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Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Revolt Against Modernity

 This has been a good week for the New York Times.  Yesterday I wrote most of a post about the legacy of the Iraq war, prompted by an excellent story there about the chaotic situation in Iraq today, which has not had an effective state since the fall of Saddam Hussein.  Today, however, I have been diverted by another long piece of investigative reporting that appeared this morning: a look at the New York area's Hasidic schools, which educate about 50,000 young orthodox Jewish boys and a lesser number of girls (for which the story does not give any figure.  It turns out that most of the children in in these schools--particularly the boys--are receiving almost no real education.  In some of them not a single student has been able to pass state standardized tests in reading and math.  Many give all their instruction in Yiddish, and do little or nothing to help their students learn English--much less history or science.  The instruction deals mostly with the Talmud and other religious topics.  Corporal punishment is very frequent.  As a result, thousands of kids graduate from these schools without marketable skills and immediately fall into poverty.  Meanwhile, the Hasids have used their political power to secure considerable financial assistance for the schools from both the state and federal governments, and have successfully blocked serious investigations of their performance.

I was reminded of the talk I heard last May at the conference I participated in by the black scholar Shelby Steele, an almost exact contemporary of mine who was one of the first and most severe critics of victimhood culture among black Americans.  Now available on youtube, that talk argued that when the great civil rights acts gave equal rights to black Americans in the mid-1960s, they created a situation  that was too frightening for some black Americans to cope with.  They now had to compete on an equal footing with everyone else, with no excuse for failure, and some preferred to argue that the system was still rigged against them.   After the talk I introduced myself to Professor Steele and tried to extend his argument.  Modern life, I argued, in which every one of us has to prove themselves in a free labor market, is terrifying for many people of all backgrounds, and many of them would gladly seize upon a psychological escape hatch to avoid the competition.  He agreed with me.

Both the Hasids running Yiddish schools and the critical race theory acolytes railing against standardized tests, middle-class work habits, and the idea of meritocracy as racist constructs, it seems to me, are revolting against the modern world.  So are some evangelical Christians who want to make their religion the foundation of our educational system and our law.  So are MAGA Republicans who will not accept the clear results of elections even if certified by other Republicans.  And so are the majority of academics in the humanities, such as the ones who descended upon President Sweet of the AHA a few weeks ago and compelled him to write a letter of self-criticism confessing the sins of objectivity and disregarding their feelings.  In place of rationalism and fair competition, they want tribalism and redistribution of resources based on various forms of superstition, both ancient and modern.  And they are well-organized and powerful within many institutions and within both political parties.

The story about the Hasids raises interesting questions about the history of American Judaism.  The battle between tradition and modernity took place within many immigrant families a century ago, including my own father's.  His father became for a time a successful American businessman and encouraged his younger children to go to college, while his mother was a staunch traditionalist who had never wanted to leave Ukraine for the United States and tried to force his father to return there.  Modernity triumphed among American Jews in the mid-century period, but traditionalism has had something of a comeback.  The authors of the Times story are Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal, and Jonah Markowitz took the photographs.  They evidently are among the great majority of American Jews who do not regret the transition to modernity, and I commend them for exposing Jewish attempts to subvert it.  They are counterparts of Shelby Steele, my friend the economist Glenn Loury, and young podcaster Coleman Hughes, black Americans who reject the black revolt against modernity.  The future of the United States depends on men and women of all backgrounds like all of these, whose first loyalty is to impartial principles. 

Modernity unfortunately has come under effective attack because it has itself gone off the track during the last half-century.   Modernity can be cruel and helpless. A meritocratic educational system reveals that a small minority of young people are much smarter than anyone else.  The establishment, I think, cannot sell modernity to the great mass of the people if the rewards for that small minority--and the hardships of those who do not belong to it--are too great.  That is the situation today, when our whole elite educational system seems designed to identify our smartest young people and funnel them into careers on Wall Street and where CEOs make hundreds of times as much money as their workers.   Franklin Roosevelt brilliantly focused on the plight of the average American and did a great deal to improve it.  Since Ronald Reagan we have left the average American behind.  Our future depends not only on better ideas, but on better policies.  Only they can preserve our modern heritage against increasingly widespread attacks. 


