MEME WAR REDUX
But it all begins with something much closer to home. Please be patient, because it will all tie together, I promise!
“SOCIAL MOBILITY” AS A WAY TO ENSURE THE DISCOVERY AND GOOD USE OF TALENT
One of my ongoing themes has dealt with the plight of our professional castes, as they are harried from above by incompetent but super-empowered politicians...while also worrying about competition from below, amid a rising Age of Amateurs. In a period of transition that appears to have gone completely unnoticed by any other pundits or commentators, it appears that those who most benefitted from the 20th Century -- the professionals -- now seem to be caught in a squeeze of transforming proportions.
One has to sympathize with these skilled men and women, especially, in government service, who have slowly come to realize their quandary. For example, those in the intelligence services, who seem to finally have found the courage, in their recent National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, to stand up and tell the truth, instead of what they were ordered to say. Why have they obeyed - till now - political masters who were clearly stupid and monomaniacal, if not outright mad? Recent years have re-taught a valuable lesson -- that people are people. Though sworn to protect constitutional law and an open society, each member of the civil service can be expected to do the human thing, drifting toward some comfortable or safe path. Toward safe or reassuring assumptions. Especially protecting his or her career. This can affect not only their actions, but what they are able to perceive.
It’s not a new phenomenon. So, it might be a good time to do one of our trademark “step-backs” in order to seek perspective... from the land where the entire concept of meritocracy was invented, more than a thousand years ago.
Indeed, it seems time to link this topic to another theme of mine -- that of “meme war”.
To start off, have a look at an excellent op-ed piece by David Brooks - “The Dictatorship of Talent” - which illustrates how the present leadership caste in China tries to blend the needs of a modern industrial state with the traditions of merit-based professionalism, all under a pyramidal hierarchical system of authority, with a heavy gloss of Confucian tradition. The article is fascinating...
... and, of course, only scratches the surface of what will surely be the major, determining conflict of the middle decades of the 21st Century. A rivalry not only of two cultures and two models of governance, but of entirely contradictory visions of how to run an advanced civilization.
It can be hard to see the forest for the trees. So let’s do that step-back for perspective.
PHASE ONE OF MEME WAR: THE LONG, PATIENT “THERAPY” OF PARANOIA
During the Cold War, people found it difficult to look below superficial layers of communist rhetoric, to understand something basic -- that the Soviet Union was never really all that much about communism at all! Historians could tell that, underneath the change of name and nomenclature, that “evil empire” was essentially just another manifestation of old-fashioned Russian hedgemonism, propelled by a paranoid tradition that stretched all the way back to Mongol and Tatar invasions of long ago. (If anything, communist ideology probably softened, rather than hardened, the ferocity of the Cold War standoff, since it preached against calling adversaries inhuman, a habit that the czars indulged in, all the time.)
Was the Communist Revolution of 1917 much more than a cosmetic change of surfaces, a shift from one paranoid Russian clique to another oligarchy of obsessive overcompensation? A nomenklatura that touted a different catechism, but behaved almost exactly the same as the one it replaced? Indeed, well before the revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville, H.G. Wells, and several others had predicted that the latter 20th Century would revolve around two poles, in a tense rivalry between a pragmatic-open Enlightenment America and a despotic-romantic Imperial Russia.
In a 1989 speech and article, I predicted the shattering of the USSR and the fall of the Iron Curtain, because of a partial but significant shift in this psychological rigor. I forecast that it would happen when -- for the first time in centuries -- a new top clade of Russian leaders took command, who had never known desperate privation or a struggle against foreign invaders.
Coaxed, also, by an increasingly open world culture and the questioning attitudes of science, the paranoid fever would finally break, at least enough to let satellite nations split off without brutal repression -- thus proving the wisdom of George Marshall’s long term strategy of “patient strength.”
There was a lot more to the Meme War concept, but a key point was that our Cold War enemy had never been communism, per se (which was always a bit goofy and earnest, for a militant-imperial religion), but rather, the psychological state of mind that lay beneath. One that used communism as a convenient and pliant surface rationalization, just as the Czars would have kept using traditionalism and religion to push the very same aggressive policies, if they had stayed in power.
Paranoia has many forms, but on a national scale it can manifest in a perpetual yearning for the Strong Leader. In clear, xenophobic divisions of us-vs-them. In a fierce and prickly inferiority complex and in an insatiable need to demonstrate strength. As a cultural frame of mind, paranoia is utterly incompatible with enlightenment thinking. And crucially, over the long run, any solution would have to be as much psychological as based on military or economic strength.
