On making America into a tribe again
America needs to find itself again, there’s no question.
The Economist just released an excellent essay on a secular America putting its latent religious energy into political issues — such that neither the populist right now the woke left brooking any dissent or even discussion — with results that have become a global SNAFU in the original sense:
Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.
There has been one group of thinkers however that have done a good job of pleasing neither side and pleading for a renewed spirit of civil discourse, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). But a new essay by Benjamin Roberts up on a newish website, im1776, critiques the Intellectual Dark Web as stuck in the past, without workable solutions.
I like it, with caveats.
The core point is this: the current tribal warfare in the U.S. can’t be confronted with reason. The real problem is that the shared identity born of being an American has been destroyed. It’s a big country without a sense of common enterprise. To quote Roberts:
“The liberal consensus scrapped American identity for parts during its sixty-year campaign of deindustrialization and deterritorialization. Regional identities were evacuated for hagiographic narratives of migration. Offshoring hollowed out once-proud cities and towns, annihilating regional elites and common livelihoods. Secularism disintegrated Americans’ shared moral universe, and catapulted cosmopolitans and heartlanders in opposite directions. The issue is not too much identity, or too much ideology, but too little, and of little quality. "
What’s needed, he argues, is some way to get Americans feeling like Americans in something other than name. At least I think that’s what he argues. He doesn’t operationalize it.
If that’s right, I’m on the same page. I recently wrote my three wishes for America post (universal once-in-a-lifetime summer camp; suburban revitalization modeled after Florence; widespread communal living) and that’s what that was all about, particularly the idea of the one tough summer for every able-bodied American teen. If everyone had a common thing they had been through with a small group of people from different parts of the same country, it would pay dividends in cohesion.
Anyway, rather than going into arguing for a way to restore national identity, Roberts points out that the Intellectual Dark Web’s fixation on rationalism is a doomed project, because facts aren’t really that helpful without an a priori framework.
Quick recap for those who can’t hold onto what a priori means as I often can’t. It’s the theory you use to interpret facts. So, for example, humans have some sort of a priori framework wired into us that understands the color red as dangerous and/or exciting. Not hard to sort this one out, but still it’s there in us all. If we see red on something totally banal it still makes a part way back in the back of our brain buzz.
I broke this notion down in some detail in a post about cats that I think is quite fun as blog posts about philosophy go.
So, I don’t really disagree with Roberts here, but I also thinking he’s selling the IDW a bit short.
First, it’s not like at least some of them aren’t aware of this issue. Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris are probably two of the three most famous people lumped into the IDW (alongside Joe Rogan). Harris and Peterson did a series of live debates and this is basically what Peterson spent all of them hammering on Harris about. The facts aren’t enough, Peterson kept saying, you have to offer an a priori framework or you’ll just be baffled by facts.
Here’s really the third of those discussions (counting the two prior podcasts), but I think it is the first in which Peterson really starts making that point with Harris:
Second, on the other hand, it’s probably not wrong that these folks are a bit stuck in the past. Most of the IDW’s denizens are old enough to remember the last flickering sense of a shared America. I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but Millennials and Gen Z missed what it felt like to live in Cold War times. The IDW folks did not. That feeling of collectivism does not seem as lost to them because it is within their living memory.
But Roberts is right! Nostalgia won’t restore a shared America. There needs to be a plan. Arguing it back won’t work. It has to be rebuilt, with sweat and effort.
What annoys me a bit about Roberts’ essay though is that it really seems like an obvious and a bit cynical web traffic play for a new website. Digs at the IDW are always good for a few clicks, right?
It honestly verges on a bit glibtarded, in that way.
It also frustrates me because, while I feel like the IDW might not have a solution, they are still broadly on the side of the angels. In my opinion, this post will be read as saying, “Look, you shouldn’t listen to the populists, the wokies or the IDW.” To me that’s a problem. Those that are on your side, it should be noted, are not against you.
At the end of the day, my read of this post is that it only fosters a new bit of splintering, which is not helpful.
I don’t think the IDW team has worked it all out, but I do think they deserve a lot of credit for laying a sort of critical foundation that could enable something new to come along. Not to be blasphemous, but a John the Baptist metaphor here wouldn’t be wildly off base.
Further, the IDW is a group open to discussion. Make a compelling argument and the IDW will morph in your direction, team-im1776. You want that, my friends, because there is 0% chance a completely distinct new group will have a cooler brand. I’m sorry, but no. That name “Intellectual Dark Web” is a winning lottery ticket. Do not throw it out.
Yes, a more complete, forward thinking vision is called for, but, to me, the IDW’s legacy won’t be some lame Enlightenment nostalgia so much as providing language with which to say: “There must be a better way.”