December 23, 2010

The Great Divide

Years ago, I took a job at a midsized company in the Ohio. The company is located in a rural village of about two thousand people, and despite the isolation I decided to move there. I had only been living there a few days when I was stopped on the sidewalk, several blocks from my apartment, by a small boy staring up at me curiously. "You work with my dad," he said. Finding this a little surprising, but assuming he must be the son of one of my immediate coworkers, I asked him who his dad was. He told me, but I did not recognize the name. I told him he must have mistaken me for someone else. He shook his head confidently and pedaled off on his tricycle. The next day I asked one of my coworkers who the boy’s father was. As it happened, the boy’s father did indeed work for my company – on the assembly line in a different building half a mile away. This is when I came to understand, clearly, that I had not simply moved from a metropolitan area of nearly a million people to a village of about two thousand – but had also crossed an invisible boundary between one culture and another.

It is my hope to show, among other things, that the fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism is not one of competing rational ideologies but simply one of culture, and that the dominant factor behind their cultural distinction is neither ethnicity nor religion – but simply the inevitable consequence of population density.

I. Demographics and Conditions of Life

Most urban dwellers are liberal. Most people living in rural areas are conservative. Compare the two maps above. The one on the left shows US population density and the one on the right shows candidate preference in the 2008 presidential election. We will take it as given that most of the people who voted for McCain are conservatives and most of the people who voted for Obama have at least some liberal leanings. Studying the two maps will show that wherever the population density is high Obama voters (presumed liberals) predominated, or were at least more common than in surrounding rural areas. Even in the south, cities show purple rather than the surrounding red. The blue regions along the Pacific and Mid-Atlantic coast correspond particularly well. McCain voters (presumed conservatives) predominated in rural areas with only a few exceptions. In the south and west, patches of blue in rural areas correspond to one minority group or other, not surprisingly voting for our first real minority president. Only in New England and the upper Midwest did the largely non-minority rural populations contradict the trend by voting for the Democrat. Regions of intermediate population density, predictably, show a mixture of the two political cultures. The lower Great Lakes region, with its mix of cities and countryside, shows a patchy appearance on both maps. We are accustomed to thinking that political orientation is an individual choice, and to some extent it is, but the correlations shown by the maps are too strong to be coincidental, and this comparison is not an isolated example. Clearly, there is something causal at work here – some distinction between rural and urban lifestyles and interests, which manifests itself in voting patterns.

Consider the conditions of life of both urban and rural groups.

Urban life is characterized by diversity and anonymity. These traits are not peculiarities of American or even western cities, but are, to some degree, characteristic of cities everywhere. Cities inevitably contain as broad a range of human beings as exist in any particular society. Living in a city does not demand a deep philosophical belief in human equality, but it does demand a certain rudimentary toleration of people who look or behave differently. Most human interaction in cities is impersonal, occurring between strangers. The relation of the individual to the city as a whole is one of residence, not one of community. For the urban resident, the city is not so much a giant village as it is an artificial wilderness. It is a place that combines variety and opportunity with a certain degree of perennial insecurity and random danger.

Rural life, on the other hand, is characterized by uniformity and familiarity. The range of occupations, religious beliefs, and ethnic traditions are all much narrower in villages and small towns. Inevitably, the inhabitant of a village interacts with familiar people most of the time. Familiarity is an imperative of the culture. For better or worse, rural communities are not places where one can live anonymously. Not surprisingly, the pressure to conform is also much higher in rural than in urban areas. Tolerance, where it exists, is more of a personal choice and not a demand made by the nature of the environment itself. The village is a safe and comfortable place – providing one is both willing and able to conform.

To illustrate the difference more clearly, let’s consider the position of a non-conformist in each environment. Imagine a person who, for whatever reason, converts from Christianity to Norse Paganism. I could use atheism, Islam, open homosexuality, or many other interesting and topical possibilities for my example – but Norse Paganism seems nicely neutral and shouldn't inflame anyone’s emotions unnecessarily.

In a city, among the anonymous multitudes, our new covert’s religion would only be noticed by a handful of people, and then only if the convert were vocal about it or decided to make some outwardly visible sign. Those people who did notice might raise an eyebrow, but the rule of the city is generally one of at least behavioral indifference, so our neophyte Norseman would be tolerated and largely ignored. Close friendships and family relationships would be affected, of course, but the people at the bank, the grocery, and the license bureau would simply shrug and go on about their business. One Norse Pagan in a city of a million is irrelevant.

A lone Norse Pagan, in a village of a thousand, would have the misfortune of being interesting. "I noticed you weren't in church – were you sick?" the bank teller might ask. "Did you know John so-and-so is not a Christian anymore?" the bank teller might later inform the grocery clerk. The smaller the town, the fewer real strangers there are. In a village, not only will our neophyte Norseman stand out, but his eccentricity will be the topic of conversation and legend. In a city, a transient oddity is quickly forgotten; in a village it becomes part of an oral history that carries on for decades.

