There has been an outbreak of realism recently.
I noticed it first in the postelection commentary. The normal thing is that following an election, the thumb-sucking commentariat carves up the result by interests: region, class, religion, the economy, liberal-conservative inclination, etc.
You can include me among the thumb-suckers. Here I was ruminating on the elections of 2008 (cultural Marxism, class warfare), 2004 (spending, SCOTUS, groveling to foreigners), 2000 (regulations, taxes, immigration).
This time around the commentary was wall-to-wall demography. The left was crowing about how women and minorities had come into their inheritance while white heterosexual males had been banished to the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Much more astonishing was the sight of light bulbs going on over the heads of conservative commentators. Bill O’Reilly announced on prime-time TV that “The white establishment is now the minority.” Mark Steyn said that “demographics is destiny.” Fred Barnes confessed that “the white vote is a Republican stronghold” and urged Republicans not to feel guilty about it. (I swear I won’t, Fred.)
All true: but what then of the notion that any number of persons, of any race or ethnicity, can be persuaded to any political position if the arguments are properly pitched? What of race being merely a “social construct” easily overcome by appeals to economic or social interest?
While I was still reeling from all this demographic reality, the Petraeus scandal broke. A lot of the commentary here was in old-style moralistic mode, but a surprising amount was inspired by cold modern intuitions from the human sciences—hypergamous woman seeking out high-status alpha male.
Paula Broadwell is reported to be “filled with guilt and shame for what she’s done.” One imagines her sitting at home wailing: “I don’t know what came over me.” Hey, Paula, here’s what came over you: B-I-O-L-O-G-Y.
Beneath the reportage, ancient truths could be glimpsed: the truth, for example, that if the human race were to be reduced to 99 males and one female, it would quickly go extinct, whereas if it were reduced to 99 females and one male, it would most likely survive.
To see how odd all this realism is, think back through time. Fifty years ago much of the commentary on these events would have been couched in the language of Marx and Freud—“historical dialectic,” “Oedipus complex,” and the rest. We now know that Marxism and Freudianism were elegant intellectual fantasies. (Leszek Kolakowski, who actually taught Marxism in the philosophy department of a major university in communist Poland—declared in 1976 that “Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century.”)
The currently dominant social fantasy in the Western world is the Blank Slate model of human nature: the dogma that, to quote once again my favorite enunciation of it, “given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.”
Homo sapiens may indeed be a tool-using animal, a political animal, and a reasoning animal; we are also a fantasizing animal. Most of our fantasizing is momentary and personal, but some of it is social. Entire nations and civilizations can be swept up in a common fantasy.
These social fantasies—religions and ideologies—appeal mightily to core features of human nature and have great social utility. It is a well-established fact, for example, that religious people are happier than irreligious ones.
However, the ability of individual humans to respond to that appeal follows a distribution rule, just like all other human abilities—musical, athletic, mathematical, etc. Out on the left, low-ability tail of that distribution are cynics and dissidents grumbling that the Fantasy Emperor has no clothes.
And social fantasies, like personal ones, must sooner or later meet reality. Society-wide, they are bound to come off worse from the encounter, though the fantasy will survive for a century or two among a dwindling rearguard of believers. It may be that the Great Egalitarian Fantasy of the present age is coming up against this nemesis and that the little outbreaks of truth I noted above are straws in the wind.
Speaking as one of those dissidents blessed, or cursed, with strong resistance to the appeal of social fantasies, this possibility cheers me. Yay, reality! Reflecting further, though, I wonder whether perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.
Larry Auster, blogging on the current fighting in Gaza, said this:
…at any other time in human history, if a country had faced what the Israelis face with the Palestinians…that country would long ago have either expelled them all or killed them all….
Charles Darwin (now I’m talking realism!), in his book The Descent of Man, said this:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.
Tacitus, in the Histories, writing of the fate of the Helvetii, said this:
Their country was given over to plunder and massacre. Flinging away their arms, they wandered miserably between two fires [i.e. Romans and Germans].…The German army, aided by the Raetians, pursued them through the woods, and cut them to pieces in their hiding-places.
John Derbyshire, in a recent Radio Derb, said this:
There’s a nonzero probability that we’ll lose a city or two to smuggled rogue nukes sooner or later.
If a mere election loss is a call to realism, however qualified and temporary (I’m not hopeful), what would an incinerated city be? If the Second Intifada woke Israeli liberals from their dogmatic slumbers and turned them into Netanyahu supporters, what might be the effect on American liberals of mass underclass rioting when the EBT card runs out? Are we sailing into a more Darwinian age?
It’s an interesting point for debate whether, taking history as a whole, the great social fantasies of religion and ideology have generated more misery than the icy realism of Imperial Rome or Bomber Command.
Temperamentally I’m for realism; but if, as commentary on current events suggests might be the case, the Great Egalitarian Fantasy has one foot in the grave, I find myself wondering whether I shall miss it when it’s gone.
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