity.=) Wouldn’t you?

20

reason 12.03.19 at 10:34 am

Me @13,
But when I look more closely the difference is that he is counting likes (not even possible here) and not responses which I come to the blog. I want to interact with the professor, not worship him.

21

Mike Huben 12.03.19 at 12:26 pm

Murali @ 9:
There is no tradeoff between liberty and equality because every liberty is a tradeoff with other liberties. The classic conflict would be between my liberty to swing my fist into your nose, and your liberty to keep your nose intact. The exercise of one liberty conflicts with the other. Liberty tradeoffs are unavoidable before introducing the idea of equality. A number of scholars have noted that interpersonal liberties are zero sum.

If we prefer some liberties because we value them more highly (say keeping your nose intact or in favor of equality), we are simply choosing one side of a liberty tradeoff: there is no objective way to say we have more or less liberty. Only that we value these liberties more.

22

Z 12.03.19 at 12:56 pm

I don’t buy it. I think you got yourself seduced by Vavilov but forgot about Müller.

Under Vavilovian pressure, white supremacy evolves, rhetorically, to outwardly resemble libertarianism […] to ‘pass’ in environments in which outright expression of white supremacy would be weeded ruthlessly. You may even get into a situation in which most outward expressions of libertarianism are, as it were, mere mimics.

The first sentence presupposes that there is strong selective pressure against white supremacy (the weed), though it tellingly never identifies who supposedly carries this strong pressure. The second sentence is incompatible with this hypothesis. If your garden is full of weeds that are undistinguishable from crops and there are reasons to suspect that a majority of them are weeds, you get rid of everything and change crop. If you notice that an awful number of libertarian are also racists, if you have reasons to suspect that a possible majority of them are racist, and if you dislike racism, then you reject libertarianism. Conversely, it is only because there are many voters who are actually in favor of white supremacy that the Southern strategy makes sense. White supremacy can pass as libertarianism only because white supremacy is in fact not rejected by everyone (in the US) and is actually a viable political strategy, albeit a rather fringe one, just like libertarianism is a viable political strategy, so that there is some advantage for both movements to appear more like each other (racist will have a closer look at libertarian arguments, and vice versa).

This means that the situation you describe is actually much closer not to Vavilovian mimicry, but to good old Müllerian mimicry. Müllerian mimicry, named after Fritz Müller, the Prussian biologist who never obtained his doctorate because he refused to pledge his allegiance to a deity, is the selective pressure towards convergence of warning signs between toxic species living in the same habitat. Read about it on Wikipedia if you want.

The analysis appears to me to hold much better: two groups which are subjected to a common interaction with the environment (signaling toxicity to their common predators in biology, attracting voters within a common pool in the analogy) have both an interest in resembling each other. In particular, the Müllerian analogy, by its very logic, introduces the strongest conclusion that it is only when a political ideology may appeal to a common pool of voters that mimicry ensues. Only in that case is there a selective advantage. This, for instance, explains why racist parties in France and the US have an opposite relations to libertarian and social justice arguments (in France, they imitate the latter and reject the former; in the US vice-versa): historical and social contingencies have united the pool of libertarian-curious and racist-curious voters in the US, disjointed them in France (and vice-versa for social justice). It also suggests that the reason why Bernie’s or AOC’s style of socialism is emphatically not trying to pass as usual Democratic center-left liberalism is that it does not appeal at all to the same pool of voters. Perhaps that is a truism. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the fact it is a truth, let alone a truism, is recognized in common media discourse.

One of Müller most striking findings, perhaps only accessible through a rigorous mathematical analysis of which I believe Müller’s original paper is the first example in evolutionary biology, is that in the situation where two species ressemble themselves, the rarest species profit significantly more than the most common one (in inverse proportions of the square of their respective frequency, in Müller’s original model).

Whether this holds in the case under discussion and subsequent implications on current American politics can be left as an exercise to the interested reader (a back of the envelope calculation which I carried on the literal back of an actual envelope suggests potential electoral growth for the most unpopular party linear in the ratio of the most popular party over the least popular one).

23

Z 12.03.19 at 1:01 pm

As for Twitter, I fear it is inevitable that thoughts expressed in tweets at least somewhat devolve into tweets. In the long run, that can’t be good.