The sense of common interest -- of community -- which villages have and cities lack, is the very heart of the cultural distinction between the two, and is worth exploring in more detail.

The innate conservatism of the village is our common cultural history. No city on earth arose spontaneously out of the mud, stocked with ready-made sophisticated urbanites. Cities are a new thing in human social evolution; living in small groups has been the norm.

The social ties that bind people living in small, natural groups are generally functional ones. Primitive villages, like bands of hunter-gatherers, are autonomous entities. They contain all of the skills and physical means necessary to maintain their constituent members. They prosper to the extent that those members work together for the common good. If villages tend to be intolerant of outsiders and individualists, it is at root because such people are the least likely to act in the interests of the community. Bigotry may be an ugly thing, but it is rooted in survival strategy.

There are far fewer functional ties that bind the inhabitants of a city together. The taxi driver and the florist only rarely benefit by one another’s actions. The employees of car dealership and those of the corporate accounting firm do not depend on each other economically. Everyone in the city shares some common basic services (police, fire, street department, etc.) but these are administered by anonymous professionals with little direct involvement by the populous. In short, most of the conditions of life in a city are beyond one’s daily influence.

When one is unhappy with conditions in a particular urban neighborhood, one moves to another neighborhood if the means are available. Urban dwellers might be just as suspicious and resentful of outsiders as their rural counterparts, but since they have fewer social ties to their neighborhoods than a villager to his or her village, they are more likely to relocate than to fight for the preservation of the status quo.

A phenomenon that often occurs when new immigrants move into cities is that they to flock to neighborhoods populated by people from their home countries. In the U.S., this occurred among European and Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is occurring with Mexican immigrants today. It would be a mistake to think this pattern can be explained entirely by the attractions of a shared language or a shared ethnicity. It is equally driven by a desire to replicate, as much as possible, the social relations of rural life in an urban setting. Wealthy immigrants from urban settings are far less likely to settle in such groupings. Everything else being equal (and in the absence of enduring differentiators like race and religion), "urban villages" tend to disintegrate within a few generations. This is so not merely because succeeding generations learn the language, but also because they become accustomed to the general uncertainties of urban life. Their neighborhoods lack both the economic independence and social isolation necessary to be as autonomous (and therefore as enduring) as villages.

City dwellers use the word "community" differently than their rural counterparts. Rural people rarely use the word at all. The degree of social cohesion implied by the word is such a basic condition of rural life that it rarely needs acknowledgement. "Community" is something people notice in its absence, as a fish notices the absence of water when it is thrown on dry land. The modern proliferation of the term’s use in urban contexts (the black community, the gay community, etc.) is telling. There is a difference between a real community, in which the members are materially interdependent, and a merely nominal community, in which the members are simply proximate or share some common characteristic or interest. One is an autonomous social and economic unit, the other is a mirage. The most desperate use I have heard made of the term is in the phrase "Internet community". Facebook is no more a meaningful form of community than a McDonalds commercial is a nutritious meal. Social networking is, at heart, an attempt to compensate for the alienation that is an inevitable feature of urban life. It is socialization stripped of both presence and accountability. It is a parody of community, where third-rate personal advertisements take the place of human beings.

II. Further Considerations

Having laid out my central thesis, I should concede a number of points. Obviously, population density is not the sole determinate of one’s political orientation. Individual upbringing counts for much. The tendency for people to grow more conservative as they grow older is a commonplace – though this is not wholly independent of my thesis, since in a time of rapid population growth older people will have formed their predispositions in a world that was generally less urbanized. Older people might remember when their towns were villages, or when their cities were towns or at least smaller cities. It is also true that whole societies sometimes reorient themselves in response to historical events. For a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks, virtually all Americans were conservatives. The common yearning of the whole society was to return to the pre-9/11 world, a time in which we had all felt safer. No one really wanted to just smile and get comfortable with terrorism. For a moment, everyone agreed. The opposite sort of transformation occurred in the defeated Axis nations after the Second World War, particularly in Japan. At that moment in history the status quo had culminated in utter defeat and ruin. Tradition had been violently and decisively discredited, and there could be no thought of going back. Liberalization offered at least the hope of a life beyond the abyss.

Another point that I need to acknowledge is that the communal nature of rural settlements and the alienating nature of urban ones are relative. It would be foolish to believe everyone in a modern American village of a thousand people knows everyone else in that village, or is intimately bound to them economically. Likewise, it is obviously not true that cities are places utterly devoid of such connections. We are talking about relative positions on a continuum of urbanization, not about two fixed, immutable states.

