Discover more from Aaron Renn
Weekly Digest: Evangelicalism, Elites, and Excellence
Welcome to my weekly digest for October 14, 2022.
For new subscribers, this contains a roundup of my recent writings and podcasts, as well as links to the best articles from around the web this week. You can control what emails you get from me by visiting your account page.
For new paid Subscribers - thank you! - click over for instructions for accessing the Knowledge Base.
My monthly newsletter will go out on Monday.
Evangelicalism, Elites and Excellence
I was a guest this week on Kevin DeYoung’s podcast Life, Books, and Everything. We had a great conversation about my three worlds model, elite theory, and nationalism among other things.
James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution Theory and Its Revival
I have written before on the need to take account of the managerial revolution in American business and government. Last week I participated in a National Association of Scholars discussion with American Affairs editor Julius Krein and Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy on the revival of Burnham’s theories. It was a great discussion for those interested in this topic. My presentation starts at around 58:00, but you should watch it all.
Why Conservatism Failed
Jon Askonas has a great piece on Compact magazine on why conservatism failed. He focuses in on the role of technology, and how conservatives failed to understand it. I consider technological change one of the “conditions of modernity” along with managerialism (to which it is related) that are largely missing from the modern American conservative’s conception of society. Some excerpts:
Modernity liquidates traditions for the same reason that a firm might liquidate an underperforming factory: to improve the allocation and return of capital. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations,” as Marx put it, “with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.” Technology, for Marx, is the true revolutionary principle, destroying traditions by shifting their foundations faster than they can adapt.
As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards. They can render traditions purposeless, destroy the distinction between virtuous and vicious behavior, make customary ways of life obsolete, or render their rewards meaningless or paltry. If the institutions that shepherd traditions aren’t regenerated, and if no one adopts their practices, traditions will fade into nothingness.
What defined modern conservatism was its attempt, against the onslaught of revolutionary ideologies, to set aside foundational questions in order to make common cause in defense of the actually existing human order. But the movement failed because it neglected the true revolutionary principle: technological transformation. Conservatives “lost the culture” not because they lost the battle of ideas, but because they lost the economy. Communists sought to transform society by transforming the organization of the household (the oikonomos, the etymological origin of “economy”)—but in the end, the efforts of political revolutionaries and party apparatchiks paled beside the impact of the Pill and the two-income trap.
When you descend from lofty rhetoric about “Traditions” and “Values,” it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology. For decades, sociologists have charted the decline of two-parent families, hobbies, local newspapers, churches, stable employment, women’s clubs, libraries, amateur sports, political rhetoric, neighborhood barbecues, Boy Scouts, small businesses, classical music, credit unions, and on and on. Even studies that catastrophize about the rise of loneliness, fatherlessness, economic precarity, and suicide, miss the bigger picture, which is that the social infrastructure conducive to human flourishing has shifted even for those fortunate enough to piece together a semblance of the average American life 50 years ago. A tradition is at an end when the wisdom of yesteryear no longer obtains.
A great philosopher once said that with modernity, the question of human nature was abandoned because it had proved too perilous to debate. Now, under the sign of machine intelligence, human nature has returned to center stage. The radical alteration of the social environment and the strange new potentials offered by technology have rendered received wisdom obsolete, such that translating it into the new environment requires a deeper prudence than mere reception of tradition. Because the tools for modifying and mimicking humanity are getting better every year, and because all traditional cultures have been consumed by modern dynamism, we must once again return to the question of what constitutes human flourishing, and what is required for it.
We can no longer conserve. So we must build and rebuild and, therefore, take a stand on what is worth building. We must be willing to exercise judgment over what constitutes the good life—over what our telos is—and to work to channel innovation in that direction and restrain it where it is destructive.
The modern conservative project failed because it didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to the telos of sheer profit. Decrying left-wing revolutionary politics and postmodern anarchy, conservatives missed that the real moral relativism was to believe that one could change the material form of society without directly affecting its substance or its ends.
Best of the Web
Slate: How Female-Heavy Sex Ratios Are Changing the College Dating Scene - digs into the fraternity and sorority scene, and how frat guys create ecosystems of artificial scarcity on top of the strong female gender skew that exists on campus today. A quote:
While the landscape of college hookup culture has been fashioned into something of a straight male fantasy, according to a group of female students who run in the same crowd as Tom, Ryan, and Parker, this romantic terrain turns college men into so-called f—boys. Sociologists offer a less crude explanation of the situation. Using data from a survey of 1,000 straight, female American college students, professors Jeremy Uecker and Mark Regnerus showed that on campuses like Rollins, where women make up a higher proportion of the student body, women reported going on fewer traditional dates, were less likely to have boyfriends, and engaged in more hookups with more men.
