Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"

NOTE: These seven essays were reproduced from my defunct blog Random Notes as they will be cited in my soon to be posted essay on common sense and pragmatism.

After writing "In Defense of Standards", I came to realize that I had skipped over some significant points. So, in the interest of making myself understood, or at least less misunderstood, I want to make a few points.

First, I believe I may not have been clear about my reason for transitioning from standards to cultural assimilation. Hopefully the logic is clear enough, but just in case, enforcing standards is an essential part of any common culture. By having a single standard of behavior for everyone, we can all anticipate the reactions and actions of others and experience the benefits of predictability. Once we introduce diverse standards, it becomes impossible to anticipate responses. Even if we know the cultures with which we deal, often it is impossible to anticipate which set of behaviors apply to a random stranger, and so each encounter becomes a mystery, removing all the benefits gained through a common culture.

Of course those are hardly the only benefits of a common cultural. But I wrote before, at great length, about the harms done to those who allow racial dogma to exclude them from the benefits of a shared point of reference and a common cultural shorthand. Obviously I could go on, but basically excluding oneself from the common culture is akin to refusing to learn the dominant language, it cuts you off from much of the flow of communication, prevents you from understanding fully much of what occurs around you, and impedes your interactions with that culture. And, by reducing the significance of a common culture, the multiculturalists seek to effectively reduce all of us to that condition, each restricted to his own culture and no other. It is a terrible impediment to impose on everyone in order to gain some nebulous "diversity" with equally nebulous benefits.

My second point is one which I illustrated with a rather frivolous example, arguing that the "hegemonic" melting pot, which supposed denigrated all non-European cultures gave us carry out Chinese, pizza and Mexican. Yes, it was a silly example, but my point was sound. The idea that the "melting pot" denigrated anything not of northern and eastern European origin is mad. How else could we hear so much about Jews running the nation? Yes, the origins of the nation were largely British. And so all other cultures found themselves being assimilated into a largely British culture. But look at how many German foods have become "traditionally American". Or Christmas traditions? Or other areas of culture. And then other cultures were assimilated into the German0-British hybrid. Italians, Jews, Poles, Czechs, others. And then black cultures after the Civil War, when blacks began to integrate to some degree into mainstream society. Not to mention Asians, especially in the later 19th century. Each was assimilated, but they also made changes, changes that became part of the assimilated culture the next group found.

No, it is not easy for groups being assimilated to make their mark on the dominant culture, and it shouldn't be. The dominant culture should not change willy-nilly (I will discuss that a little later). But those cultures being assimilated have three choices, well four, but one is to reject assimilation. Other than that, they can fully assimilate and become members of the dominant culture, and many have done this. They can keep their own culture at home and assimilate in public, and many have done this as well. Or they can try to maintain a public hybrid of both, in which case the aspects of their culture that are most important will be merged with the dominant culture, and, should these aspects prove useful enough, eventually they may become part of the dominant culture themselves. It doesn't work often, it takes a long time, and many times it doesn't completely change the dominant culture, but it is the way in which minorities joining another culture can have an influence upon it.

And, though America is often criticized, we are actually one of the most open cultures on Earth. Unlike most nations states, we have no national racial or ethnic identity. Despite the claims of a few white supremacists, there is no British or Germanic heritage. Yes, at one time perhaps, but we have assimilated so many groups there is no clear ethnic or racial heritage specifically American. We are unique in being a nation of choice*, not accident of birth. We have no racial or cultural tradition going back centuries. We are united by a government, but not by any common ethnic heritage.

All of which is a round about way of saying more than say France or England or Germany or Japan, we are open to new ideas because it is hard to argue something is "un-American" in the same way a Frenchman can say something is "un-French". We do have a common culture, a common language and so on, but they do not have the same visceral significance to us that they do to nations whose culture, language, religion, traditions and so on are all tied up into a single identity. We have traditions, but they are not felt the same way they are in other nations**.