On a grander scale, national and even global social and political orientations are also relative, evolving over space and time. Those that call themselves liberals today would have been unabashed socialists by 19th century standards – people who believe that government should play a large and direct role in mediating our daily lives. Contemporary conservatives are, by 19th century standards, classical liberalspeople who reject the idea of overly centralized authority, particularly in the realm of economics. The conservatives of at least the early 19th century, on the other hand, held a medieval view that is all but extinct today – that power naturally resides (and should reside) with those who control the largest tracts of land. It is reasonable to see such political metamorphoses as evolutionary, as indeed they are, but it would be a mistake to just assume that they represent a kind of incremental moral progress toward some future ideal state. Rather, the shift of power from landed nobility (or its equivalent) to merchants and manufacturers, and subsequently to government bureaucracies and central banks, has simply been the inevitable consequence of subjecting human populations to ever more capable technologies and ever more concentrated urban environments. Put a hundred people on an island and they will organize themselves into a certain sort of social system. Put a million people on an island and they will naturally produce a rather different social system. Give them cell phones and televisions and they will produce yet another. Nothing about such changes is either necessarily positive or necessarily negative. It is merely the collective result of the adaptation of many individual human beings to the conditions of life with which they are presented.

The intellectual precursors of the trajectory humanity is now on were formulated during the Enlightenment, but mass political change was really the end product of the Industrial Revolution. It was then that rapid technological change and urbanization began in earnest. Humanity has been getting more urbanized and more technologically capable ever since. Rapid technological advancement and population growth have, until very recently, always reinforced one another.1 By making agriculture and transportation more efficient, and by creating many entirely new means of livelihood, new technology spurs population growth. At the same time, larger populations with a greater variety of demands spur technological advancement. Given a relatively free, relatively educated population, sheer numbers spur technology forward too. It is significant that almost all of the most innovative nations are comparatively populous. Germany, France and the UK are all populous nations by European standards, and also produce the most new inventions there. The US has a huge middle class population, which has always been able to turn out brilliant innovators at a reliable rate. As the Chinese and Indian middle classes have begun to grow, they too get their predictable allotment of technologists and entrepreneurs. Israel, on the other hand, despite a highly educated populous simply lacks the numbers to produce more than a scattering of geniuses, and is responsible for few significant inventions.

The positive consequences of advancing technology have been many and are, for the most part, obvious. In the industrialized world, we now live longer than our ancestors did. We certainly have the potential to know more. The list of advantages of living in modern times is lengthy, though to some extent debatable. Those things we have lost are less apparent because most of us are unaware, at least consciously, that they ever existed. Cultural stability is an unimaginable condition for most people in modern societies. We are conditioned from birth to believe that we either reinvent ourselves continuously or face obsolescence. We can expect, in old age, to live in a world that bears little resemblance to the one in which we were born. A sort of corollary to this is that we lack any rational sense of belonging. The community, as a stable, predictable unit of social organization, is all but extinct. Let’s return to our primitive village for a moment to see if we can throw some light on this obscure idea.

As I have already observed, the basis of village organization is function. As animals, human beings are simply more able to cope with their environment in groups. People don’t live in groups because they love each other; they live in groups because they need each other. Or, perhaps even more bluntly, they love each other because they need each other. This is a deep genetic trait. We were social animals before we had villages, or language, and probably even before our ancestors had the ability to walk upright. We want to belong to some group almost as strongly as we want to survive, and in some instances even more so.

The conditions of modern life tend to erode our sense of social stability at both ends. Not only does the community become unwieldy beyond a certain size, but the pressures and demands of urban life also undermine that most basic unit of social organization -- the family. Individuals move from one city to another in search of work. Both opportunity and scarcity contribute to this diffusion. In boom times the ambitious pursue opportunities far from their homes. In lean times, everyone seeks employment anywhere it can be had. Once the traditional extended family might have offered some support in times of scarcity, but once that institution is scattered across the country we are left to fend almost exclusively for ourselves.

In the absence of either a real functional community or a family, human beings must meet their unfulfilled need for belonging with something else. Modern societies offer a number of alternatives, but all of them are essentially illusory.

III. Palliatives for a lost sense of Belonging

The most obvious palliative for a lost sense of belonging is nationalism. Indeed, the rise of nationalism closely parallels the rise of industrialism and urbanization. The progression from one attachment to the other is intuitively simple. The nation, usually in an ethnic sense, becomes a sort of village or family writ large. The ardent patriot does have a sense of belonging, but the difference between patriotism and village solidarity is a tragic one. The relationship between the individual and the village is mutually beneficial in a way that the relationship between the individual and the nation can never be. Villages are networks of human relationships that are simultaneously functional, reciprocal, and personal. Individuals can be treated unjustly in a village, but even such mistreatment is fundamentally personal – no one is simply an anonymous cog in a heartless social machine. Nations, on the other hand, are innately heartless. They lack the capacity to care about the individuals that theoretically constitute them. No one really matters to the nation. We are all merely cogs in the unconscious machinery of the state. Such benefits as we might derive from being members of a particular nation are ultimately the result of decisions made by real people – other cogs in the process – not by any deliberate action of the nation as a whole.