Lyman Stone/IFS: For Fertility, Marriage Still Matters
WSJ: The Business of Selling Toys to Your Inner Child - Another installment in the infantilization of the American adult. This article is about companies repositioning to cash in on the desire of adults to continue partaking of the pleasures of childhood. Some years back when the “brony” movement - adult men who like My Little Pony - got started, Hasbro was rightly creeped out. Today, McDonald’s is launching adult Happy Meals, American Girl Place is installing cocktail lounges for adults that collect their dolls, and Legos and Build-A-Bear are also targeting the adult market.
NYT: How California’s Bullet Train Went Off the Rails - Nothing new here, just another exposé on how California’s high speed rail project became a train wreck. Our inability to plan and build infrastructure is part of the catabolic diminishment of our capacity to do things. Note that the French high speed rail agency walked away from the project and decided to focus on a country that knew what they were doing - in North Africa.
The company pulled out in 2011. “There were so many things that went wrong,” Mr. McNamara said. “SNCF [French national railways] was very angry. They told the state they were leaving for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.” Morocco’s bullet train started service in 2018.
NYT: ‘The Cash Monster Was Insatiable’: How Insurers Exploited Medicare for Billions - Another example of how scamming and fraud have become an accepted way of life, even for blue chip companies in America.
New Content and Media Mentions
Simon Kennedy writes about a recent “negative world” incident in Australia, in which someone was forced to step town from the presidency of a soccer club after less than 24 hours on the job because he belonged to a conservative church. Bill Muehlenberg cited my work in writing about Christian witness in a hostile culture. And I was also featured in a First Things article.
I was a guest this week on the Life on Target podcast.
New this week:
The Importance of Luck in Success - I followed up on my podcast from last week about the role of chance in human affairs in light of some articles on the topic that - luckily - came across the wire this week.
At American Reformer, Christian Winter reviews two films lamenting a lost way of a more rooted life.
If you’re not yet a paid Subscriber, please consider becoming one today. For just $10/month, you not only help sustain and grow the mission here, but you also get access to exclusive content, podcast and interview transcripts, commenting privileges, access to the Subscriber Knowledge Base, and occasional special events.
More on the 1980s
One of the observations I made in my podcast was about how the 1980s lacked the detached, ironic, cynical style that’s became the default mode in American public engagement. In 2001, Jedediah Purdy wrote an essay in the American Prospect on the age of irony. He was also featured in a New York Times magazine piece criticizing irony. And in 2012 the Times wrote a piece on how to live without irony.
A New Atlantis piece about Jon Stewart argues that he paved the way for Tucker Carlson. As I said, Stewart’s influence on Carlson can be debated, but his show, which debuted in 1999, is the perfect example of the hard turn into the mode of detached irony and cynicism in the 90s. I’m not saying he caused it, but he is an example of it.
Subscribers also left some great comments on the podcast. Kevin wrote:
Aaron - we are the same age, and I echo a lot of your observations. The ironic detachment part - there's probably a lot we could say about it all, but I think the 80s generally were a very positive time for the national mood. We had a very popular President who always talked positively about the country. We had a good economy for most, and a unified sense of mission against the USSR. I always find it interesting that 80s pop music is STILL so popular, virtually everywhere. I remember as a kid wondering why 50s music was popular in the 80s, and a lot of 50s culture. Well now, 40 years later, it's 80s culture that seems to be dominant. I think in great part that's because the music, the movies, the TV were all largely fun, positive, etc and the decades since have been much more negative or at least mixed.
User “Spouting Thomas” wrote:
I was born in the early 80s and therefore don't have the perspective of most people here (although I've retained a lot of memories from early childhood). But when we speak of "ironic detachment", I think of The Simpsons as the central example, even if we can debate the degree to which it was riding the wave and the degree to which it caused the wave.
What's interesting about The Simpsons, as a sort of living artifact from the moment this cultural turn took place, is that at the time of its debut it was intended to be a send-up or reaction to family sitcoms of the era (I think The Cosby Show looms especially large here) which the Simpsons creators viewed as unrealistically saccharine. We might also put Married With Children and, to a lesser degree, Roseanne in this same category as the Simpsons and preceding it slightly.
But that "saccharine" sort of family sitcom died off so quickly that people tuning into The Simpsons even a few years later might not have even recognized the parody (I know that I didn't). Family shows were largely passe -- the 90s sitcom landscape belonged to Friends and Seinfeld -- and those that still existed were a lot snarkier. The Cosby Show was #1 for 5 seasons and my recollection is that its reruns were nowhere to be found a few years later (long before Cosby's fall from grace).
Meanwhile in the early 2010s, there were still so many big-city billboards advertising reruns of Seinfeld, a show that had been #1 for 2 seasons 15+ years earlier, that the Onion wrote an article mocking them.