Friday, April 25, 2014

What is right with modernity?

In my debate with "neoreactionary" blogger Michael Anissimov, we briefly touched on the question of whether modernity or traditional life was better, but we didn't really go into it. Now Michael has posted a list of things he thinks are wrong with modernity, so, being a guy who generally likes modernity, I thought I would respond.

Some of the items on Michael's list I think aren't problems at all. For example, he claims that the murder rate has only decreased because of medical advances, and is now 40 times as high as in 1900. That's almost certainly specious, since other forms of violent crime (forcible rape, assault, etc.) have also decreased by as much or more than murder in recent years, and medical science is not responsible for those declines. Also, Michael worries about public debt being high, but I'm not exactly sitting here leading a sucky life because of the national debt, and hopefully neither are you - if the debt can be contained to a manageable level (which it looks like it can), then it'll never be a problem.

Other items on Michael's list are real problems, but don't obviously seem to be more of a problem recently. For example, suicide is on the rise lately, but it's also very common in some traditional societies like rural India. Drugs like heroin are more of a problem today, but I bet a lot more people drank themselves into an early grave back in traditional societies. Michael mentions "perennial recession", but what he really means is stagnation (slow growth), and by that definition we were stuck in perennial recession from the dawn of time until sometime in the 1800s - in fact, "traditional society" is arguably defined by permanent stagnation.

But some of the things on Michael's list strike me as real problems. For example, obesity is certainly higher than in the past, as is overmedication. Social isolation seems to be a much bigger problem too. Family breakdown has also become more prevalent in America in recent decades, though it's not clear how it compares to long ago. Actually, I think Michael left a couple of things off of his list, like the increase in clinical depression.

So yes, there are ways in which modern life is worse than life in the past. In fact, it would be surprising if there weren't! But any list of problems deserves a countervailing list of advantages, and I think there are many more ways in which modern life is better than traditional life. Technology is obviously the big one here - you like being able to flush your toilet and not die in childbirth, right? - but I think we can go beyond that. For example:

* There's just a lot more to do. Modern life includes a lot of leisure time, which many of us don't just spend vegging out in front of the TV. More leisure + more technology = more stuff to do. We can rock-climb, or visit Cambodia, or play Final Fantasy, or write a blog, or...well, anything, really. There's great music and cool fashion and fun sports and neat games and all sorts of awesome stuff.

* Most of us don't have to go to war. My grandfathers and great-uncles all fought in World War 2. They told me the stories. As they would be the first to tell you, it SUCKED. And I doubt the Thirty Years' War was much more fun. War used to be a fixture of life, and now it's not. Advantage: modernity.

* There is less conflict between groups. My ancestors were Jewish peasants in Lithuania. Michael's were Cossacks in Russia. In other words, his ancestors probably spent a lot of time beating up my ancestors (except for that one guy in Fiddler on the Roof). Now, large-scale conflicts between people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and religions are very rare in rich countries. In Philadelphia in 1844 there were huge riots against Irish immigrants. There have been no such riots against (or by) Mexican immigrants in modern times. Advantage: modernity.

* You can meet a lot more people. Marx wrote about the "idiocy of rural life", but the word he used might have just meant "isolation". The fact is, in traditional society, most people didn't meet a lot of other people in their lives. Now, we meet a lot. That doesn't mean we form more close relationships than in the past (or fewer!), but it is interesting, stimulating, and perspective-widening to meet people from a lot of walks of life. And many inhabitants of modern societies today have traveled internationally and met people from other countries, which is something that used to be very rare.

* We know a lot more. With Wikipedia, I have more knowledge at my fingertips than anyone in a traditional society ever could have dreamed of. My sheer breadth and depth of knowledge almost certainly exceeds that of savants and sages of yore, but I don't think I'm particularly unusual in that regard.

* You can keep in touch with your old friends. For those people in traditional societies who did leave their hometowns, the price was the destruction of most or all of their human relationships. In 1963, Bob Dylan wrote a song about missing his old friends and never being able to see them again. Even in the 1980s, my parents weren't in close contact with their college and high school friends. Now I just open up Facebook, and there they are! Needless to say, this also applies to keeping in touch with your family.

* Most jobs are a lot more interesting. Professoring is about the same as it was in ages past, and service jobs are probably about the same as well, but most people have far more interesting jobs than their ancestors. In the past, most people were doing mindless repetitive farm work (I've done it for one summer, and trust me, you don't want to do it for more than one summer) or manufacturing work. Now, a huge chunk of the populace works in mentally engaging jobs that give them some space for individual initiative, creativity, and expression.