Since human beings generally do not derive a sense of belonging from participation in unconscious processes, patriotism requires an illusion. The nationalist loves the nation as though it were a conscious, living entity. To expand this further, evolution has only given us a limited repertoire of emotional attachments – those suitable for living in small groups. "Love of beneficial bureaucratic processes" was not high on the list of feelings our troglodytic ancestors would have found useful. We are predisposed to mould our relationships with abstract entities in personal terms, no matter how incongruous. In the cold light of reason, a nation is really nothing more than a belief. It has no empirical existence of its own. It shares with the village the property of being a social collective, but it is a collective compounded of the very yearning to belong – rather the more substantial sense of belonging that stems from a set of tangible, functional relationships.

That patriotism is more virulent among rural conservatives than among urban liberals does not contradict the notion that villages are inherently more socially secure and comforting places than cities. As I outlined earlier, the whole of society is in a state of flux, and even rural areas are being transformed by the dominant urban culture. Our entertainment media, which grows more global and more pervasive by the year, is targeted at urban audiences. It denigrates the rural or traditional. Thus, the rural conservative feels the erosion of existing social institutions more acutely than the urban liberal. The latter is constantly having the normalcy of modern life, no matter how bizarre or hostile, reaffirmed by television and the internet. The rural citizen, on the other hand, receives only a steady stream of condescension and the treat of largely unwanted change. When, through pressure of the dominant culture, the village begins to fail as a functional entity the villager loses something real. It is natural enough to look for a substitute of similar kind but of a grander scale – however sadly illusory it might be.

Theistic religion is more complex than raw patriotism, and its attraction to either rural or urban populations is not simply the attraction of a substitute community. In traditional rural villages, churches serve as a natural focal point of community life. Whatever else they may be, they are the roof under which the whole community sits. They have a social function that is largely independent of any religious teaching they might offer. Even if the sermons are dull and uninspiring, the congregation draws significant strength from the simple solidarity of attendance. Rural churches give the community a unique opportunity to see itself as a whole.

A service at an urban megachurch is something rather different. The congregants of a megachurch are not a community as such, but a scattering of people drawn from a wide area. They may draw some passing sense of strength from their very numbers, but in the end they are essentially an interest group of otherwise disassociated people. Like attendees at virtually any other urban venue, they come to be entertained – in other words, to be distracted from the stresses of urban life. No megachurch could sustain itself with a dull and uninspiring pastor. Congregants would simply shop for their salvation somewhere else.

Significantly, the conditions of urban life have transformed religion (at least in the US) by making it more energetic but at the same time less demanding. While the content of a sermon must be entertaining, it cannot be very restrictive. In a village, people attend the church the village happens to have; in a city, they attend the church that suits them. Given a choice, most people will adopt whatever form of their religion demands the least of them. Consider how many modern churches emphasize verse John 11:26 ("And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.") This is the lowest possible common denominator to which Christianity can erode. Simple belief is the cheapest cover charge that any deity has ever required. The Catholic Church, though much in retreat, still wants the faithful to follow certain rules. A few protestant churches in rural Appalachia still ask congregants to show their faith by handling venomous snakes. John 11:26 asks only a little credulity, which you have to possess to derive any comfort from Christianity anyway.

To summarize, rural religion tends to demand more arbitrary concessions from its adherents but also offers them something valuable by strengthening their social relationships. Urban religion doesn’t dare demand much, has far less to offer, and has to compete with every other form of distraction the city can create. Let me be clear, however. Urban churches need not be harmless, watered-down versions of their rural brethren in regard to their condemnation of non-believers. On the contrary, in the absence meaningful moral strictures to violate, the only thing that delineates the congregation from outsiders is belief. This, too, is a desperate attempt to give adherents a sense of belonging and mutual solidarity – by the common expedient of raising an external enemy against whom they can contrast themselves.

While the Enlightenment began the downfall of religion among intellectuals, urbanization began the downfall of religion among the masses. The very anonymity of urban life made participation in religion optional, and the diffuse and transient nature of urban congregations has made the social benefits increasingly negligible. All that remains for the urban believer are grand promises of salvation and rewards in the afterlife. While these have a certain appeal for many people starving for a feeling of security in a ruthless urban world, it is well beneath the threshold of cynicism for most. The majority of urban dwellers, as well as the majority of people who could be broadly considered liberal, are not explicitly atheists. They have not rejected faith so much as they simply do not take the time to bother with the question. If you ask them directly "do you believe in God?" they tend to shift around uncomfortably and mutter things like "sure – I guess so." Their very lack of interest makes such an affirmation meaningless.

