In Soviet Russia, Pravda punches you
I once asked a coworker who had grown up in the Soviet Union "What was the most surprising thing about coming to the West?" I was assuming it was going to be something physical and mundane: the shape of traffic lights, or the fact that you can't find Vodka for sale in bus stops – something like that.
His answer, though, made me realize that I'd accidentally asked a really interesting question. "Growing up under communism, things didn't make perfect sense. Facts didn't quite fit together. But because everything – schools, newspapers, radio – was all from the same people, you never knew what was wrong…but you could tell that something wasn't right. It was like boxing while you're blind folded. You keep getting hit in the face, but you don't know why. Only after I got out did I see how the real world really was, and how everything we'd been told was lies and distortions." (Quote is from memory ten years later)
There's an aphorism that "fish don't know that they're in water." While googling up the phrase to make sure I had it exactly, I learned that Derek Sivers has made exactly the point I wanted to make next, and made it well, so I'll let him speak:
Fish don't know they're in water.
If you tried to explain it, they'd say, "Water? What's water?"
They're so surrounded by it, that it's impossible to see.
They can't see it until they get outside of it.
This is how I feel about culture.
We're so surrounded by people who think like us, that it's impossible to see that what we think are universal truths are just our local culture.
We can't see it until we get outside of it.
I was born in California and grew up with what I felt was a normal
upbringing with normal values.
My Russian friend was a fish, and it wasn't until he got out of the water that he could look down and exclaim "Holy shit! That is why I felt so wet all the time!"
Well, lucky us – we live in the West where the schools, the media, and the government aren't all held captive by one totalitarian ideology, so we get a diversity of viewpoints and can see how things really work.
I'm joking, of course.
(I thought briefly about putting an image of Bush, Clinton, Carter and Obama all sharing a laugh here to illustrate the humor, but I don't want to belabor the point. And also because picking 21st century presidents gets the timing wrong by about 500 years.)
There's a war going on out there that you people know nothing about
If you don't know any history, you're like the Ani DiFranco's goldfish, surprised afresh each time the plastic castle comes into view.
The Democratic push for Obamacare, and the Republican push against it, is a one-off event.
The truth is, Obamacare is just a small battle – alongside gay marriage laws, campus speech codes, anti-"Brogrammer" fatwahs, and more – in a long running culture war.
If you know a little history, you might see some of this, and think that today's culture battles are part of a tradition that goes back to FDR (who, by the way, tried to push RooseveltCare in 1935, before the American Medical Association scuttled it).
If you know a bit more history, you might see that this culture war stems from North Eastern progressive tradition dating back to the US Civil War.
The truth is that our culture war does date to the Civil War. Just not the US Civil War in 1861. It's the English Civil War in 1640s I'm talking about.
A way too brief history of the English Civil Wars
First of all, I'm not an expert in this area. Second of all, even if I were, a few paragraphs is way too short to do the subject justice.
That said: for most of the second millennium England was split into three groups: the King, the upper middle classes (who thought that they should rule), and the lumpenproletariat.
The division of labor was this:
The king made the laws.
The upper middle classes believe in progress. Specifically, progress to a world where they got to make the laws.
And the peasants? The peasants might prefer that no one taxed them or made laws for them, but they stuck to hoeing and shit shoveling, if they knew what was good for them.
Around 1200 AD the first two groups hammered out a temporary truce, the Magna Carta. One detail of note is that King could not collect new taxes with out the approval of Parliament. (huh! What a coincidence – the US Constitution written almost eight centuries later has something similar. It's almost as if institutions and culture wars echo down the centuries!).
Four hundred years later, in the early 1600s, the King wanted more revenue but didn't want to convene Parliament to pass new taxes (quick note: wouldn't it be wonderful if Obama had all the power he needed?), because if he did convene them, who knew what mischief they'd get up to? ("No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.")
…and mischief he got. The progressives – wait, excuse me, I'm jumping ahead – the Parliamentarians soon presented a bill to the king, asking him to kill his friend and advisor Thomas Wentworth. They were motivated by several reasons, one being that Wentworth was too soft on hate speech and racism. Oops. I'm jumping again. Anyway, the attack on Wentworth was two-fold: First, like the King, he was soft on the thought-crime of his day, Roman Catholicism (which held to the dastardly belief that there was an authority beyond that of the government). Second, and this seems to be trumped up propaganda, the blue state parliamentarians worried that Wentworth was getting his the backbone of his military – the Scots Irish soldiers stationed in the north – ready to attack and overthrow the parliamentarians.
Long story short, the Parliamentarians wanted Wentworth dead. And, for that matter, killing the king wouldn't be a bad idea either: one clean spasm that would overthrow the old order, create a Year Zero, and make progress into a new promised land where the Right People got to dictate national policy with out icky old hold overs of class privilege.
…and that's how the
blue states Parliamentarians started a civil war against the red states royal forces.
How did the war end?
It didn't. We're still fighting it. And that, my friends, is the hidden thesis statement of this entire rant.
One of the best books I read in the last decade was Albion's Seed. It was a hand that scooped me up out of the 21st century and let me look at the water.
The core point that David Hackett Fisher makes in his book is that English emigration to the Eastern seaboard of North America was not homogeneous: it was heterogeneous, and cultural groups persisted. Strongly.
