One of my two talks at The Age of Limits 2013 was on Communities that Abide. It was a review of best practices, based on the experience of historical communities that are stable or growing, comprise multiple generations, manage to hold on to their young people, and have a distinctive way of life that is in many cases more sustainable and resilient than that of the surrounding population.
In many cases they also have far better outcomes, in terms of much lower rates of crime, depression, substance abuse, spousal/child abuse, murder/suicide and so on. Interestingly, while there are numerous profound differences between them, there are also vast areas of similarity. These similarities may turn out to comprise a set of cultural universals exhibited by all or most communities that stand the test of time. While I am too early in my research to reach such a sweeping conclusion, the possibility has me intrigued. I will be exploring this subject in detail over the following weeks. But first I must take out some garbage.
The talk went well while I powered through my (pared down) stack of index cards on the subject—pared down from the three-hour seminar I taught at the North House Folk School in Minnesota a few weeks back, which also went well. But at the conference, after I started taking questions, there erupted a bit of a shitstorm. One woman in the audience asked me why all the communities I brought up are patriarchal (they are not), and couldn't I find an example that was a matriarchy. I dug deep, drew a complete and total blank, and answered: “Because there are none.” After that, feminist rhetoric was flying fast and furious for a while. I tried to extricate myself by saying that on such matters I follow the women I am close to, who are Russian. Russian women have participated in a 70-year experiment in gender egalitarianism, and concluded that it was a failure. Modern Russian women have no use for American old style “radical feminism.” That made things even worse. One agent provocateur (Gail) decided to raise the temperature some more by asking me what I thought of Pussy Riot. I answered that they are idiots. (They desecrated a place of public worship for the sake of a futile political gesture, and are now rotting in jail instead of bringing up their children.) This made several women physically jump to their feet. Eventually one woman pointed out that, after all, I was just presenting information from my research, not taking any sort of ideological stance, but she went on looking upset anyway. After the talk ended, a bunch of women were skulking around hissing at me. The follow-up was characterized by Orren, the organizer, as a "circular firing squad." He came up to me after the talk ended and congratulated me on still having both my legs, having walked into a minefield. Later he wrote to me:
A worthy subject would be the degree to which [such] corrosive tactics... have destroyed progressive groups and communities over the years. I call it the technology of victimhood and it is used by many groups and individuals to politicize their agendas. I have seen it over and over, and folks I know who actually organize real humans (as opposed to histrionic chattering on the pixel box) have shared similar experiences... It has been my experience in over 30 years of progressive organizing that some people can only participate by instead organizing “The Circular Firing Squad” that seems to afflict progressive groups. All part of the puzzle.Orren contributed many other thoughts, which will take me time to process. I will pick up these themes in subsequent posts.
Later, that same Gail came up with a blog post which contains a number of ad hominem attacks riddled with *cough* inaccuracies. Here is a partial list of them:
- Four Quarters Board of Directors is dominated by women and LGBT. To imply that these people are dominated by a man is to practice the darkest of misogyny.
- Carolyn Baker's work around emotional processing is highly praised in event questionnaires. Expressing one's personal ambivalence to this work is valid, ad hominem snark is not.
- My presentation is grossly mischaracterized and used as the launching point for the meat of the post which contains much intentional, hurtful ridicule of people not backed by any understanding of their ideas.
- The photograph of me leaving the group portrait in haste was not because I was eager to flee but because Orren could not figure out how to turn on my fancy digital camera. It was very funny moment, which is why everyone is laughing. Gail misuses it for a bit of Stalinesque agitprop.
- Gail insinuates that Albert Bates is an environmentalist hypocrite because he flies a lot. Albert does travel a lot but goes to great personal effort to physically mitigate carbon from his travel footprint, and this is obvious from even a cursory glance at his website. Overall, he is very much carbon-negative, while Gail goes on aimless drives through the countryside in her gigantic, gas-guzzling Toyota Landcruiser to look at dead leaves.
- “Orlov's homebrew vodka” does not exist. Someone who works at the distillery was handing out samples. It is a bit of anti-Russian bigotry: “Well, you know the Russians and their vodka!” (Throw in a mouth full of gold teeth, a big fur hat and a bear on a chain.)