Let’s not be rosy-viewed. Back when Francis Fukayama was calling the fall of the USSR the “End of History,” I said that Russian Paranoia had not finished its long and tenacious run, nor would a swing from communism back to older Russian incantations ensure profound change. Culture is dogged and there will be a yearning for strong leaders over there, for a long time to come. Witness Vladimir Putin. Who could have been worse.
Still, my point is that the paranoid fever did break, largely for the reason I forecast, at least enough for that most dangerous phase of that confrontation to pass. Just in time for the ensuing one.
THE SECOND PHASE: A STRUGGLE BETWEEN WEST AND SOUTH
Likewise, today we are transfixed with what I forecast in 1989 to be our next major adversary -- not so much a particular nation or superficial dogma, but one brand or another of cultural machismo. One of the hot-belt cultures, that have long revolved around male-dominated memes, tribal loyalties, deeply suspicious religiosity and prickly, short-tempered pride.
Back in that 1989 speech and essay, I predicted that one of these memic realms would have to dig in and resist - often violently - the cultural changes threatened by Western influence. Especially the influence that our culture might have on their womenfolk.
I suggested, then, that it would likely be some of the Islamic macho nationalities, that led a violent and angry rejection of neo-western values. But I left open the possibility that Latin or Hindi versions of machismo might lead the way, instead. In any event, we do seem to be in the full flux of that era, exacerbated by our own leadership’s counter-productive strategy of pouring gasoline on every fire.
Among all of my successful “predictive hits,” this is probably the biggest... and one where I’d most like to have been wrong.
Our long range hope? Shall we wage physical and confrontational “war” against something as slippery and massive as a cultural meme? And who shall we bomb, then? Shall we kill faster than doing so will recruit even more angry young men, filling the pipeline until some of them really get their act together? Isn’t that, well, imitating the macho bluster of the enemy?
How fortunate that we were much wiser, less rash and more patient (despite lapses like Vietnam), during the Cold War!
No, George Marshall’s wisdom still applies. Strength and assertiveness are vital, but only when combined with savvy, stamina, and a willingness to study the arts of cultural jiu jitsu. Those cultures that are now opposing us will change when a generation of women arises among them that is able to assert themselves. (And, if we help, subtly, how could they not?)
THE FINAL CONFRONTATION OVER HUMAN GOVERNANCE AND CULTURE: WEST VS EAST
What does all of this have to do with David Brooks’s excellent article about Chinese meritocracy?
Well, assuming that we do succeed in weathering the present storm and thriving, somehow regaining our confidence and pragmatic common sense, enough to help lead a vivid and confident Enlightenment West... and assuming that the Macho Belt calms down enough to accept modernity’s inevitable progress... then (according to my model) we would see a final, mid-century tussle over which model of human governance should gain favor among future generations.
How will Earthlings, who are eager to get on with planetary -- and interplanetary -- life, settle their issues, allocate resources, and generally handle the problems of running a complex civilization?
The crux: with the fading of both the empires of paranoia and male frenzy, we’ll be left with an East-West dichotomy ... one that ought to be settled peacefully, since both of these final “sides” recognize the inefficiency and cost and inherent uncertainty of violence.
Non-violence sounds great, for a change. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a struggle. Because a whole lot will be at stake. In fact, just about everything.
Elsewhere, I talk at length about the essential difference between two fundamental modes of governance. One of these dominated the vast majority of past human societies -- at least those that achieved metals and agriculture -- traditional, pyramidal human cultures ruled by hierarchies of fiercely-protected privilege. Under these ruling oligarchies, wealth and investment and ownership were all controlled under the notion of GAR, or Guided Allocation of Resources.
Despite operating under diverse superficial mythologies and doctrines, from theocracies to feudal kingdoms to empires to nomenklaturas, the deeper system has tended to be the same, as if arising out of basic human nature.
Indeed, the emerging Chinese pattern that Brooks describes would appear to be among the most flexible and fair versions of pyramidal authoritarianism ever produced! One that was first crafted in postwar Japan, then refined into a high art, in Singapore, by the ingenious Lee Kwan Yew. On a much more vast scale, the rulers in Beijing are trying to combine Chinese traditions of civil service meritocracy, plus Confucian notions of noblesse oblige, with carefully unleashed market forces... along with some dollops of residual Communist-egalitarian catechism ... toward a single bold ambition. Making their emerging power-pyramid about as well-run and decent as any structured oligarchy can be.
There is even a strong likelihood that the top ruling clades in China see - with intelligent clarity -- the advantages offered by freedom of speech and open criticism! At least, as these corrective forces might apply to lower and more local administration levels. They know that only transparent, enlightenment processes can reliably staunch systemic corruption among corporations, provincial and urban chiefs, or the civil service. You can expect experiments in local investigative journalism and civic activism to continue. But these tools-of-light will be carefully limited and prevented from focusing upon society’s top tiers. There will be no more Tienanmen Square democracy festivals.