* You can speak your mind. In the past, if you criticized the government, some thugs might come to your door and beat you to within an inch of your life. Now, if you live in a modernized, developed country, you can write "Barack Obama eats poop!" on your front door, and the only negative consequence will be that your neighbors think you are tacky. Advantage: modernity.

* You can be whatever religion you want. In ancient times, unless you lived under Genghis Khan (a pioneer in religious tolerance, believe it or not), you could easily be tortured and killed for having the wrong religion. For example, take the Spanish Inquisition, which, contra Monty Python, everyone kind of expected in one form or another. In fact, in many non-modern societies today, you can still be persecuted for believing in non-officially-approved details about the omnipotent being who may or may not have created the universe. Advantage: modernity.

* Everything is a lot safer. Thanks to our highly annoying but also highly effective modern legal system, you don't have to worry about toxic meat, unsafe cars, or collapsing buildings nearly as much as in the past (though these dangers are not entirely gone). That strikes me as a big plus.

* You can get ahead. In lots of traditional societies it was very hard to get ahead if you weren't an aristocrat (again, unless you lived under Genghis Khan, who abolished aristocracy and implemented meritocracy; this reform lasted until precisely 0.07 milliseconds after his death, but oh well). In modern society, the combination of capitalist meritocracy and technology allows ambitious people to get ahead regardless of their circumstances of birth. (Luck, of course, still plays a big role.)

* There's no slavery. Well, almost none. But in the past, a lot of people were turned into personal property for most or all of their lives. Being someone's property really sucks. In modern society, it is highly illegal to do that to someone. Advantage: modernity.

* Being a woman doesn't suck as much. In traditional societies, if you were a woman, you usually had to stay home. Now you can go out and do stuff and be a real human being. Also, you are in far less danger of being raped if you do. If you decide to have an affair - which I'm not saying is a nice thing to do, but neither is trolling people on the internet, and we all have our vices - your husband can no longer legally slaughter you. If you want to have 10 kids, you certainly can (and very few of them will die in infancy), but if you don't want to have any kids, you're free to do that too. Etc. etc. Women happen to comprise just over half of the human population, so this seems like a big deal to me.

* There's a lot less chance of people punching you in the face. I covered this above, but as further support I cite the complete works of Mark Twain, which I take to be an accurate description of life in the 1800s, and which involves lots of random fist-fighting. Now you may think that fist-fighting is all in good fun, but actually if you did the homework assignment from Fight Club - i.e., randomly picked street fights - you would quickly discover otherwise, as moviemaker Harmony Korine did.

* Viagra. Just sayin'.

The fact is, all of these awesome improvements in the day-to-day lives and long-term well-being of humankind are due to generalized liberalism - to "classical liberalism" (i.e. economic freedom), to "cultural liberalism" (i.e. tolerance), and to civil liberties. Even the technological advances were mostly made possible by generalized liberalism - the Soviets had some of the world's best scientists, but they didn't have Final Fantasy (or Viagra).

You see, generalized liberalism basically just tries to allow people to do whatever they want, to the greatest degree possible. That's not always going to work. There are externalities, and our government and our culture will inevitably fail to fully remedy some of these. There are information asymmetries. There are times when people want things that they don't end up liking or appreciating. But by and large, when people can do more of what they want, they feel better off. That, in a nutshell, is why modernity trumps tradition.

This is something that most people realize. It's not a difficult concept, and it's not an original concept. Liberalism as an idea is boring by now. So there's a temptation to say "Hey, we've tried this long enough, let's try something else." And there's also the temptation to imagine that by discarding liberalism, we could fix all the problems with modern life without incurring any of the costs that our ancestors paid - that we could paste all of the (often exaggerated) benefits of tradition on top of a basically modern framework and get a purer, more moral, more right-feeling society.

But I think that's an illusion. Liberalism has such demonstrable, clear, enormous benefits that I predict very few people will abandon it once they have tasted its fruits. They may complain about the flaws, but they will not throw the baby out with the bathwater.


  1. A lot of his points aren't really anything new, or were breaking down even while he thinks it was still in place. Looking at his list-

    4. This is complicated by estimates of the crime rate back when New York City was city teeming with recent, barely registered immigrants and an incredibly corrupt police force and city government. I'd be careful about the comparisons. But more generally, the population lived in less dense environments, which meant you had less of a chance of coming in contact with a potential murderer.