Another attachment that provides an essentially empty sense of belonging is a devotion to organized sports. Here too, we have a cultural entity that developed hand-in-hand with urbanization. Sports like baseball began as pastimes for ordinary people to participate in. Socially, they functioned to strengthen the bonds between actual team members. Teams then began to represent larger entities, cities and businesses. Their chief social consequence became the creation of a sense of unity among the spectators. Widespread though it might be in both our cities and our countryside, it isn’t hard to see how shallow this illusion of belonging actually is. After all, very few people actually feel any special sense of duty toward their fellow fans of team "x". Devotion to a team may offer a vague sense of identity for an individual, and provide a superficial point of connection to fellow supporters, but can offer little in the form of substantive relationships. No fellow fan is going to either trust a person or assist him on the basis of their mutual fandom alone. No player feels very obligated to any individual fan. If nationalism is a poor parody of the relationship one might otherwise have had to a small and functional community, then fandom is one step even further removed – a parody of nationalism. The fan pours out his enthusiasm for those he not only has no influence over, but who have in turn no substantive influence over him. Nationalism is, in one sense, the political exploitation of our natural longing for community – a one-sided but still relevant exercise. A love for organized sports is merely the embrace of community’s ghost image – an exercise whose only social consequence is distraction.

Other forms of fandom function similarly. The cultish fascination with movie series like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings should not be surprising. Both offer the attractive magic of religion without the uncomfortable restrains and limitations. Fantasy blooms most plentifully where religion is the weakest, chiefly in cities and suburbs. Fantasy offers the young yet another kind of community of the mind, a much more interesting and appealing one than the dull, dysfunctional, pseudo-communities of their parents. The knowledge that trying to live in such fantasies becomes a self-consuming psychosis beyond a certain point is no deterrent to children, and little deterrent to many adults. Believing in Harry Potter’s mythos is, after all, only slightly less rational than believing in Christianity – and not in the least less rational than believing in Scientology.

Lastly, returning nearer to our main theme of comparing liberalism with conservatism, we should consider the palliative dimension of belonging to a political party. That membership in a political party offers a person both a sense of community and a sense of identity is obvious. The distinctions between party membership and simple nationalism are less obvious, but are important nonetheless.

First, it should be noted that the pure nationalist must, to some extent, accept his or her country whole. The nation is defined by the whole, and if any subgroup of the nation is to be excluded it requires a special conceptual effort. For example, Hitler, an ardent nationalist, could not stop at portraying the Jews as merely a dangerous minority of Germans; they had to be portrayed as fundamentally non-Germans. If the nation is the parental entity before which all individuals must bow, then all that is evil and dangerous in the universe must be external to the nation. Those who are evil must be alien, born of alien blood. A pure partisan, however, need not make any special effort to cast enemies out of the common ethnic fold. Parties, too, are cultural entities at heart, drawing their defining boundaries around beliefs rather than genes. Republicans and Democrats don’t usually think of themselves as distinct genetic breeds. They think of themselves as believers in right ideas or right values.

In reality, there are few pure nationalists and few pure partisans. The two encompassing collectives are compatible and often reinforcing. The dominance of one tendency over the other varies with conditions. Thus, the Soviet state before the Second World War was a brand new cultural entity with a heavy facade of ideology. It centered on a party – the communists. During the war, however, the appeal of Russian nationalism was needed to rally a public sick of both military defeat and the failings of the communist program. After the war, the cultural and ideological experiment resumed its dominance over nationalism.

Parties are more palpable entities than nations. They have real leaders and sometimes even definite purposes. Straightforward ethnic nationalism is an emotional state. Its can have no purposes, per se. Political parties, though centered on certain cultures and their values, must inevitably support some recognizable program of policies. They must pin themselves to comparatively concrete statements of what they are for and against. This not only invites social division, but actually demands it. The pure nationalist wants the nation to move as one. The pure partisan wants to dominate those fellow countrymen who happen to have wrong ideas. The synthesis of the two, on the other hand, requires a redefinition of what the nation is. Whether a party is on the right or the left, the redefinition takes on essentially the same form – that of redefining the nation as a certain set of cultural values rather than as a certain ethnicity. For Americans on the right, America is a nation characterized by patriotism, distrust of government, fiscal restraint, and usually some measure of religious piety. For Americans on the left, America is a nation characterized by tolerance, fairness, and an unshakable faith in progress. Each group sees the other as misguided or demented and, while not actually external to the nation, possessed by ideas which are in opposition to the true national character. By this trick of national redefinition a person’s sense of belonging can be transferred from a nebulous abstraction to a collection of ideas, a body of leaders, or even a handful of slogans. Though parties are somewhat smaller entities than nations, they are still far too large to have reciprocal relationships with their lesser members. We belong to them far more than they belong to us.