Without any doubt, this plan is an ambitious, complex and difficult arrangement. That is, assuming they can succeed at making such a blending work, at all. Can an increasingly educated and technologically-empowered citizenry be prevented from eventually turning their gaze -- skeptically and critically -- upward, at the top elites? Forever?
We in the West would tend to answer, no. But we are not imbued with some powerfully tenacious cultural memes -- of conformity, group loyalty, and tradition reverence -- that (let’s admit) have the momentum of both human history and human nature on their side. (And, even without those cultural influences, a drift back toward elite/command leadership is always possible here; there are forces always pushing in that direction.)
If the Chinese leadership clade does succeed at translating Lee Kwan Yew’s method into a successfully stable mode for a billion and a half Chinese, then humanity will be offered a genuinely interesting choice, by mid-century. On the one hand, the very best version of oldstyle, oligarchy-led governance possible.
On the other hand, Earth citizens will be offered an updated version of the Western Enlightenment. One that has weathered the trials of a Cold War, a Machismo Meme War, and (we can hope) a successful self renewal, after years of despoliation by the recent Neoconservative Putsch.
THE NEOCONFUCIAN PYRAMID HAS SOME ADVANTAGES
Let’s take a closer look at the neoconfucian governance model, and see how it attempts, with great agility, to incorporate many Western tools, while maintaining a core fidelity to older ways.
Within the great pyramid of authority, there will be countless small sub pyramids of authority, nested together, some of them based on corporate structure and others representing a myriad layers or sub agencies of government. But all of them constantly on the lookout for talent. Whenever some anomalous son or daughter of peasants displays real promise, he or she will be found, nurtured, taught the right combination of assertion and obeisance and then put to work. Because skill and talent in an underling can help to make the lord of any local pyramid more successful.
Note that one of the great failings of past feudal societies was their incredible waste of human resources, by consigning women, minorities, under-castes, and the children of the poor into predestined subservience, with cauterized opportunities to get education or show what they could do. Oligarchs and lords did this in order to prevent competition from below. It happened on nearly all continents, in nearly all eras. But, significantly, the invention of civil service process did offer up a primitive counter current. An incentive for oligarchs and elites to foster talent, rather than repress it. Only in a manner that remained under tight supervision and control.
Yes, it remained inefficient and unfair, all through the centuries of Chinese Imperium -- only a partial improvement over other nations. But now ponder a system of nested pyramidal fiefdoms, in which this process is given fresh vigor by universal education, technology and a rapid modern economy. Not only would any local lord keep looking for the next “find” to nurture, he may even pass this talented one upward, to the next layer, to his own equivalent of a feudal overlord, thus helping the next-larger pyramid and receiving credit for the find.
Thus, a form of social mobility will be possible, even encouraged, under this advanced form of neoconfucionism. Though not of a kind that most of us in the West would like. Not one that rewards truly bold or revolutionary ideas. Never individuals or ideas that are outright rebellious, or pushy, or disrespectful. But when did that ever happen?
Well, it did happen, once. In the Enlightenment West, where the ideal version of “Horatio Alger” social mobility often rewarded the delivery of goods, services or ideas in proportion to their startling, forward stepping value. At least, that was the idea, honored at least often enough to make us feel disappointed, when it wasn’t. Even more important than the inherent justice provided by social mobility, this new mode offered dramatically non-linear benefits, whenever markets, science, and democracy managed to stay open, filled with both spontaneous cooperation and vibrantly fair competition.
Culturally, this Western Enlightenment process focused on the individual, a fixation that other cultures have accused of fostering anomie, selfishness, greed, alienation and even a sense of cruel, solipsistic detachment from the needs of others. On the other hand, those other cultures had few linguistic or conceptual correlates with our word “fun.”
(A fresh note that I hadn’t thought of, before: the civil service concept appears to have begun in China at about the same time as democracy glimmered, in pre Periclean Athens. Different responses to the same essential need? To overcome the problem of wasted talent, in cruder oligarchies? If so, both of them only improved social mobility by a nudge, not a leap.)
THE ULTIMATE CONFRONTATION
Imagine a possibility -- that the forward movement of the Enlightenment West were to resume, after its dismal, turn-of-the century hiatus. Picture our democracy, markets, science, law and knowledge-empowered citizenry improving once again, perhaps by as much as they did in the Progressive Era, or during the fecund, egalitarian and reform-minded time after World War II. If we tuned up this Great Experiment by one more big notch, by as ambitious a degree as the Chinese seem to be tuning up their ultimate version of pyramidal oligarch, then what a choice the people of this planet will be offered!
