Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Eternal Present Tense of the Liberal Mind

Out of all the critiques that Neoreaction makes of modernity, one of the most compelling is the sheer lack of historical knowledge (let alone perspective) that most people today have. The modern world is incredibly left-wing over any perspective longer than about 50 years, but how many people even know that? Liberalism is an ideology that exists only in the eternal twilight of the present tense. The past, to the extent that it exists at all, is merely a collection of evil ignorant attitudes and actions occasionally brought up in order to emphasise the righteousness of modern attitudes (that is to say, the righteousness of our liberal interlocutor).

But as I pointed out here in the context of colonialism, the actual level of knowledge about these matters is usually sparse to the point of being nugatory. Figures in the past are never actual people who might have had serious reasons for their views, no matter how far outside today's Overton Window they sit. There is no examination of why they thought the things they did, other than that they were deluded or evil or both. And because the signalling spiral must continue, even yesterday's liberal heroes are currently at risk of being thrown under the bus for being insufficiently progressive. Witness, for instance, the portrayal of LBJ in the movie 'Selma' about Martin Luther King.

For the left, this process of only focusing on the present views and preoccupations has the useful effect (for liberalism) of keeping people from noticing just how recent many of these ideas are. Despite being ardent cultural relativists in theory, the left's devotion to the absolute humorless eradication of the world's -isms is fanatical. These are deadly serious issues, you understand, and it would be inconvenient to note that it's only very recently that anybody even bothered to notice them.

Don't believe me? Consider the following.

Listen to the song 'Bourgeois Blues'. It was written in 1937 by Lead Belly, aka Huddie William Ledbetter, an American Folk Singer. It chronicles some of the treatment that Lead Belly received when on a trip to Washington DC. It's a great song - personally I like the Pete Seeger version, but I've given you the original. Pay attention to the story, and how he chooses to describe it.

Listen here people, listen to me 
Don't try to buy no home down in Washington DC 
Cause it's a Bourgeois Town, 
Ooh, it's a Bourgeois Town. 
I got the Bourgeois Blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.
Me and my sweet wife Miss Martha,
We run all over that town 
Everywhere we go the people would turn us down 
Lord, in a bourgeois town 
Ooh, it's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around. 

Some white folks in Washington, 
They know just how 
Call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow. 
Lord, in a bourgeois town. 
It's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around. 
Me and my sweet wife Miss Martha, 
We were standing upstairs 
I heard a white man say we don't want no Negroes up there, 
He was a bourgeois man 
Living in a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.
The home of the brave, 
The land of the free, 
I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie, 
In a bourgeois town, 
Lord, it's a bourgeois town. 
I got the bourgeois blues, 
I'm gonna spread the news all around.

Okay, got it?

So what strikes you about the song? Not about the story - that's obvious. What seems out of place in how Lead Belly describes the mistreatment he receives?

I'll give you a hint - what is the one word that you would use to describe the actions of the people here?

It's obvious - the word is 'racist'.

Now go back and look at the lyrics again - the word 'racism' is (along with its derivations) conspicuously absent. It's possible that this is a rhetorical or lyrical choice, and maybe he just decided not to use it. But the rest of the song doesn't feel that way. Consider again - you have a white man who calls at a married black couple 'we don't want no Negroes up there' (in other versions of the song, the man uses the word 'nigger' instead, suggesting extra malice in the nature of the demand). Now, faced with such a man, think of the list of words you might use to describe him, starting with racist, then bigoted, then ignorant, then whatever synonyms you want. Would you have thought of him as a 'bourgeois man'? Would this have even made top 20? It's inconceivable.

So what the hell is going on here?

The first point, which is the more obvious one, is that as late as 1937, the word 'racist' simply did not exist in the popular lexicon. This mirrors the history of the word racism - some attribute the first use to Leon Trotsky in 1930, and the first use in English to Lawrence Dennis in 1936. What seems hard to refute is that in 1937, it had not filtered down to Lead Belly when he was describing a situation where it pretty clearly applied.

And as George Orwell noticed, language tends to shape thoughts. It's not only that the word didn't exist. The concept simply didn't exist as an organising principle with which to critique various actions and views. Lead Belly knows what he doesn't like about the behaviour, but doesn't have a clear way of describing it. The most deathly important social injustice in the modern world, the worst sin and stain on character possible in today's society, the most important concept ever, dates all the way back to... some time after 1937. It's not only that people tolerated racism. It's that people didn't even have a clear concept of racism as a thing to be condemned.