But that is not to say our common culture, our traditions, should be fluid. We have a common culture, even if it is not the ancient traditions found in many nation-states with a single ethnic-linguistic-racial identity. And that culture has evolved over time, and been tested time and again. I know it is considered daring to "break with tradition" and even on the right there is a sort of "positivist" trend that sees "new" as a value judgment.

That is the sort of arrogance conservatives once fought, though many seem to have forgotten. And the few who recall seem to have converted it into the opposite error, and decided that "old" is a value judgment as well. However, the truth is, the reason we place value on gradual changes, and why we value tradition, is not because old is inherently good, not new inherently bad***. We resist rapid change, and venerate traditions for three reasons.

First, we venerate tradition simply because it is tradition. It is known to all and provides the commonality I have been talking about. Changing it rapidly means that everyone will not be informed of the changes and we will find ourselves with a fragmented culture due to nothing but the pace of change. That alone argues for keeping changes slow.

Second, our ancestors were not idiots. They were ordinary humans possessed of the normal range of human intellect. And over the decades or centuries, thousand or millions of them looked at these traditions and decided there was no better alternative. So, before we decide our judgment is better than many, many years of thought from all those individuals, we better have a pretty good argument for it. Which means, whatever change we make ought to be made slowly, so we can be sure we are not making a huge mistake in disregarding all those years of counter-argument.

Finally, any change has repercussions. And so when something change sin a culture, smaller changes ripple out from it, sparking their own repercussions and so on and on, making lots of unforeseeable alterations in the culture. As it is very difficult, if not impossible, to foresee all the possible consequence of these changes, it only makes sense to make changes slowly, incrementally, as gently as possible, so that should an unwanted consequence come about, it will do as little harm as possible. 

Then again, this once was common knowledge among conservative ("Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism","In Praise of Slow Changes",  "Interpretation and Activism"). It surprises me that I would have to argue for it now.

Then again, there was also a time when both liberals and conservatives were united in defense of their own culture, rather than liberals, and some nominal conservatives, arguing that supporting one's culture is some sort of barbarism. So it is hard to say what is and is not a surprising argument to have to make.


* There is a reason we had so few restrictions on immigration including no overall immigration law prior to 1914. America was, in some ways, thought of the same way the Communists thought of the USSR, an experimental state, open to all men who wanted to be free. In practice it may not have met the ideals, but that was the concept. I know today to argue in favor of that position would land me afoul of all the immigration protesters, but I do really believe in open borders (with some exceptions for wartime, health issues, criminals, etc.). Of course I only believe in them once the welfare state is a dead issue, but that is another post entirely, and one sure to get some heated responses.

** I know this is going to get at least one angry response arguing in favor of a common culture and arguing that I am some sort of evil relativist, despite all I have written. But the truth is we really don't have an American identity the same way the French do. I recall a story one professor, who specialized in the demographic patterns of Baltimore, one told me. A very old woman was talking about all the new immigrants on her block. Her closing line "Except for me and the German woman down the street, there are no Americans left." And that is kind of my point. American is a fluid concept. It is not the same visceral, national-linguistic-racial-ethnic mass that so many other identities are. But going into that is probably a task for another time.

*** In many areas, mostly technological, new is often better, safer, faster, cheaper, etc. But just because new often means better, it does not mean any particular novelty is automatically better. New may be better in general, but each specific change must still prove itself.


If anyone wants a truly surprising experience, just read writing about immigration and naturalization from the 50's or earlier, even from the 1960's. The positions staked out by both sides sound utterly bizarre to modern ears. Then again, I am sure, could they hear them, the people who wrote those articles in the 50's and 60's would find modern arguments just as surprising.  Then again, having grown used the the American (and British) practice of considering it sophisticated to loathe one's own culture, I am still surprised when foreign writers express a degree of patriotism or nationalism which would result in ridicule in the US. (Yet another thing that makes me laugh at claims of the left that we are especially evil because of our "imperialism" and "jingoism" and "chauvinism".)

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/09/26.

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