    6. Lots of people wanted out of marriages. One of the reasons why No-Fault Divorce became legal (aside from tireless efforts by pro-women groups) was because by the 1950s the lack of it was leading to absurdities. People would stage fake "caught in the act" adultery in order to get courts to grant a divorce. Or they would go to Reno, with its famously lenient divorce laws.

    7. The meth and heroin epidemics probably have nothing on the sheer amount of addiction to Laudanum and Cocaine at the turn of the century. Cocaine was so ubiquitous that it was in all kinds of drinks and patent medicines, including Coca-Cola at the time.

    8. I think that's a measurement problem. Suicide used to be incredibly shameful, so a lot of suicides may have been classified as something else at the time.

    9. We're not stuck in a perpetual recession. We just had a decade of stagflation, a decade of catch-up growth, and then a decade of pretty good growth and then some interested by a recession in the early 2000s - before the Great Recession hit.

    10. The government's been at similar levels of debt after war-time, and in any case it's not a huge deal. Borrowing is cheap right now, so people borrow. It wasn't cheap for a long time, and the lack of safety nets other than sporadic state and local "outdoor relief" mean that savings rates were much higher.

    To your list, Noah, I'd add

    There are a lot more possibilities for entertainment

    We don't think about this a lot as relatively rich first-world folks with cheap entertainment everywhere, but cheap entertainment (particularly cheap electronic entertainment, such as TV and movies) are an absolute godsend to people working crappy labor or agricultural jobs. The book Poor Economics goes into this, about how very poor people will actually defer a chunk of their food even when they're already going a bit hungry in order to have things like television and movies.

  2. Anonymous12:19 AM

    Do you enjoy playing checkers with retards? Why are you "debating" a moronic, misogynistic imbecile? What could possibly be the point?

    And yes, the Greek etymology of idiot is private person. Marx means isolated.

  3. Obesity and overmedication both seem like evidence that problems are being addressed. It's not a surprise that improvements in fighting hunger and sickness would have some negative consequences, but on the whole I think the progress in these areas clearly counts in favor of modernity.

    I think you both miss out on the worst problems of modernity. The first is our capacity for creating existential risk. Anissimov does acknowledge the problems with nuclear warfare, but climate change is also obviously disastrous. The flip side of this is that we might be able to foresee or prevent other existential risks, like meteors or plagues.

    The second problem is our use of animals. We are killing more animals more brutally and raising them in more horrific conditions than ever before, which is most egregious now because we know we don't have to.

    1. Anonymous11:33 PM

      Hear! Hear! Those are indeed the two worst problems of modernity.

  4. Willard Putnam12:26 AM

    I always ask myself one quesrion:

    If someone offered to bring me into existence in any country and at any time I wanted, where and when would I want to be born, assuming I didnt know a priori what race, gender, etc. I would be?

    The most sensible answer always seems to be Wetern Europe, Australia, or the USA today.

    And I wonder if Michael would want to live in th 1800s if he was black or a woman.

    Point is: the huge advances in gendervand racial equality combined with the things you mentioned make this the best of times, in the West at least.

  5. You kind of brush by the advantages brought by new technology, but I'd like to focus on one. I occasionally interact (of Facebook!) with some acquaintances who are vehemently anti-vaccine. It has dawned on me that there are many people who have never lived in a world where people were legitimately frightened of contracting, for example, polio. I am old enough to have known people who suffered terrifically from polio, and from birth defects caused by Rubella, and so on. In traditional societies, you sometimes had to deal with epidemics that killed a third of your community, and left many others maimed for life. A really big deal, in my view.

  6. It says on google Michael Anissimov is a science/technology writer and consultant living in San Francisco. So why would he oppose modernity then? pick one or the other

  7. Anonymous8:03 AM

    Sombart would say we have a better standard of living because of clear thinking and an ability to do sums. We value continuous improvement as part of our culture. This is reflected in our technology (List) and "innovative" finance, which has created such a tension between earned and unearned wealth transfer and accumulation.

  8. Anonymous8:39 AM

    How do you think we get to have all the cool stuff we do here in the USA? We externalize the costs and risks to brown people and non-human organisms, and rely on a highly
    exploitative global system. If you look at the world as a whole, I don't think the net suffering, the net increase in ability for self-determination, is higher. I think a lot of people on earth would be really happy if they could continue doing their "mindless farm work" rather than being kicked off their land and having to go live in a slum or be forced to
    switch to unsustainable monoculture growing systems, for example. Similar examples of the effects of "modernity" abound.

    1. Anonymous8:51 AM

      Typo: net suffering not lower, self-determination not higher. Now that I think of it, even if net suffering had improved, it is not ok for this to come at the cost of deliberate and intentional oppression of certain groups.