IV. Contemporary Liberalism examined more specifically

Over the course of this essay I believe I have adequately summarized the predispositions of those we would classify as Conservatives. They are, broadly speaking, those people who find themselves on the trailing edge of social change. They are people who either like their lives as they are and want to keep them that way, or want to return to some mythologized state of the past, be it imagined or remembered. What, then, do liberals believe? What drives people on the leading edge of social change?

Liberals and conservatives are both human beings, and as such are subject to the same human motivations. Liberals, being generally more urbanized, are rather less inclined to turn for security to functional communities they don’t really have, or be nostalgic about some mythologized past they either don’t know or don’t believe in. Nevertheless, though they are more accustomed to the alienations of modern life, they are still afflicted by them – if only less consciously. Only a tiny percentage of human beings are truly content without any communal context whatsoever. The alienated urban masses hunger for a sense of security and identity just like their rural counterparts.

The promise offered by liberalism, like that offered by nationalism, is couched in the assumption that we share a not only a common need, but a collective existence. To be a liberal is to believe that humanity as whole has a certain positive destiny – a destiny that can be reached by implementing a progressive social program. Stable conservatism lives in the present; agitated conservatism lives in the past; liberalism lives always in the imagined future. This means that change is not merely a hallmark of liberalism but a central element of the creed. Liberals believe that they are agents of positive social evolution. They believe that they can argue, legislate, and invent their way to a utopia of equality and universal happiness.

Since, as I’ve already outlined, the specific beliefs of liberals and conservatives both move further to the left as society becomes ever more urbanized, the criterion of whether one looks backward or forward for solutions is probably the only reliable demarcation of the divide. In many other respects, the two cultures are really quite similar.

Noble as it may sound, the love of liberals for humanity as a whole is just an even more grandiose cousin of nationalism. Rather than dividing the world into countrymen and foreigners, the liberal divides the world into liberals and obstructionists. They believe in a sort of global community of the enlightened, whose full realization is only barred by the bigoted, regressive obstinacy of conservatives. Put another way, they have an irrational love for their ideology rather than an irrational love for their nation. Practically speaking, one is little more tenable than the other. While the notion of humanity as a whole conjures up a nice utopian sentiment, it ignores the reality that humanity is composed of people with all sorts of beliefs and agendas, many of which are violently incompatible despite the basic commonality of human nature. The liberal tends to believe that the masses in other nations (particularly developing nations) are nascent liberals yearning to breathe free, while in reality most of the people of the world are conservatives within their own social contexts, often nationalist or religious or both. They may buy our Coca-Cola, but they have irrational utopian visions of their own. They no more want to be second-rate knock-offs of western liberals than they want to be second-rate knock-offs of western conservatives. One can love "humanity" as an abstraction – as an artifact of the imagination – but such a love rarely survives prolonged exposure to any real population in the real world.

In practice, liberals do not love all human beings as individuals either. It’s a very rare person who does. Liberalism is a cultural entity, and as such has its own schema of in-groups and out-groups, which vary a little depending on the subgroup of liberals in question. For example, I think it would be fair to say that American liberals, particularly during the civil rights era, despised white southerners as a class. If one happened to be an American liberal and a white southerner, a certain apologetic attitude for the latter was obligatory. The corollary to this particular prejudice was the unconscious assumption that all American blacks (or members of any other suitably downtrodden minority) were necessarily morally good. If a black American appeared to be less than perfect the fault was obviously that of some white bigot somewhere along the line. My point is not to deny that many white southerners (and plenty of white northerners) did (and in some cases still do) engage in bigotry, but to assert that Liberals tend to make the same kinds of sweeping generalizations about out-groups and in-groups that people of any other culture do.

American conservatives, for their part, tend to become incensed at the suggestion that any American soldier could ever be justifiably accused of a war crime. Soldiers currently have an almost holy status among conservatives, and the suggestion that even a single one of them might tarnish this image is simply proof that the accuser is a liberal who hates America.

What all such hardened generalizations have in common is that they support a particular group’s identity myth. White liberals see themselves as the good white people, bestowing social justice on the oppressed. It would muddy the water if any of the bad white people had any merit as human beings, or if any of the oppressed might be a little lacking in personal merit. The Robin Hood myth just isn’t as inspiring if, once in awhile, Robin steals from a philanthropist to give to an impoverished child abuser. For the conservative, the soldier is less a person than a living symbol of the nation -- a sort of walking talking flag -- who shoots the bad guys and passes out candy to children. Real soldiers, of course, are merely human beings with the usually variety of human traits. In a population of a hundred thousand of them, it is almost impossible that one wouldn’t find at least a few cold blooded sociopaths, just as one would expect to find in any city of that size. Nevertheless, the myth, however impossible, must take precedence over the grey, unhappy realities of the world. It is not a matter of truth, but of identity.