But why all this noise? Should we take it as a “demand to be heard” by some women (who apparently see themselves as a separate political constituency from the men)? If so, they don't seem to have asked correctly. But it could be something else entirely. Here is some more hard-won wisdom from Orren:
Communities are often seen as threats, by many actors, for many reasons. Socially radical communities are perceived as threatening simply because their ideas can shatter an individual's existing paradigms. Knowing that a community is all about defining the boundary between the internal and the external, compromising a community is about manipulating that boundary. To speak in terms of the well understood techniques of state action against activist communities, one can pierce the boundary by inserting actors intended to disrupt the internal workings of the community. An easier means is to disrupt the ability of the community to interact with the external by framing the community in such a way as to prevent the free flow of energy/resources through its boundary; in this case, by alienating people who might otherwise be supportive.This is why every successful community I've looked at knows how to exclude (shun, expel) people. Every successful community jealously safeguards its separateness from the surrounding society. This is critical to their survival and for achieving much better outcomes for their members than the surrounding society. In my understanding, these practices must also extend to the family, the extended family being a microcosm of community. In particular, I believe that women must be given the option of being sheltered from the surrounding sick society, so that they may stay healthy and give birth to and raise healthy children. It is less critical to shelter men, although having them serve in the military or other organizations specializing in brutality and murder is certainly not a good idea, and even too much involvement with the corporate realm is often quite damaging to the human spirit. This is probably why almost all the successful communities I have looked at are pacifist and refuse to be proletarianized, rejecting the concept of wage labor. As far as the labels of “patriarchy” and “matriarchy” are concerned, the winning label for me is, of course, anarchy—a well-organized, copacetic one. And, sure enough, most of the successful communities I have looked at are, in fact, anarchic in the structure of their self-governance. But most important is their separatism. Their value systems are their own—not yours. Do you wish to “improve” these communities, bringing them more in line with your own value system? Well, there is a word for that sort of activity: persecution.
The classic means of attacking a community's external relations is through the use of a social taboo or sacred cow that it is alleged to have violated. As Goebbels pointed out, the trick is to frame the attack in such a way as to use a social assumption that cannot or will not be examined, to isolate the community from external social commerce. Better yet if the attack can employ words and labels whose meanings also cannot or will not be examined. Finally, Goebbels' central insight: appeal to the intellectual prejudice of your audience, relying upon the fact that people will prefer to believe the mistruth that plays to their baseline assumptions. The famous Big Lie.
The women who took offense and spoke up after my talk zeroed in on some specific areas, indicating that the communities I chose as examples of success are in fact intolerable by their standards. Some of these communities do not offer birth control to women, and/or resort to corporal punishment to discipline children, and/or do not give women equal rights, and so on. It's a good thing I didn't include any communities that practice polygamy or infanticide, or I would have probably caused a riot (there probably are some polygamous communities that I would consider successful; not sure about infanticide). I did include one group (the Roma) who practice arranged marriage. All of these deviations from the current American politically correct norm are problematic for those who allow themselves to regard others through the lens of their own value system (a common failing). But is that even a valid approach? My approach is to study these communities as if they were a different (sub-)species of hominid. After all, none of you will ever be allowed to interbreed with any of them. Do lions practice polygamy? Yes. Do males kill cubs sired by other males. Yes they do. Does this make them worth emulating? Probably not, but they are still worthy of study, because they are what evolution wrought, and were it not for poaching and habitat destruction (a.k.a. persecution), they'd probably still be a success story. Similarly with human communities that achieve significantly better results than the rest: you may not like them, but then who do you think you are anyway?
I must admit that I haven't thought about the subject of the future of American feminism before this flared up, being happy enough just ignoring it. It's not my culture and I've always assumed that it's none of my business. But perhaps I should have given it a bit of thought. Before I married a Russian woman, I had some American girlfriends who had been radicalized by their women's studies classes and had certain hot button issues that consistently made them blow their cool. When these issues came up, they triggered a psychotic break: in her imagination, I was suddenly transformed from a somewhat ambivalent boyfriend trying to keep the “relationship” together to a patriarchal proto-rapist oppressing not just her but an entire made-up political class (women). I do not want to neglect the interests of American women among my readers. But there is another group whose interests I do not wish to neglect: a sizable chunk of my readership consists of American men who either left the country or married foreign women, in no small part to escape from the ravages caused by the toxic state of gender relations within the US. One tried going the other way, marrying an American woman, then divorcing and promptly moving back to Russia, with new-found respect for the Motherland. I doubt that any of these people are particularly thrilled to see me take up this topic. So, in reading this, I hope you appreciate just what a brave person I am for walking in this particular valley of the shadow of death.