    2. Willard Putnam9:01 AM

      The last 60/70 years have witnessed the mass introduction of smallpox vaccines in Africa and elsewhere, China and India have lifted literally tens of millions of people out of poverty, literacy rates have risen everywhere, gender equality by most measures has increased in many developing countries, etc.

      Just compare a picture of Dubai today to a picture of Dubai 50 years ago.

      There is no evidence that the developing world is somehow suffering at the expense of the developed world.

      The developing world has had the highest growth rates, the biggest improvements in longevity and literacy, etc.

  9. Obesity, over-medication, social isolation, family breakdown, clinical depression.

    Almost all these existed before. First two were for the rich; last two were mostly for the poor, while the middle was universal in the society.

    Modernity is under stress due to abuse of technology. Through social networks (such as your blog), we connect disjointedly (not at the same time) and it really enforces the isolation. For example, I may get a response on this comment but I am most likely not going to be available at that time.

  10. Gary Hall9:00 AM

    Right, advances in medical science aren't responsible for the decline in non-fatal crime over the last several decades. But medical science isn't all that's changed: during the same period, there has been a dramatic upsurge in the rate of adults who are incarcerated. Are we masking an increase in criminality by casting the net ever wider and keeping those most prone to it away from the general population? If so, what does it say about modernity that it requires an increasingly robust prison system just to keep the apparent violent crime rate at still-too-high pre-1970s levels?

    1. Does the USA have a lot of prisoners or does it need it? The Netherlands is also a modern country, but has only one person per 1000 in prison, whereas in the USA the rate is 3%.

  11. Anonymous11:19 AM

    Lots of good points, except WWII. It was the second war of modernity: it employed machines administered with modern techniques and for purposes of a modern construct (the nation state and its political ideology).

    Unfortunately, it was vast murder on a historical scale.

    Let's wait a bit before we declare that modernity is kinder to peace.

    1. Anonymous9:07 PM

      WWI was not a war of modernity, it was the self-inflicted implosion of the traditional, dynastic social order. WWII was a reverberation conflict of the old guard and its aspirants (Nazism being, as per Norbert Elias, a coarsened form of a brutal aristocracy, down to the morganatic percentages / race laws and so on). Or take the American South with its aristocratic play-acting and the Civil War.

      These conflicts keep breaking up along lines of modernity again the traditional feudal interests of land owners, monarchs, (pseudo-)aristos, clergy, and the military. Keep in mind where Germany and Japan were by WWII and who was running them. And stop romanticizing the old order. It was horrible. I'll take FDR and Churchill over Willy, Nicky, and the whole damn bunch of them.

      "Fascism is not in itself a new order of society. It is the future refusing to be born." - Aneurin Bevan

  12. They may complain about the flaws, but they will not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    There are vast swathes of the population who do not know the difference between the baby and the bathwater. At the core of modernity is a belief that objective reality exists. Most Americans do not believe in the existence of objective reality. It is the minority of scientific rationalists who are keeping the system going by engaging in a constant struggle with the magical thinking of the romantics.

    1. I think your first sentence is frighteningly accurate. After that I think you're on shakier ground. True, attachment to religious dogma in Red State America is a force of reaction. But I would say that "the core" of modernity is more about an attitude of tolerance towards diversity than any ontological or metaphysical question.

    2. mattski - I believe that Enlightenment epistemology is at the core of the scientific advances which separate our material world from that of the past. The challenge to that epistemology comes not just from the bible thumpers but also the crystal worshipers and every other species of magical thinker.

      I accept that tolerance of diversity is important. Personally I believe that Europe only became somewhat tolerant of diversity after the cost of massacring each other became too great. The Thirty Years War seems to have been a turning point. The most emphatic modern advocates of diversity say that we should not question the cultural values of others. The Enlightenment says we should constantly challenge and seek to improve the cultural values of everyone. I am with the Enlightenment on "diversity".

    3. Yes, I agree on diversity. Of course there is plenty of room for interpretation of the art of "challenging." Easy to do it poorly, not so easy to do it respectfully.

  13. It would have helped if there was clarity over what was actually being discussed. "Modernity" is a (debated) concept and a category. "What is Wrong with Modernity?" is just a (misused) rhetorical flourish. It would have been more accurate to have titled it "Why lots of things suck today that sucked a lot less in the past". And by comparing today with 50s, 60s, 70s America the original piece appears to be comparing the post-modern with the postwar or the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society and doing so naively e.g. on marriage looking at divorce rates, but ignoring things like marital rape now being illegal.