Paul Zimmy Finn said...

What are these "impartial principles" you're referring to?

This reads very much like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Vital Center. I wholeheartedly reject the notions that "a small minority of young people are much smarter than everyone else", and that Republicans are the party that "left the average American" behind.

The Millennials who have managed to escape the spiral of downward mobility are simply the MOST measurably intelligent, as well as being demonstrably hard-working and having the additional advantage of being from affluent families. The people who were on the outside looking in at that tiny elite group - like me - DID NOT DESERVE TO BE LEFT BEHIND.

And speaking of "leaving behind", DEMOCRATS left the average American behind, 50 years ago. Want proof? Look no further than the list of nominees and contenders for president the Democrats put forward in the 70s and 80s. McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gary Hart...not ONE of them, spoke for "the average American". Carter was a smarter-than-thou, condescending control freak; Dukakis was an out-of-touch technocrat; Gary Hart built his entire public image (before it collapsed) on rhetoric.

Playing "the game" to get up the golden escalator in today's educational and economic environment, is overwhelmingly tied to a young person's willingness to work hard and absorb the bromides of the Left, all day, every day. The "rejection of modernity" of which you write has come about BECAUSE of the modern "meritocratic" system, NOT in spite of it.

Energyflow said...

The system is absurd. Meritocracy means weeding out a few thousand highly autistic people to push buttons in an increasingly dysfunctionally complex "factory" of society for large rewards. The other story is the elite system of inheriting wealth and funneling kids through elite schools with tutors. Poor geniuses have little chance against this system. The third rail in this is the immigrant culture. Asians and Jews have very specific cultural habits built up over thousands of years which help for success in regimented, disciplined work ethos. The GI Bill after WWII did a lot to get the average man a leg up on these problems. Since Reagan we have gone back to Darwin's principal of Natural Selection. One sees this in actuarial tables of life expectancy as well. Income, education, nutrition, job opportunity are highly correlated from family origin. I imagine Japan, Korea , China or India must fare better as immigration and multiracialism are lower, eliminating America's particular problem. However if, as with CCP princelings in China or Korean Chaebol children, wealth and influence are inherited the age old European type of encrusted aristocracy remains. France and Britain are bad in this respect(Eton, elite French university system). In America and elsewhere after a couple generations Asian and other immigrants lose their work ethic and adapt to being average like everyone else. So as long as intermarriage is at high rates and immigration slows then this factor would be eliminated as a discrepancy. Black integration into average culture seems acheivable by cultural osmosis in both directions and intermarriage with the growing polyglot culture. The former NYC Mayor as Italian with a black wife or the half Thai, half black pro golfer of fame come to mind, not to mention the Reality show clan. The average culture changes over time. What does "American" even mean? As a youth in a middle sized city, does one expect to be in multiracial school classes, dating situations, listen to world music, classical, hip hop, make one's own business or be a cog in a machine? India's enduring caste system or European aristocracy and social classes were solutions over the long term. I suppose this is what to expect in America over centuries as power cements wealth and prejudice might increase. If climate change comes, modern conveniences decline due to resource decline the inter-group competition could make for strict cultural or legal barriers to changing class, ethnic or religious status, which is now inconceivable. A crisis of huge proportions could force a constitutional convention cementing a new paradigm for centuries to come.

noribori said...

Modernity - Postmodernism - Anti-modernity

When I was in my early 20s, I looked after a group of children from an orphanage. I took them to the movies, and I was told by the management: "We don't say at the box office that we're from the orphanage. We don't want any benefits. We pay like everyone else because we want to be treated like everyone else."

That seems to me to be the attitude that is typical of modernity, and that has changed so fundamentally. Modernity provides society with a framework of rules that everyone identifies with. One derives one's self-respect from the fact that one is equal. No one is more equal than anyone else. Today, this is only true in sports.

