September 7, 2020

THE rIGHT IS THE lEFT:

Liberty's Discontents (Arnold Kling, 9/07/20, Library of Economics & Liberty)

In 1997, Arthur Herman published The Idea of Decline in Western History, a book that examines the role doomsayers have played in promoting ideologies that reject the core Western values of individualism, capitalism, and democracy. [...]

Herman dwells on

the conflict between culture and civilization, or Kultur and Zivilisation... which was so important and so dear to the German academic tradition.

... Zivilization was the world of politeness and sophistication, but also of commerce and urban society. It was constantly changing, materialistic, and even superficial... Kultur, by contrast, was permanent and spiritual.

... But Kultur could also be used in the anthropological sense, to signify the artistic, literary, and material heritage of an historical people.

Many cultural pessimists seized on this distinction to articulate what was wrong with Western modernity. The cultural pessimist claims that whatever material prosperity our society has produced, it has dulled the individual spirit and stifled the collective soul.

"I am concerned that today's cultural pessimists are unsympathetic to the principle of free speech and willing to use mob bullying against those with whom they disagree."
Herman's description of cultural pessimism emphasizes its dangers. Cultural pessimists reject nonviolence and democracy, so that they provided intellectual justification for both Nazi and Soviet tyranny. I am concerned that today's cultural pessimists are unsympathetic to the principle of free speech and willing to use mob bullying against those with whom they disagree.

Currently, historical pessimism might be represented by Tyler Cowen (The Great Stagnation), Peter Turchin (Ages of Discord), Ross Douthat (The Decadent Society), Martin Gurri (The Revolt of the Public), or Yuval Levin (A Time to Build). These authors see signs of decline in slow productivity growth and the inability of elites to solve problems posed by new technology and cultural change. But they fear nihilistic destruction and instead prefer reform.

Cultural pessimism might be represented today by Nikole Hannah-Jones (originator of The 1619 Project in the New York Times that portrays the United States as founded to pursue slavery), Greta Thunberg (young climate activist), or Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (politicians advocating for socialism). These public figures see fundamental sin in America's democracy, technology, and economic system.

All you really need to know about the pessimists is that they are unhappy that we do ever less labor for ever more wealth which we consume in ahistorical peace, health and freedom.

Posted by at September 7, 2020 10:52 AM

  

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