There are many fascinating aspects to this worth pondering. One might wonder how it was that millennia of humans managed to live and die without even noticing the most important crime one can ever commit. Seems odd, no? If modernity is right, and all of history is wrong, racism is the worst injustice one can commit, and is evident in everything from requiring voter ID to banks failing to issue home mortgages at the same rate for all neighbourhoods. So how come nobody even noticed until the middle of the 20th Century? Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer from today's progressives.

But the song actually does give us a partial answer. It's not just that Lead Belly doesn't describe the behavior as racist, it's that he describes it as 'bourgeois'. Google tells me this means 'of or characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to its perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes'.

What's going on, in other words, is that in 1937 the left was preoccupied with class, not race. 'Bourgeois' was an all-purpose slur for behaviour that the left disapproved of. Hence, it gets slung around in the same way when other words might be more appropriate.

These days, class is on wane as an organising principle of critique. The Cultural Marxists have displaced the Economic Marxists as the leaders of the left, and in the process 'materialism' and 'capitalism' have been shunted to the back of the '-ism' bus, elbowed out by racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia etc etc.

In 1937, the worst possible sin you could commit was to be a capitalist who was exploiting the poor. But times change. While being a capitalist exploiting the poor is still not ideal, in 2015 it pales into utter insignificance next to the currently unthinkable prospect of a hotel proprietor casually telling someone 'we don't want no Negros up there'.

Of course, if you think about this too long, you might begin to wonder whether in 2087, racism will have lost its place as the Worst Possible Thing Ever, and something else that today we don't even have a word for will have taken its place. This may also cause you to second guess whether the current emphasis is in fact misplaced.

Better to not think too much about it, you might end up too far down the rabbit hole, reading Moldbug and scorning modernity.


  1. Good article. You have insight here that most folks will never grasp because their grasp of history is so terribly limited.

  2. Good article. You have insight here that most folks will never grasp because their grasp of history is so terribly limited.

  3. And it worked, for many years. But now it's imploding. You say voting doesn't matter, that the two parties are effectively the same. You're correct: we have two parties that only care about property (though that wasn't always the case). But that system of ignoring economic reality and wooing voters with wedge issues has finally broken down. Elites had already picked out their preferred candidates who they knew could be relied on to serve their interests, with the liberal establishment firmly in the bag for Hillary and the GOP less united, but with a significant move to appoint Jeb Bush. Both of these moves have been severely upset, with Sanders getting record numbers of donations and high numbers in caucus states that Clinton assumed were sure-fire wins for her, despite a media hellbent on even talking about him as little as possible. And the right has vomited up Donald Trump, who has many, many problems (though given that he's a kind of proto-fascist with Know Nothing rhetoric straight out of about 1853, I'm surprised you don't like him) but who is having significant success tapping into a virulent anti-Wall Street undercurrent no other candidate will touch, and the only one who, and that includes pro-Israel Sanders, who has said anything to counter our foreign interventionist status quo. He's also completely destroyed Bush in the process.

    Speaking of imperialism, isn't it funny how despite this apparently being the 'age of democracy', as you claim elsewhere, the self-titled defender of freedom and human rights has spent the last decade and a half leaving a trail of corpses and broken countries in its wake? Also funny how the 'liberal' media won't talk about things like us breaking Libya in 2011 (creating a safe haven for thousands of ISIS militants in the process), attempting to destroy Syria by supporting terrorists (and encouraging and turning a blind eye to Gulf State support of those same terrorists), and virtually never even mentions the US backed Saudi war on Yemen, the blockade and bombardment of which is heading towards mass starvation on an epic scale. And that's just this decade, between 2001 and now we've caused the deaths of at least 400,000 Afghans and the better part of a million Iraqis. Not to mention having turned more people from at least 8 countries into fine red mist than died on 9/11. The majority civilians or "actually we don't know who they were". Oops.

    This isn't in fact the age of democracy. It's the age of optics and public relations propaganda. The people in charge are firmly anti-democratic. Maybe you don't remember the little incident in 2000 where (after voters were purged from the Florida voter rolls), the Supreme Court voted against recounting every vote, effectively appointing George W. Bush president. Ours is also the age of redistricting, a blatant attempt by both parties to manipulate the situation to their advantage at the expense of actually accurately reflecting the views of the people.