A choice between the best of the East and the best of the West.
Let there be no doubt. The alternative, to be set before the world, is either-or. A dichotomy that can only be resolved in favor of one governance mode, or the other.
I am not saying there cannot be compromises! Or that each side cannot learn from the other. Indeed, from Lee Kwan Yew to Deng Xiaopeng, all the way back to the earlier master planners of the Japanese Ministry of Industry and Trade, the founders of Neo-Confucian governance have striven assiduously to study and incorporate every Western process that might be of use...
...so long as it does not threaten their fundamentals. Fundamentals that include an emphasis on respect rather than impudence, on communal serenity over individual exuberance, on predictability over risk-taking, on hierarchical permission-seeking, on some degree of inherited privilege, and on the right of revered elders to pick their own heirs. These things are basic. And they take precedence, even when tools of democracy and capitalism are incorporated at the surface level.
Likewise, the Enlightenment West, especially in its most-brash American form, has also shown a willingness to incorporate and absorb good things from elsewhere -- such as art and music and cultural forms that enter a fermenting stew, providing raw materials for individuals to combine and re-mix at will. This stewpot method has its faults, producing a much lower ratio of good things to utter crap... but it also produces more brilliance, more creativity, more nonlinear leaps, by far. A fact that leaders of the East readily acknowledge.
If the matter were to be settled simply on the basis of fun, or appeal to individual desires, there would be no question of an ultimate outcome. In an open choice, arrived-at calmly by world citizens who have relaxed access to every factor, without fear or pressure or tension, I believe people will drift toward demanding ever-greater personal autonomy. The gradualist-libertarian option (Which, to be honest, resembles the ultimate, utopian Marxist destination!)
On the other hand, if our next century proves rife with innumerable dangers -- as some of our own best and brightest predict -- including potentially awful technological breakthroughs that might empower small groups, or even individuals, to wreak great devastation, then one could see the people seeking comfort and protection in communal attitudes, and, especially, opting for a system that revolves around a core, paternalistic elite. Not a new idea, in fact, but a prescription as old as Plato.
A persuasive argument, indeed... though probably also mistaken. Because, inherent in this choice that I have laid out, is an incentive for one side to foster feelings of fear. Clouding the argument over future-dangers, by exaggerating them, and thus offering rationalizations for power.
A HAZY CRYSTAL BALL
In any event, that is how I see it, as one who tries to show the yin-yang advantages and faults of each side...
...while admitting that I believe passionately in the further potential of the Enlightenment. Not because it is “good” so much as because it, and it alone, ever found a methodology for dealing with humanity’s worst fault - rationalized self deception.
In theory, there is no limit to the power of open, reciprocal accountability to ensure both the benefits of freedom and the safety of early error discovery... far better than protective, paternalistic groups could ever manage. It is a win-win phenomenon that explains all the success of the West, so far. The very notion that we can rise up from zero-sum games and forge into a civilization that is prodigiously positive-sum.
Of course, past performance is no indicator of future success. Indeed, the Enlightenment West -- and the American great experiment - have shown signs, lately, that its citizenries lack the maturity to take things forward the next notch, and then the next. The swing away from delegated legislatures toward executive power. The widening wealth gap. The plunge away from discourse and negotiation, toward dogmatic positions, all of these are danger signs.
There have been falterings before. They were overcome through rising education, satiation, perspective and awareness. Citizens clambered up and adapted, from illiteracy to crude newspapers, to urban libraries, to mass media, to internet mediated access to all the world’s knowledge in an instant. May our neighbors rise to the present challenge, as well.
Still, if the Enlightenment has reached genuine limits, if humans simply aren’t up to the task, or if on-off calamities can only be stayed by paternalistic power, then maybe the Eastern Model would be best. At least, then, our great-great grandchildren will exist. They would survive. I expect this will be the rationalization. Indeed, we are already hearing it from many quarters.
But I will not, cannot, swallow it. Across at least 400 years, the citizens of the Enlightenment have surprised every doubter and surpassed every declared limit to human powers of self-governance. As de Tocqueville pointed out, midway through that span of time, the process is not elegant or serene, or dignified, or efficient... it simply performs miracles. Bona fide, unquestionable, overwhelming and astounding miracles.
For a people to doubt this, having learned to race faster than cheetahs, to fly faster than birds, to walk on the Moon, to peer at atoms and singularities, to cure themselves of bigotries, to begin tending creation...
...to have done all those things and so many more, and fail in confidence? Well, that would be the strangest and most tragic accomplishment of all.
==I discuss this in my short story collection, Otherness.