Another striking similarity between liberals and conservatives can be seen in each movement’s response to the other’s political rallies. There are, inevitably, a few hardcore racists at any sufficiently large Tea Party rally. This shouldn’t be surprising. The Tea Party movement is, at present, a very decentralized movement. The Tea Party groups have neither the capacity nor the desire to carefully vet those who happen to turn up at their events. Populists cannot be overly choosy. Any group that opposes America’s first black President is bound to draw at least a few people who oppose him because he is black, but this does not mean the movement as a whole is racially motivated. People can have other reasons for opposing a president, as history abundantly shows. The left characterizes the Tea Party groups as racist because doing so drops them neatly into a category of enemies liberals already have, and this absolves liberals of the irksome burden of having to address the Tea Party movement’s actual platform. When the liberals hold rallies, conservatives do almost exactly the same thing. They consistently point out the handful of self-declared communists and socialists who turn up on such occasions, and demonize the rest of the people present as mere dupes of this traditionally hated fringe. Again, it is an easy way to avoid the irksome task of having to actually think about opposing ideas. Each side, on the other hand, takes the righteousness of its own cause as a given. This is chauvinism pure and simple.

V. Conclusions

In relatively secure and stable periods of history, when change is slow, the divide between largely urban liberals and largely rural conservatives is modest. At present, under the strain of enormous economic pressure, international instability, and dizzying technological change, the gulf is wide. This does not bode well for anyone. Rational people, if there are any, must find themselves caught between increasingly radicalized extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. The dexterity with which each camp spins a narrative blaming all the world’s problems on other is a testament to both human inventiveness and human credulity. There is little room for compromise between such factions. Even if there were, the ad hoc blending of two irrational extremes does not seem likely to yield anything sound. Considering civilization’s bloody history of civil wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions we have reason to worry about each side’s insistence on ideological purity.

In truth, the aggregate behavior of human beings is almost never driven by reason. The larger the collective one examines, the less rational its behavior is. Individuals can be reasonable; villages can exhibit practicality; states can be managed wisely to some degree; the collective direction of humanity as a whole, however, is beyond the realm of rational control. It is probably also beyond the realm of what we, as individuals, can fully understand. We did not agree, as a species, to pursue our current trajectory. As individuals, no one asked us. Like anything else in nature, social evolution is ultimately the playing out of a vast, complex, and essentially non-conscious process. Urbanization is a feature of that process that we may, at least, recognize –- and one with reasonably predictable social consequences.

The conditions under which we live change faster our basic motivations. Our very ability to overcome and dominate nature has led us into problems for which nature never prepared us. Important as entitlements, tax policy, and all the other topics of the day may be, they are all broadly symptomatic of a larger human problem – the problem of the instability which appears to be inherent in societies on the scale of tens or hundreds of millions. Considered on the timescale that we use to judge the viability of other species, the most enduring nations on earth are mere events. The imaginary collective of "humanity" is more an explosion than a steady march of progress.

In other species that have, for one reason or another, experienced explosive population growth the process inevitably continues until it meets some natural limitation. Typically, the species exhausts its food supply or induces some disastrous change in its environment. In many of the more developed nations population growth has slowed or even reversed, but overall there are still more and more human beings every year, sharing a fundamentally finite pool of resources. Technology cannot increase productivity without end, so a Malthusian catastrophe of some sort seems almost inevitable. This, if nothing else, may put an upper limit on urbanization and all that it entails. What sort of society human beings we might have at the upper limits of concentration, starved of either energy or food I shudder to imagine.

1 The decline or reverse of population growth in most industrialized nations that has been occurring in recent decades is an interesting topic in itself, but beyond the already broad scope of this essay.

Note: I owe an acknowledgement to Eric Hoffer’s great work, The True Believer, though I arrived at many of his conclusions independently. It was his view that mass movements originated from the frustrations of people with certain personality types, and were brought into an active phase by their ability to awaken simmering dissatisfactions in the broader population. It is my view that this process is driven not so much by certain personality types (although such people do indeed serve as a focus for mass movements) but by a the general dissatisfaction of large segments of the public with their relative impotence and insignificance within the context of a large, bureaucratic, urban society. We simmer because we are members of corporate bodies too big to notice us. As Hoffer himself saw, we can only become fully numbed to the impotence and insignificance society imposes on us by sacrificing our individual identities to one collective vision or another.

December 20, 2010

A Word or Two on Greed

As politicians haggle and maneuver over the question of taxes on the rich, the notion of greed is always with us, an ever-present subtext to such debates. It seems that no one, though, considers the notion of greed in any depth. It is enough to simply hurl accusations and accept one’s own moral high ground as a given. But are greed and wealth synonymous? Most of us who are not wealthy were taught to think so, either directly or implicitly. In truth, however, greed is just a characteristic of human beings. No group has a monopoly on it.