It was the 1980s, and the orphanage was somewhat behind the times in its attitude. Postmodernism had long since dawned, insisting that there must be exceptions. This is not a big deal; wherever there are rules, there are exceptions. But postmodernism made a big deal out of it, an ideology. It accused modernity of having a tendency toward totalitarianism if everyone was lumped together.

I know that on this blog postmodernism is poorly regarded, I've been reading along here for about 5 years, and I don't want to carry owls to Athens. However, I myself don't see postmodernism in such a negative light. It has helped legitimate criticism slowly move into the middle of society, such as ecological criticism. I'm now in my mid-50s, with one foot in modernity and the other in postmodernity. Finding a balance between rules and exceptions is, in my view, the crucial thing.

But things got worse, postmodernism developed in a direction where the search for balance no longer played a role. Modernity was attacked more and more, as if you could do away with the rules and just go on living with the exceptions. People were told that the general rules were unfair. They should rather point out their disadvantage and demand special treatment. They should demand what they were entitled to.

The idea that society gets better and fairer the more exceptional rules you add is a silly idea. If you define justice in such a way that every minority gets its special right, then justice becomes a utopian goal that can never be achieved. Because everyone is part of a minority somewhere, society consists only of minorities, and every minority can be divided into further minorities, ad infinitum.

noribori said...

(part 2, sorry for the long comment)

From the unfulfillability of the desire to do justice to all minorities, some political developments of the last decades can be deduced:

- From the radicalism that all minorities must be compensated, an equally radical countermovement arises that demands the opposite. I quote here only Thatcher: "Too many children and people have been given to understand 'I have a problem, it is the government's job to cope with it!' [...] They are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!"
When increasingly radical forces confront each other, the possibility of a balance becomes more and more difficult.

- Because not all minorities can be served, politics chooses symbolic minorities in order to present itself as just. This initially benefited sexual minorities, for example, because their rights were demonstratively strengthened. On the other hand, their cause became highly politicized and a preferred target in an increasingly polarized environment. Ultimately, symbolic politics has the opposite effect of what was intended: many minorities end up turning away from such policies and turning to more radical directions because they realize that they themselves continue to be among the losers.

- if you constantly reassure a minority that they are disadvantaged, you do not make society better, but increase frustration and disappointment. For example, if you try to persuade young Muslims, who experience every day that they are not a recognized part of society, that this will change if they protest loudly, then many of them will eventually realize that little will change and isolate themselves even further from the majority society. They are easy prey for radical fundamentalists who promise them that there would be a radically different society, an Islamic state, and there they would not be on the margins of society but would be part of the ruling center of society and would have a say in the rules.
This is just as true for other minorities, parallel societies and separatists are on the rise.

- If modernity and its rules are constantly weakened in order to make society better and more just, then in the end one only prepares the ground for anti-modern and anti-democratic forces and achieves the opposite. Radicalized postmodernism becomes "part of that force that continually wills good and continually creates evil." An institution of modernity such as the European Union is already so weakened by its own divergent currents that it becomes an easy target for authoritarian politicians. Figures like Boris Johnson need only pick low-hanging fruit.

For at least a decade, Anti-modernity has become mainstream. People are fascinated by mavericks, out of the box thinkers, game changers, conspiracy theorists, simpletons and clowns, fundamentalists of any kind. I see a parallel here to the Romantic era, which was at the beginning an intellectual movement that wanted to counteract the rigidly perceived rule-boundedness of the Classical era with wit, irony and nostalgic wistfulness. But the lightness was lost; the folksy rapture turned into dead serious nationalism. In the end, an increasingly radical identity policy led to the Great War.

Bozon said...

Well, you might as well have hailed The Bell Curve, as reaching good and useful conclusions, hailed a new age of better genetic social darwinism, or held out Seymour Itzscoff, or Ayn Rand as your mentors!

You got the responses bound to come!

Great stuff!
Keep it up
All the best