Elite Cosmopolitanism

Tweet from Anand Giridharadas @AnandWrites Dec 27

Dear @realDonaldTrump,

I’m at a Muslim wedding in a Christian church in NYC, and everyone is dancing to salsa.

America already is great.

That scene may not appeal to everyone: @ClareYChen calls it “a shallow multicultural hellhole where the traditions of different peoples can become reduced to mere window dressing”. But to argue against Girdharadas on aesthetic grounds is missing the point. It gives the impression of conceding the implication that the majority of Syrian refugees currently being bused into middle America will likewise be holding salsa-dancing weddings with friends of multiple races and religions; a proposition which could mildly be described as far-fetched. (Not that there necessarily aren’t Syrian refugees that would do that, but, inevitably, those that do will end up in New York City or somewhere similar, while the rest of the country will get the rest).

It is normal for elites to be cosmopolitan. Aristocrats married foreigners, collected curiosities from abroad, adopted (playfully or otherwise) ritual and dress of strange religions. (Some, alternatively, studied and promoted their native culture, but that took the form of treating local traditions and folklore in the same way that others approached the exotic).

That normal elite cosmopolitanism may be good or bad—that’s an interesting discussion for another day—but either way the elites in the past did not impose their exotica on the common people. George IV built the Royal Pavilion, but he did not import thousands of Indians from Madras to live in Brighton. Christian VII of Denmark commissioned translations of Persian histories, but did not expect his subjects to go to mosques.

Today’s elites, unlike those of any previous era, do not even see themselves as elite. They think that everyone is equal, that everybody else should be like them, and assume without hesitation that everyone else could be like them. That produces a disconnection with reality that could become the stuff of legend. The peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake! Flyover people don’t want Syrian refugees? Let them dance salsa with them! The apocryphal French princess was probably less out-of-touch.

The interesting question, beyond the immediate concerns, is whether it is even theoretically possible for a whole society to live in the cosmopolitan elite style. If it is only a matter of material wealth or intellectual development, then there is no reason why we couldn’t one day all live in multicultural fairyland.

I’m not sure, but the most plausible explanation of why elite culture can only be elite culture is that there has to be a threat of expulsion. If elite culture is universal culture, then there is no way to get rid of unpleasant people; there is nowhere for them to go. I emphasised originally that the NYC culture of Anand Giridharas is a “selected” subculture, but the most important aspect of selection is not the positive filter of who comes into it, but the negative one of who is not ejected from it. The culture of the rural town or the inner city is not an elite culture and cannot be an elite culture, because it is not possible to drive those that do not fit out of it. In those bottom cultures, it is necessary to manage to live alongside those that the elite would exclude, and that involves a range of behaviours to avoid outsiders in ones activities and to reinforce one’s own status as an acceptable insider who should not be avoided in turn.

Soft Power

On the question of Islamic terrorism in the West, the narrative of the right has been that letting in large numbers of immigrants from Islamic countries is dangerous. The narrative of the left has been that the terrorism is a result of the West’s invasions and destabilising of the Islamic world.

Very few people seem to have noticed that there is no contradiction between the two narratives.  They can both be correct, and in my opinion they probably both are.

I do have one issue with the “left” narrative however; not that I disagree with it, but I think it carries with it some associations that are interestingly wrong.

The associated idea is that sending in armies, special forces, cruise missiles and drones to other countries is particularly likely to stir up violent response in your own country, as if by some kind of justice or karma.

That is, on its face, quite a plausible thing to believe, which is why it gets carried around as the mostly-unspoken associate of the concrete argument that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in Islamic terrorism in America and Europe.

The problem with the idea, plausible as it is, is that it leads to the conclusion that aggressive military interventions are particularly dangerous, and that it is preferable to act in a more restrained way, using “soft power” to achieve foreign policy objectives by encouraging or giving aid to sympathetic factions. (I think the original meaning of “soft power” was a bit more subtle than the heavy-handed but non-kinetic activities I am talking about, but I don’t have a better term).

That sounds plausible too, but the history of the last few decades seems to me to demonstrate the opposite.  Way back in 2003 I argued that the major error that led to the necessity (or near-necessity) of invading Iraq was not the 1991 invasion, but the actions taken after the 1991 invasion to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein via “soft power” and the Kurds.

In a similar way, while the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did much to stir up terrorism in the West, they are not the biggest cause. Much more damage has been done by the “Arab Spring”, the attempt by the West to replace dictatorships with democracies through propaganda and funding for activists, with only a tiny little bit of bombing in an extreme case.

My view is that these kind of soft power interventions are particularly dangerous. Of course, there is the chance that they will be totally ineffective, which would be OK, but that possibility itself lends a reckless attitude to the decision-makers behind the interventions. When starting a war, even twenty-first century politicians make some small effort to anticipate consequences and problems. When intervening without military force, image and sentiment take over entirely, and no attempt at all is made to predict what the concrete consequences are likely to be, even when it is very easy to do so.

As I argued in 2003, I’d rather see military action, thought through and taken seriously, than the kind of gesture politics behind the Arab Spring, or, for that matter, the Ukrainian coup.

Birth of a Religion

The most pertinent objection from outsiders to anyone advocating neoreactionary, formalist beliefs is that, historically, single-person rule as a mechanism for overcoming politics and discord has been tried, and failed.

I have explained previously why it is it failed: it was too successful too quickly. When European monarchs used the power of written communication and efficient transport to eliminate their traditional rivals for power—barons, abbeys and guilds—the result was an almost immediate flowering of wealth, technology, culture and philosophy. That flowering empowered other groups to step into the shoes of the displaced medieval trouble-makers.

The first lesson, then for future formalist rulers, is to be less easy-going and tolerant of opposition than predecessors such as Louis XIV or Charles I. Getting rid of the old mess does not buy you very much time at all if you permit the concept of shared power to survive.

But even with that knowledge, accidents happen. Formalism does not promise a Utopia of endless peace and prosperity. A new trick, like cryptographic weapon-locks, might work for a few decades, but contexts inevitably change and new threats arise. Some of them will be successfully resisted, and some will not. Two centuries of peace and prosperity would be a great achievement of any system. Of course, absolute monarchy in Western Europe did not manage anything close to that.

The real tragedy of modernity is not that the absolutism failed. It was likely to fail sooner or later, and it is a shame that it did not last longer, but not a tragedy. The tragedy is that in the process, the clumsy and ad-hoc propaganda of its opponents got enshrined as holy writ. And while systems of government almost inevitably fail, and yet can be restored, that was not inevitable, but a terrible fluke.

When new religions are born, the details of their doctrine are massively unpredictable. Of course, Gnon filters religions for viability, but that is dictated by a few macro-features, leaving enormous scope for random features to be picked up and carried on in the religion’s germ line.  Looking at something like Mormonism or Baha’ism, you are struck by the sheer weirdness of what is included, usually just because it was one guy’s pet idea.

The burst of cultural exuberance triggered by the arrival of effective absolutist government produced a new religion with some pretty random beliefs about the nature of Man. That religion became entrenched, as successful religions do, and the history of the last two centuries has been the history of its random doctrines being gradually applied by its culturally dominant devotees, starting with the most realistic and practical, and by now concentrating on those that are left, the most bizarre and indefensible, such as the total malleability of human nature.

That is the problem with modernity. Yes, we have bad systems of government, but that is something that happens from time to time, and can be fixed. Yet for us it is not being fixed, because along with the bad systems of government we picked up something far more damaging and harder to cure: a bad religion.