  14. Anonymous1:31 PM


  15. James2:20 PM

    Neoreactionism is just fascism with a smaller state.

  16. James2:27 PM

    "So what could possibly motivate monarchical yearnings among American conservatives? A fear that the American people have failed and needs to be properly directed by the right people. A fear that existing privilege cannot be maintained without explicit resort to violence as a political principle. A resolute inability to identify with the majority of the citizenry, the abiding conviction that one is a member of the natural but unrecognized elite.

    I think the right word for this kind of thing isn’t reactionary but fascist."

    1. Anonymous3:29 PM

      The promise of the Confederacy remains unfulfilled.

    2. James4:30 PM

      Julius Evola, who is Michael Anusimov's main influence, and whose work forms the foundation of neoreaction, was basically just a racist, fascist, nazi scumbag:

      "Evola was one of a number of right-wing intellectuals who opposed Benito Mussolini's Lateran Accords with the Roman Catholic Church and rejected the Fascist party's nationalism and its focus on mass movement mob politics; he hoped to influence the regime toward his own variation on fascist racial theories and his "Tradionalist" philosophy. Early in 1930, Evola launched Torre, a bi-weekly review, to voice his conservative-revolutionary ideas and denounce the demagogic tendencies of official fascism; government censors suppressed the journal and engaged in character assassination against its staff (for a time, Evola retained a bodyguard of like-minded radical fascists) until it died out in June of that year. From 1934 to 1943, he edited the cultural page of Roberto Farinacci's journal Regime Fascista.

      Mussolini read Evola's Sintesi di Dottrina della Razza in August 1941, and met with Evola to offer him his praise. Evola later recounted that Mussolini had found in his work a uniquely Roman form of fascist racism distinct from that found in Nazi Germany. With Mussolini's backing, Evola launched the minor-journal Sangue e Spirito (Blood and Spirit). While not always in agreement with German racial theorists, Evola traveled to Germany in February 1942 and obtained support for German collaboration on Sangue e Spirito from leading Nazi race theorists.

      Evola supported Fascism for his own ends, but was rebuked by the regime because his ends were not always theirs. When World War II broke out, he volunteered for military service in order to fight the Communists on the Russian front; he was rejected because he had too many detractors in the bureaucracy (Hansen 2002). Italian Fascism went into decline when, during the midst of the War in 1943, Mussolini was deposed and imprisoned. Evola, although not a member of the Fascist Party, and despite his apparent problems with the Fascist regime, was one of the first people to greet Mussolini when the latter was broken out of prison by Otto Skorzeny in 1943.

      After the Italian surrender to the Allied forces on September 8, 1943, Evola moved to Germany, where he spent the remainder of World War II, also working as a researcher on Freemasonry for the SS Ahnenerbe in Vienna. The research on Freemasonry resulted in a document titled "Freimaurerei: Geschichte und Mythos", published by Ahnenerbe in limited copies with his name as editor in chief.

    3. James4:31 PM


      Evola and the SS

      "But in spite of all these negative aspects, there was something in National Socialism that attracted Evola: the concept of a state ruled by an Order, which he felt was embodied by the SS. 'We are inclined to the opinion that we can see the nucleus of an Order in the higher sense of tradition in the 'Black Corps,' he wrote in Vita Italiana (August 15, 1938). Again in Vita Italiana (August 1941, 'Per una profonda alleanza italo-germanica' [For a Deep Italian-Germanic Alliance]) he writes: 'Beyond the confines of the party and of any political-administrative structure, an elite in the form of a new 'Order'—that is, a kind of ascetic-military organization that is held together by the principles of 'loyalty' and 'honor,' must form the basis of the new state.' As mentioned, Evola held the SS, which Himmler strove to design according to the model of the Teutonic Order, to be this elite.

      The castles of the SS Order, with their 'initiations,' the emphasis on transcending the purely human element, the prerequisite of physical valor, as well as the ethical requirements (loyalty, discipline, defiance of death, willingness to sacrifice, unselfishness), strengthened Evola in his conviction. He also was of the opinion that the ethics of the SS were borrowed from the Jesuits" (Dr. H. T. Hansen in "Julius Evola's Political Endeavors" introduction to "Men Among the Ruins: Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist")."

    4. He grimaced at an unpleasant recollection, but said doggedly, “Those two worlds – and many more, for all I know – are in some way the same. The same fight was being waged, here the Nazis and there the Middle World; but in both places, Chaos against Law, something old and wild and blind at war with man and the works of man. In both worlds it was the time of need for Denmark and France. So Ogier came forth in both of them, as he must.”

      - Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

    5. James6:34 PM

      That's deep, Noah. So are you Ogier, defending the world against these neo-fascist barbarians?

    6. No, I'm the heroic wisecracking dwarf who dies just before the final confrontation...

  17. Noah, what do you make of this anti-modernist (neoreactionary):

    Fantasy novel reading, anti-democracy, white separatists?

    1. Lol, that particular link reminds me of your bestiary and your heroes of blogging posts actually. Only your bestiary one was really funny!

    2. BTW, what was the 2nd photo for "Marxists" in your bestiary? Was it supposed to be that error message?

    3. Cliven Bundy's speech sounds like a less literate echo of these guys.

    4. BTW, what was the 2nd photo for "Marxists" in your bestiary? Was it supposed to be that error message?

      yep ;-)

  18. Anonymous5:54 PM

    (thanks for re-enabling anonymous comments, btw.)

    Tradition vs modernity is classic PoliSci 101. Literally, the first homework in PoliSci 101. Warned that the best essays came from defenders of tradition, I wrote the obvious put-away on behalf of modernity, a list like yours but with the conclusion that all of this ultimately doesn't matter because modernity wins. My TA said that was absolutely right. He was a smart guy. Looked him up a while back--he left academia for software engineering.

  19. Why do you even bother debating? The list is long:

    - Your children don't die. Dead children were a big thing pre-modern: lots of child sized coffins, Sunday afternoons at the graveyard visiting sons, daughters and siblings = old time fun. Bonus: you don't get to die of childbirth related complications.
    - You don't suffer and die from simple infections or chronic diseases like diabetes. Bonus: cosmetic surgery so you don't have to be ugly, even if you were born that way.
    - You don't have to work like a horse, and even horses don't have to work like horses; we have machines.
    - Women, blacks, catholics, poor people, lepers, blacksmiths have real legal rights. If you are a women and longing for the good old days, you are into the M side of S&M and not in a good clean fun way.
    - Central heating and air conditioning - There is no virtue in being uncomfortable 24/7. Related: electric lights, de/humidifiers, synthetic fabrics, washing machines & driers, dishwashers.
    - Better information flow and better travel options - There is no virtue in accepting and enduring horrible oppression. That's for dead Russian novelists.
    - Reliable food supplies. Famine is a bummer, despite what the weight loss gurus tell you. Also, safer food and water.
    - Weapons that scare the living piss out of us. That's actually a plus. Related: cheap weapons that make asymmetric warfare less asymmetric.
    - Birth control. Birth control. Birth control. Did I mention birth control? Bonus: better control of sexually transmitted diseases.

    The list can go on and on. Conservatives are generally sadists. Granted, that's a gratuitous insult to the Marquis de Sade who was only interested in sadism as a matter of his own sexual pleasure and not as a political policy. He might have been into whips and chains, but he was never the type to starve a child or deny someone medical care on principle.

    1. Ah, another person who isn't smart enough to understand that there's a difference between technological improvement and societal improvement. One who can't understand that it's possible to have better machines and a worse society and/or populace - despite a couple of centuries of evidence and authors from Huxley to Bradbury to Asimov to Chomsky to McLuhan trying to warn you about it.

      Apparently you've somehow come up with the idea that people who'd like to go back to societal ideas that work well also, for some unknown reason, want to ban penicillin and air conditioning. This is at best hysterical nonsense, and at worst an utter lie. In fact, if anything, it's the other way around - most of the prominent Luddites I see are leftist types - either doomers of the James Howard Kunstler variety, or environmental Chicken Littles who engage in the mystical and ultimately doomed fallacy of thinking that electricity will continue to magically show up in our homes without us having to keep doing the things that reliably produce it.

      Nonsense all around, but thanks for playing.

      P.S. Your understanding of history before 1965 is garbage. Also, your understanding of science is garbage - yes, lots of people actually do die from diabetes, right here and now in 2014.

    2. Technology helps determine society and culture. Your massive assumption is that culture and technology are orthogonal, which seems like a poor reading of history.

    3. Anonymous2:29 PM

      A lot more people died of diabetes before the invention of insulin.

  20. bjdubbs8:15 PM

    Somebody should print this out and laminate it so that when liberal society expires of ennui and abortion, there will still be a record of the society that once created all of those indestructible plastic bottles.

    1. James8:39 PM

      go masturbate to a picture of hitler.