24

alfredlordbleep 12.03.19 at 2:18 pm

“Philosophy and Persiflage”
(I like that even minus alliteration)

25

M Caswell 12.03.19 at 2:47 pm

Isn’t white supremacy itself mostly a scam? It often masks an even more unpopular libertarianism, I’d say.

26

Jonathan Goldberg 12.03.19 at 3:30 pm

The Mont Pelerin Society institutionalized this.

27

Stephen 12.03.19 at 4:29 pm

JH: you quote the eloquent Corey Robin as saying “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity”.

In which there is a fair amount of truth; but surely, this animus is not restricted to people who would ever classify themselves as conservatives, or could reasonably be regarded as being so. If you follow the interminable argument about Brexit in the webpages of the Guardian, you will find no end of declarations by Remainers that most or all of those who voted Leave are stupid, ignorant, uneducated, and are therefore not fit to be trusted with a vote; so the result of the referendum should be disregarded. There is an echo of this in Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of those who did not support he as “a basket of deplorables”. And of course, there was Lenin’s theory of the Communist Party as the vanguard who knew what was best for the unenlightened peasants and proletarians, better than they knew themselves.

I can see how one might make an argument that HC is a conservative, though I prefer to think of her as a convinced, utterly committed Hillarist. Polly Toynbee and Lenin, though, surely not.

28

bianca steele 12.03.19 at 4:53 pm

The question seems to be whether thought and self-government are intrinsically related or not. If they are, then conservative use of reason seemingly has to be a theft from liberalism. If conservatism or aristocracy incorporated reason into itself but refused to act on it, or refused to allow non-aristocrats to act on it, or otherwise neutralized reason in some way, liberalism is just the determination to unite them.

The best defense of conservatism/reaction at the present time seems to be the demand that a liberal challenger must master the details that separate Scalia and Nietzsche before she may be allowed to proceed. A machine for turning reason into Vavilovian weeds, combined with a defense like that, can probably stand a long time, and entertain a good number of people contemplating the variety of weeds. Robin’s book seems to me to shift the discussion out of that entertaining infinite loop.

Regarding your point #3, if you are a visible non-white-Christian-male on the Internet, and possibly even in more mundane locations, you will certainly encounter individuals who are willing to refuse to deny being Joseph de Maistre types, however ironically.

29

Anarcissie 12.03.19 at 5:28 pm

Twitter is bad, but it is not totally bad. It is useful as a sewer. If you’re old enough to remember back to Usenet days (if not, it was and is a kind of universal worldwide blog or forum) you will recall the numerous people whose aim in life was to get off stunning one-liners, usually of a hostile or trollish nature. Consult the lower realms of television as its cultural matrix. These messages would infest every discursive space on the Net if it were not for Twitter, which attracts the kind of people who like that kind of thing to a place where they can interact with each other endlessly, thus leaving other venues, thank Dog, alone. Of course, small-form texts don’t have to be bad, but in the case of Twitter, the mobbing effect seems to drive everything good out, except maybe cute cat pictures. I recommend avoiding it if possible.

30

Ogden Wernstrom 12.03.19 at 7:10 pm

Less than 24 hours after I first read the Atwater quote (from a link on Talk Left, not Twitt’r), Holbo refers to it on CT. I think Holbo’s explanation covers how the dog-whistle terms evolve into something that has plausible deniability. Until yesterday, I did not understand that even “tax cuts” had become a dog-whistle term 38 years ago. Yesterday, I read Atwater’s explanation, including:

You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

I do not see any arguments that Atwater’s admission does not apply. It appears to me that Holbo’s detractors are attacking the analogy or bathing in bothsiderism.

Let’s not let the analysis of the analogy lead us to suggest selective herbicides, please.

31

PatinIowa 12.03.19 at 7:16 pm

Stephen at 26

I’ve always taken HC at her word (in 2016), “I feel like my political beliefs are rooted in the conservatism that I was raised with.”

For me, the moment when Corey’s analysis best fits her is here stint on the WalMart Board, where, according to the accounts I’ve read, she advocated for the presence of more women in the executive suites, but said nothing or next to nothing about the union busting.