There is a big unintended consequence that results from treating women (or men) as a (fake) political class: it cuts across the real class lines, to the great disadvantage of the lower classes. America's class war against its lower classes is a permanent, full-spectrum, total war, and it is by this point quite close to total victory. Among its foot-soldiers there are numerous higher-class, educated women ensconced in various official positions who, while supposedly championing the rights of women and children, end up oppressing lower-class, uneducated men. To do so, they rely on the services of America's oversize criminal-industrial complex, which imprisons a larger share of the population than Stalin did during the height of his purges, with the majority of the inmates male, non-white, uneducated and poor. Add to this the fact that in the US, as women joined the “workforce” (a term full of inane puffery), family incomes stagnated (women's wages have been subtracted from the men's) while family costs went up (because domestic services such as child care and food preparation now had to be paid for). The results of all this are plain to see: the US leads the world in the percentage of children brought up fatherless, many of them on public assistance that is becoming precarious. Eventually “men's liberation” will come and all these inmates will be freed—once the system runs out of money and can no longer spend the $60-80k or so a year it costs to keep someone in jail. Since jail is a deeply dehumanizing experience, the role these freed inmates will play in society upon release is unlikely to be positive. This seems to be the unintended but hardly unexpected consequence of politicizing gender: all fall down.
To be able to criticize, one must first rise above that which you wish to criticize. As I outlined at the beginning of my talk, part of the rationale for looking into communities that work is that America, regarded as a community writ large, does not work. Of all the developed nations, it has highest rates of spousal abuse, child fatalities from parental and other abuse and violence, highest divorce rate, highest teen pregnancy rate, highest rate of STD inflection among teenage girls, highest rates of depression among women, children who have to be medicated into submission to force them to cram for meaningless standardized tests... the list is very long. It is a case study in societal failure. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) Before you criticize others, you should first reflect on what your own people are like, and, if they are that bad, then perhaps you should just zip it.
One potential comeback is along the following lines: Of course we have the right to criticize; we are not like those other trashy/dark-skinned Americans! We are white, upper-middle-class, Ivy League-educated, we send our children to private schools and our outcomes are as perfect as our pearly-white teeth! (The infamous Gail shared that she has a daughter who owns five horses and rides them every day and a son-in-law who keeps a 50-foot yacht on the Hudson. She lives surrounded by a private 2000-acre estate owned by one of the wealthiest families in America. Sorry to have to bring this up, but I think it's highly relevant. For 99% of you, you need to know that Gail is not “your people.”) Sure, the 1%ers are a successful community of sorts, but will they abide, given the sour mood of the people and all the guns and ammo they've stockpiled? More importantly, their main community-building principles seem to be “pay to join” and “pay as you go,” both of which would take too much money—which they won't give to us—so it seems like a waste of time to listen to them tell us how wonderful they are and how bad everyone else is.
But the reason I wish to look at communities that abide is not to criticize or to attempt to improve American society at large. That would be futile. My goal is to give individuals, families and small groups of people (of modest means) viable options for the future that they otherwise wouldn't know existed—options which they will be able to exercise separately from what remains of American society. And the nature of these options will be dictated in large measure by the nature of the conditions that will prevail in as little as a couple of decades. Let us put the question in the context of the Age of Limits conference. The chart below should be familiar by now to all who attended. It is a plot based on Meadows et al. Limits to Growth Report baseline scenario.
I have no ideological bone to pick here. I am just interpreting a computer-generated chart based on a mathematical model that is over 30 years old but is turning out to be correct in spades. Also, observe that groups hell-bent on survival (such as the ones I mentioned during my talk) have already jettisoned (or have never taken on board) much of the baggage of progressive society. Of course, communities that don't wish to abide can ignore all this, at their own peril. It's an equal-opportunity planet as far as near-term extinction is concerned.
I know that this won't make a lot of people feel warm and fuzzy all over, but then what did you expect? A trip to Disneyland? So that's where I'll leave it for now, and leave it up to you to fill the comment section with whatever substances you wish to fill it with. Get it out of your system, and then we'll move on to the subject at hand: Communities that Abide.