    2. lulz, bjdubbs you done got told, son

    3. bjdubbs9:14 PM

      sockpuppeting your own blog, smith? a new low.

    4. But I'm just a Brad DeLong sockpuppet to begin with...

  21. Anonymous10:41 PM

    "The Soviets had some of the world's best scientists, but they didn't have Final Fantasy (or Viagra)."

    This sounds like the closing line of a doctoral thesis on the Cold War.

  22. Some interesting reading today on neoreactionary websites, and about neoreactionaries and their hoped for "Dark Enlightenment":

    "Worldly gain at the expense of the Volk, exemplified in the United States, is the main cause of the ongoing destruction of the white race"

    Here's part of a series on "black history month"

    From the comments:

    "White Man’s burden. It looks like whites will carry these clowns till the day we die. Can you imagine what this country could be without these knuckleheads dragging us down?"

    The truth about lynching:

    More topics here:

    Some thoughts on Jews:

    "The only serious disagreement is the blame-the-jews crowd, and my disagreement with them is not about all the bad stuff done by so many Jews, but that blaming the Jews only rolls back the clock to 1950 or so, which from the point of view of a reactionary is only marginally different to being a commie."

    Rationalwiki's take on the "dark enlightenment" / neoreactionary movement:

    Mark A. Sadowski looks into their economic theories:

    Hmmm.... cultural resentment, white tribalism, racial / gender elitism, anti-democracy, economic crankery, a "Magic the gathering" Medieval hero worship adolescent male geek fantasy feel to it (wasn't Himmler and the SS into that kind of thing)... ... neo-fascist sounds about right.

    1. But maybe these guys are not a big concern. They don't even seem to take themselves too seriously:

      "I’m much more pessimistic than others about what we can reasonably achieve. I view progressivism as much more resilient than others."

      "Don’t you think that writing to save the world is – in itself – fundamentally progressive in nature (not to say wildly presumptuous)?"

      "I’m not sure we’re trying to get taken seriously by serious people.

      Plus, as my dad always says, “fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

      Or as Nicolas Gomez Davila said, “As long as they do not take him seriously, the man who says the truth can live for a while in a democracy. Then, the hemlock.”"

      I don't exactly see brownshirt fanaticism in torchlight rallies or smashing windows of undesirables in this crowd...

  23. Anonymous12:20 AM

    Hey Noah, do you have numbers or a ballpark estimate of how big this Dark Enlightenment stuff is? It looked like you were doing a human interest story on a slow news day, but the radishmag link is, uh, mm hmm. You don't put that much effort into ridiculing something unless it's a real thing. Is this gonna be the next libertarianism? I've heard from people study these things that the biggest powder keg isn't on the left, it's angry white guys who did well but not well enough.

    1. Hey Noah, do you have numbers or a ballpark estimate of how big this Dark Enlightenment stuff is?

      Not big.

      I was just bored and felt like writing this... :-)

    2. I was just bored and felt like writing this

      So you were just trolling.

  24. Anonymous2:23 AM

    I'm pretty sure that these neo-reactionaries don't see the "life not sucking for women" thing as an advantage of modernity. Don't they want women to be both subservient and sexually available?

    1. Mark Plus11:35 AM

      I think many Neoreactionaries understand that traditional society would REDUCE the sexual availability of women. For one thing, women would have to marry early as virgins and start bearing children, instead of staying single and artificially sabotaging their natural fertility cycle with artificial hormones so that they can damage their bodies and minds with sterile promiscuity during their their most fertile years.

  25. Mark Plus11:29 AM

    Ironically the Neoreactionaries have Plato and Aristotle in their camp. You know, the founders of Western philosophy? They expressed skepticism of democracy and saw human fulfillment in the small, ethnically uniform polis run by the organic elite which emerges. The Neoreactionaries would do well to remind everyone of these highly regarded preceptors.

    1. Instead people read something like this:
      and get an entirely different perception.

      Personally I'm all for monarchy as long as I'm the monarch. Also the "organic elite" sounds vaguely like Morgan Wasterler's upper 1/3 (excluding the top 1%) "HEGEMONY!" Except I don't think he's thinking "small, ethnically uniform polis." Actually the "ethnically uniform" slipped by me at first. That's the part that makes you guys sound creepy to me. It sure sounds like "golden age" thinking too. I wonder if any of us really have an idea what "human fulfillment" was like is the "polis." Do you suppose the Helots and other slaves were getting their share of "human fulfillment" in their "ethnically uniform" poleis? Maybe you're right... maybe there were better off being born into slavery. At least they'd have something to do.