Compare this emigration map with the English Civil war map earlier. What do you see?
- East Anglians, the core of the Parliamentarian (blue, progressive) army, moved to Massachusetts (and promptly formed Harvard University in 1636…right during the era of Personal Rule before the Short Parliament )
- Midlanders with out strong political opinions moved to the (US Midlantic states, which today generate mild democrats and Christie RINOs)
- Minor nobility from the royal families (red, conservative) moved to Virginia (although it took them a bit longer to establish VMI)
- The Scots Irish armies loyal to the nobility (remember? The ones that the Parliamentarians were so worried that Wentworth was stirring up?) moved to the American South (although the minor royalty, being minor royalty, was used to eating high on the hog: they took the best farmland and gave the Scots Irish the scraps: crappy hill land and "hollas".
The American Revolution
The American Revolution was, arguably, not one secessionist movement, but two of them, starting for different reasons, and running in parallel.
If we look at the text of the Declaration of Independence , we see two different types of complaints about the English government. The document is, quite frankly, schizophrenic, complaining simultaneously that the dish of the king's governance had both too much salt and too little.
On the one hand, the king meddled in the freedoms of the common people by having too many laws and too much taxation (you can find all of these complaints in any Republican party platform of the last fifty years):
- "He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. "
- "For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent"
- "For abolishing the free System of English Laws"
- "He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death" (black helicopters! NAFTA highway!)
Yet on the other hand, the king meddled – not in the freedoms of the common people – but in the freedoms of the Harvard elites to rule the common people:
- "He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."
- "He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance"
- "He has refused to pass other Laws"
- "He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws "
- "For suspending our own Legislatures"
The first is a list of red state complaints: "the government is too big!". The second is a list of blue state complaints: "the government is too small!".
This is a compromise document, and an incoherent one, where Massachusetts Roundheads are complaining that the king won't let Harvard Light Bringers such as themselves lay the pain on nonconformists, dissenters, and Climate Deniers, and the Southern Scots Irish are complaining that high taxes and black helicopters make it impossible to buy as many Jet Skis and as much Everclear as they'd like.
Conflict wasn't baked in to the American experiment because one side wanted slaves and the other didn't. That's naive "I can look back 150 years; I'm a scholar!" thinking. Conflict was baked in to the American experiment because the continent was settled by two peoples who have despised each other for a thousand years and committed the worst atrocities imagineable on each other every time they got the chance.
On across the centuries
But it didn't end with 1776. Compare the English emigration pattern with a map of the US Civil War
…or the 2012 election.
Like the bard says, "the past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now."
The Standing Wave
If you visit a red state you will notice higher than average levels of tobacco use, Evangelical Christianity, Ford F-150s, and so on.
If you visit a blue state you will notice higher than average levels of organic foods, evangelical Brightism, Priuses, and so forth.
To a first approximation, these two bags of cultural signifiers have absolutely nothing to do with King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell and the cultures around them.
In fact, though, if you dig a bit deeper you'll see that there are very solid strands connecting them. The Parliamentarian Roundheads were made up of
Diggers (agrarian socialists – who'd think that farmers would be socially liberal?), Levellers (who were into "popular sovereignty", which is a fancy political science term for
a drum circle, I think) and a bunch of near heretics who's spiritual descendants believe in Crystal Power and Chakras (or perhaps having their female priests and rabbis perform gay marriages in an inclusive church), and always voting Democrat. In short, you've got a pretty similar culture alliance in 1614 as you do in 2014.
On the red side of the equation, today we've got a similar wacky alliance between business elites who are mostly motivated – pace their propaganda – not so much by keeping taxes and regulation low, but by keeping disruptive change low (the cultural descendants of King Charles), and, on the other hand, the less rich, less educated, more violently inclined Scots Irish who want to be left alone from the gay marriage cultural depredations of the progressive Roundheads so they can get back to poaching alligators (the cultural descendants of people who poached deer).
Having an accurate view of the world is rewarding in its own right, but it's especially nice when the alternative is being blindfolded and punched in the face.
If you think that the today's headlines are primarily, or even largely, about today, you're mistaken: they're just reports from the latest skirmishes in a war started a thousand years ago because of climate change and technological progress.
If you think that because you're on the winning side of the culture wars the footnotes are boring or irrelevant, I suggest that you're wrong. I think that over the next decade or two the Roundheads (read Harvard Yankees) are going to take a major fall. Like dwarves delving too deep or Hitler pushing too far into the East, the irrational exuberance (not to say hubris) of roaming the culture war battlefield and humiliating your downed opponents before brutally executing them can have detrimental effects.
After all, culture wars aren't won or lost in a single century.
To be continued.
(note: the next edition of Thunderdome may include references to priest hunters, college speech codes, Mexican immigration, Enoch Powell, Women in Tech, the median voter, and maybe even Baen vs Tor / New York publishing vs Hugh Howey).
Last 5 posts by Clark
- Clark's Farewell To Popehat - December 30th, 2015
- The Current Refugee Crisis - November 18th, 2015
- Top Seven Things I Like About Internet Shame Mobs - July 29th, 2015
Gamer Gate vs Anti Gamer GateA Civil Discussion on Inclusiveness - June 23rd, 2015
- Two Kinds of Freedom of Speech (or #Strangeloop vs. Curtis Yarvin) - June 10th, 2015