Consider this scenario. Imagine yourself completely without greed, absolutely committed to the laudable principles of fairness and human equality. It seems to me you would then be subject to the following proposition:

The per capita income of the world is approximately 10,500 US dollars. If you make more than this and do not give the surplus to people who makes less, arguably you are being greedy -- taking more than your fair share. For simplicity sake, let us assume that you are single and have no dependents. You certainly have the means to give the money away. No agent of authority is going to stop you from being charitable. Nor would it be too difficult to find recipients. Even if you felt justified in stipulating that “your” surplus should only go to people who are deserving (by whatever ethical criteria you might propose) deserving people on a planet of six billion are plentiful enough. Further, I can say from personal experience that $10,500 per annum is a sufficient sum to survive on in the US, albeit not very comfortably or securely. Certainly, you could find a way to do without a car, and modern television, and even take the risk of living without health insurance, in the interest of helping someone in Zimbabwe or Paraguay attain minimal shelter or food. This would be the fair thing to do. Still, supposing you didn’t want to give up "your" surplus, what excuses might you offer to your conscience?

You could say you deserve your income. You could argue that you contribute disproportionately to the wellbeing of humanity, and therefore ought to get a little more than the paltry world average. Perhaps you are a doctor and you heal the sick, or an industrialist who provides jobs for thousands of people, or a clergyman who at least imagines he saves their souls. If you are really serious about fairness, this argument for your exemption isn’t going to work in most cases. Maybe if you do enough direct and obvious good, a little extra income for healthcare might be justified to save your life -- but it doesn’t seem as justified to use it on your third vacation home. For that matter, it doesn’t seem much more justified to use it on more pedestrian luxuries. You get a big TV, and the Paraguayan peasant starves. Not a very equitable exchange.

The positive argument failing, you could always try the negative one: those who are poor deserve their poverty. Well, unless you are devoted to some sort of transcendent cosmic justice myth, believing that wealth, and probably everything else, gets parceled out by a deity who is fair by definition, this justification isn’t going to work either. After all, there are whole nations of malnourished, desperate people. It isn’t plausible that they all became destitute through acts of individual will -- even if we assume we have free will, which is at least an open question. In any case, only being fair to those whom you deem worthy of fairness isn’t very different from being unfair. We cannot really have principles if we make them up as we go along.

You could propose that you already make donations to charity, and that the amount you give is morally sufficient. Unfortunately, this still leaves that Paraguayan peasant starving as you sit comfortably behind your new TV. How can you be a moral person and believe that your enjoyment of some non-essential possession has the same value as another person’s life or health?

You might also think “I live up the moral standards of my society.” This will certainly not do, because so did Josef Mengele. The moral equality of human beings is a pretty meaningless ideal if it can be trumped by a mere ad populum rationale.

Lastly, you might argue that the wealth you have to offer is inconsequential compared to the wealth that others so unjustly horde, and that it is they who need to feed that Paraguayan peasant and not yourself. This argument has an interesting quality. The millionaire can wag a finger at the billionaire, the well-off professional can wag a finger at the millionaire, and the store clerk can wag a finger even at the well-off professional. Each makes a claim, at least implicitly, of being relatively fair -- of being innocent because others are more guilty. Is it true, though, that failing to prevent one instance of suffering is more moral than failing to prevent two instances – or are two failures more moral than a thousand? Is allowing a neighbor to suffer more moral than being indifferent to the suffering of a million people one will never know or see?

Other than actually impoverishing oneself, there is only one way to escape this trap. It is to accept that, though most people manage be generous to some degree, probably not one in a million actually pursues the ideas of fairness and equality to their logical conclusions. The person that does is fair. The rest of us are greedy -- prepared to let others suffer for the sake of our own comfort.Human beings are not made morally different by the mere acquisition of wealth. People of all classes pursue similar patterns of generosity. They give to those that are close to them and, for the most part, they ignore those that they don’t personally know. Moreover, generosity itself is not always the purest of exercises. If you give to have a foundation created in your name, or to impress your friends, or to placate your deity, your motives are essentially self-serving. Of course, it’s all the same to our starving peasant -- but we are talking about intentions here, not consequences.

It is not my object to make the wealthy feel better about themselves. There are more than enough sycophants in the world to provide that service. It is more my object to point out to the rest of us how self-servingly hypocritical it is to think our relative poverty makes us, by necessity, morally better. The non-rich call the rich greedy for more-or-less the same reason that the rich call the non-rich lazy – to feel better about themselves. We can certainly debate the actual, tangible consequences of unrestrained capitalism -- just as we can debate the tangible consequences of socialism, or anything else. Adding moral indignation to such discussions, though, rarely contributes anything illuminating. Any attempt to make rational sense of human society must include putting aside those ideas that condemn or deny the actual nature of human beings.