    2. Plato yes. Aristotle, I don't think so.

      Any reasonable person can and should be skeptical of democracy, so I don't think we can fault Aristotle for some skepticism. It takes a patient mind to arrive at the conclusion that for all its faults democracy is still better than the alternatives. Aristotle had that kind of patient, scientific approach.

  26. Anonymous12:19 PM

    Seriously? Of all the medical advances you're going to go with Viagra?

  27. "it is interesting, stimulating, and perspective-widening to meet people from a lot of walks of life."

    Here, though, I think modernity is more of a mixed bag than it seems at first, because the same forces that put us in touch with a more diverse group of people over a wider geographic area also cause the culture to homogenize over a wider area, leading ultimately to fewer walks of life to be exposed to, or at least fewer you'd need to leave your community to be exposed to. Sure, with each revolution in communication or transportation you can start meeting people with very different life experiences, but that is always a fleeting moment before your kids and their kids grow up listening to the same music and eating the same food.

  28. You can see directly how good medical technology has become because since 2001 the CDC has also tracked non-fatal violence-related injuries (Google CDC Wonder). Non-fatal injuries, down 10% while homicides down 15%. Improvement in trauma surgery and widespread availability of rapid clot packs has had some benefit, but it does not explain the whole decline. Also, you should be aware there are reporting issues with violence stats in the early 20th century. It wasn't the law that municipalities reported until 1904, coinciding with the jump, and even today much reporting is technically voluntary.

    You should also be skeptical of things like reported rape. Which has *climbed 3x* since the 1960s*. It has *not* declined as you state in the post. According to the FBI the forcible rape rate was 9.6 in 1960, and 26.9 in 2012 (check:

    Is rape really up 3x, or are people more comfortable reporting it? Have to be careful with crime reporting because people don't report every crime, and report them (or not) for various reasons like you don't report getting assaulted by your drug dealer (or often, your husband).

    Plus, the average American commits 3 felonies a day so what's the point, really.

    People who say we need to revert to 1900 really should stop talking about it and find a town and work in a steel mill, or coal mine, or hunt to feed their family on Saturdays. For at least a year. Go to Alaska where land is cheap and live off the land. People do it. See how long it takes you to appreciate the grocery store and strawberries in January. Hunting and farming is hard work, the animals don't flop on the dinner table all butchered, the cows need to be milked at 0 dark 30, and the crops need to be planted and harvested. Try it with modern technology, let alone 1900s technology, its hard ass backbreaking work that wears you out by the time your 50.

  29. By the way, if you think drugs were not considered a "scourge" here is my favorite 1914 New York Times OPED:

    "NEGRO COCAINE "FIENDS" ARE A NEW SOUTHERN MENACE; Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken to "Sniffing" Since Deprived of Whisky by Prohibition."

    Mostly the "scourge" was lazy mexicans and their pot, the yellow man and opium, and Negroes and their cocaine.

    funny how even today, most of the people incarcerated for the drug "scourge" remains predominately people from those groups.

  30. Anonymous2:33 PM

    Modern society allows people to look back in time and wistfully recall the Dark Ages as a glowing time in the history of human affairs. Richard Weaver beat these guys to it over 60 years ago.

  31. "In lots of traditional societies it was very hard to get ahead if you weren't an aristocrat"
    According to Greg Clark, most of our ideas about mobility in ancient vs modern societies are falsified by the data. Mobility is quite low in BOTH, because it's not transmitted directly from the social status of parents to children but through individual characteristics (which Greg Cochran refers to as "moxie").

    Regarding women, I'm enough of a positivist/behaviorist/Friedmanite not to take happiness surveys very seriously, but if you do, it shows women used to be happier than men. More recently they've sunk to equality. Robin Hanson says that's good though, because we actually want power more than happiness.

    Speaking of Hanson, I think his take on the insanity of "dreamtime" is the best critique of modernity. We are (figuratively, not in DSM terms) insane because our wealth insulates us from the downsides of our insanity. Our descendants, who will be optimized for their environments like our ancestors were, will be incredulous at how inefficiently we utilized that wealth.

  32. As for there being no race riots involving Mexican Americans, there were the Zoot Suit riots in WW2.

  33. Not just medical technology: violence generally is down, including non-fatal violent gun crime.

  34. Because Hans Rosling.

  35. The worst mistake in human history:

  36. Jon H9:51 PM

    "it is interesting, stimulating, and perspective-widening to meet people from a lot of walks of life."

    I don't think the neoreactionaries agree. I think they much prefer to meet only people exactly like themselves.