In any case, nobody’s any one thing all the time. I know professors, for example, who identify as very left wing who run their classrooms as if they were the sole authority and final arbiter. This is especially true when the commitment or opposition to the current hierarchy becomes reflexive.

32

Orange Watch 12.03.19 at 7:40 pm

Anarcissie@28:

That’s an excellent observation. If we include Reddit in our plumbing, I’d argue that we’ve channeled all of the most noxious forms of what once comprised Usenet trolling into designated pools. The downside of this is, ofc, that like sewers, when these spaces flood out from their confines, the areas that formerly knew how to clean up far less concentrated and distilled versions of their awfulness will no longer be in practice at doing so.

33

John Holbo 12.03.19 at 10:48 pm

“If you notice that an awful number of libertarian are also racists, if you have reasons to suspect that a possible majority of them are racist, and if you dislike racism, then you reject libertarianism.”

This has actually happened, to the annoyance (and semi-incomprehension) of the libertarians, who felt like they were just getting popular!

Overall, some thoughtful push-back here, thanks for that. The biggest problem with the analogy is, as some of you say (and I trust all of you see): ideas are not, literally, philosophical DNA. The way DNA works is highly particular and you want to be careful analogizing that. For example, a weed that looks like wheat is never going to ‘grow into’ wheat. But a racist like Atwater, selling it as economics, might actually grow into a libertarian. He might actually cease to be a racist. It’s not just possible, it’s surely happened.

The thing my hypothesis answers, which supplements Robin, I think: why do all these things seem similar? Why do we call them all ‘conservatism’? The answer is 1) they are all anti-liberal in a hierarchical sense. That’s Robin. 2) they are making their way in a broadly liberal environment. The more liberal strains are surviving. Also, the strains that, although they are not liberal, can (falsely) seem liberal, are surviving.

34

Jake Gibson 12.03.19 at 11:17 pm

For many on the right, if not universal, liberty is zero sum.

35

HK Resident 12.04.19 at 2:33 am

If derailing of threads after 20 comments is the problem, aren’t there some obvious solutions? (Speaking here as a guilty participant in the derailing of Henry’s recent thread on AI…)

– Update the comments policy to state that all comments should refer back to the top post. Enforce the rule.

– Start new top posts more frequently. Accept requests. Include open threads on topics relevant to CT’s core themes but about which none of the CT crew feel qualified or energetic enough to write a long-form post about. (We might have enjoyed better quality discussion on the HK protests on an open thread initiated by one of the CT crew, rather than arising incidentally in the comment section.)

– Alternatively, implement threading in the comments. Allow the derailers to go off on tracks of their own without clogging up the main line.

36

One of Many 12.04.19 at 12:29 pm

Not necessarily a criticism, but isn’t this analysis a close cousin of “objectively fascist”?
Then, the analysis was “ostensibly revolutionary but de facto reactionary”. Here we have
“ostensibly liberal but actually reactionary”. Often definitely useful: “ostensibly leftist but de facto Trumpist”. It’s one of those analytic moves that’s sometimes justified but requires phronesis to apply – the trick is to be just reductive enough. Pursuing the method to its ‘logical conclusion’ smears out too much detail.

37

SusanC 12.04.19 at 2:14 pm

I am possibly guilty of this when I argue that the Last Judgment has already happened, in the manner of Philip K Dick.

What I’m actually thinking: Christianity is nonsense, but saying that is outside the terms of tbe debate. On the other hand Philip K Dick novels are cool, even if he was crazy. So….

[One time, I was recovering from having dental work done under local anasthetic, and was feeling somewhat disappointed that it was nowhere near as cool as PKD’s experience with sodium pentathol. Maybe I had not done nearly enough drugs for Christianity to start making sense ]

38

Chetan Murthy 12.04.19 at 9:30 pm

Murali@9:

Consider minimum wage laws. The minimum wage is something that infringes people’s liberty.

I know it’ll come a shock to you, but people will do almost anything — I mean, they’ll sell themselves for sex, sell their organs, whatever — to ensure their children can eat and be clothed and sheltered. Think about it, and think about the notion of “liberty” that equates the “liberty” of a poor person to take a low-paying job, with that of a rich person to offer that job.

Really, I’m not gonna even bother to respond to this statement, b/c the libertarian notion of liberty being espoused here is so *noxious* that it disgraces itself.

One can be a libertarian and not be an indecent human being. Try it sometime.

39

Chetan Murthy 12.05.19 at 2:14 am

Oh, hm, another example from an unexpected direction maybe?

[First, I fully understand that most gay people want long-lasting relationships, too. My first openly gay friend told me as much back in the 80s. So the following isn’t in any way a judgment of gay people.]

I remember reading that the LGBT community decided to start pushing for gay marriage specifically as a way of showing that side of their identity to the ostensibly family-values folks who were anti-gay -because- of the ostensibly wanton lifestyle.[1] From what I read, the pitch was pretty overt. And maybe it worked. Myself, I believe that shows like The L Word and Will & Grace, combined with more gay people coming out (because of those shows, maybe) had a lot more to do with it — I mean, when you realize that your friend is gay, and they haven’t changed any, that’s gotta change how you view gay people ….

But whatever: seems like Vavilovian mimickry, but from the progressive side this time.

[1] And it must be mentioned that many of those “family values” types never really thoght it was about the lifestyle: they opposed gay marriage tooth-and-nail. For them, it was about the *ick factor*, and always has been about the *ick factor*. They were just ashamed to admit it in polite company.

40

Another Nick 12.05.19 at 3:11 am

sebastien: “Is Burke a good example of a modern conservative? His strongest argument can be summed up as basically: don’t break contracts. If he lived today he’d be defending welfare states against neoliberal fiscal reactionaries – after all society has grown up around the welfare state for generations.”

Mere generations wouldn’t have meant much to Burke. He would still argue ‘the laws of commerce are the laws of nature and consequently the Laws of God’. It was the almighty who made the poor poor, and who are we to question his Divine Withholding of Providence? The welfare state breaks the original contract.

A minimum wage? As Burke argued, every fool knows what happens when you give the poor more than they deserve.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_You_Give_a_Mouse_a_Cookie

41

ozajh 12.05.19 at 9:02 am

Chetan @39,

I remember reading that the LGBT community decided to start pushing for gay marriage specifically as a way of showing that side of their identity to the ostensibly family-values folks who were anti-gay -because- of the ostensibly wanton lifestyle.
. . .
And it must be mentioned that many of those “family values” types never really thought it was about the lifestyle: they opposed gay marriage tooth-and-nail.

There was also the issue that married couples are legally advantaged in several ways over non-married couples, regardless of sex as the battles over the rights of de-facto partners demonstrated. This was certainly advanced by some of the gay-marriage advocates here in Australia.

So: the word “marriage” carries both a legal and a religious significance for many people, and I think some (obviously not all, given the emotions involved) of the heat could have been taken out of the debate if another term could have been found for the legal effect.

I know my own (now very elderly) mother passionately opposes “gay marriage”, but when I asked her whether she thought LBGT couples should be able to form a union with the legal rights and obligations of marriage her answer was “of course; this would be a good thing”. For her, it’s the word “marriage” that is the trigger.

42

SusanC 12.05.19 at 1:03 pm

@39. As a very tentative theory, I’d suggest the AIDS/HIV epidemic as the major causative factor in LGBT politics, rather than a desire for mainstream political acceptability.

E.g. Promiscuity because an unattrative option for rational reasons apart from mainstream social censure, and gay marriage etc. became what people really wanted, rather than a cover for a more radical agenda.

On the other hand: possibly a valid example, as exponents of a more radical agenda certainly exist

43

PatinIowa 12.06.19 at 12:34 am

One of the ways the plague had an impact was the spectacle of hospitals turning away the significant others and friends of young gay men on their deathbeds, in incredible pain, as their “legal” families imposed their bigotry and the healthcare system threw up its hands.

At that point, it became apparent that there had to be a legal/institutional fix, because the family and Christianity couldn’t be trusted to treat people with compassion.

As a nation, we toyed with the idea of an alternative, and I’d guess that’s where the respectability approach took hold to make it full marriage.

I’m 66. I’m delighted that my gay friends are able to take care of their spouses as we age. The cost was too high.

44

Raskos 12.07.19 at 1:07 am

An interesting idea, but one must of course be ready for the rise of a Lysenkoist predator and subsequent exile to, and death by starvation in, a distant work camp in some Siberia equivalent.

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