The Greatest Country on Earth

At some point in, I think, 2003 or 2004, I was sitting on the rooftop of a quite pleasant and dirt cheap hotel in Marrakesh, as a morning of medina chaos unfurled around us. I was meeting some new American friends–North Eastern educated types (you know, the “good” kind of American)–and the hospitable Moroccans were cooking us breakfast.

“Over easy” was the request. It was met with polite, faltering confusion from our local server. “Over easy?” asked the American again, with a confused, rising inflection. While I winced, my new friend tried again. I can’t recall if they compromised on scrambled or fried, but there was ultimately a mild, but clearly palpable American irritation at the state of the eggs.

My fellow Sweet Talker, John David Duke Jr, musters a poetic defense of Americans (or, perhaps, indictment of anti-Americanism) in these pages. While I’m less poetic, I do like America. I am actually rather happy to defend it, and will on occasion do so. In fact, I like it and its denizens so much that I have spent the past seven years in the fine metropolis of New York City and, for so long as the capricious immigration bureaucracy continues to smile upon me, I will stay. It is partly for this reason I feel obliged to share with my American friends the reasons why you are disliked. Spoiler: it is not because of your freedoms.

It is because of your unshakeable belief in your exceptionalism. It is because you cannot believe you have anything to learn from other nations. On healthcare: “Single payer health care may work in those other countries, but it won’t work in America.” “Well, yes, we pay too much for healthcare, but we do have the best in the world!” On gun control: “Well, it may have worked in Australia but America is different.” Don’t even get me started on the controversy over the mere citation (citation!) of foreign legal opinions in the Supreme Court. Much like teenagers convinced that they are the first to feel heartbreak, you think you are the first to encounter issues of civic policy.

It is because of your foreign policy. The “milquetoast” George W. Bush [see correction] presided over an unjust war, built on a lie, and yet the manner in which impolitic foreigners mentioned his “evil” nature chafes on you. Sure – those foreigners are guilty of rudeness, and unfairly demand of of you penance for the actions of your government. Sure – it’s shitty synecdoche, with you standing in for your nation. But you are surprised that they have a problem they want to talk to you about? That they burn to tell an American–any American–that it’s evil?

It is because of your obliviousness. It is because, to be petty for a moment, I cannot say “fortnight” and expect to be understood. It is because Ivy-league educated lawyers have never seen the word “whilst”. It is because you cannot name foreign capitals or find other nations on a map. It is because you cannot understand people with even mildly distinct accents in English

It is because, on the rooftop of a Marrakesh hotel, you are unaware that “over easy” is a uniquely American request.

But, honestly, you are not really to blame for these things. You enjoy one of the great blessings of hegemony–blissful ignorance–while the rest of the world cannot afford to be so foolish. And, yes, that hegemony is a burden you carry too

My suspicion is that any nation, rendered into an island by the sheer gulf of power from the next nearest, wrested further into factions by its own historical struggles, and drowning in the sheer volume of its own cultural output, would bear these same features. We’re all just trying to get by, and though the European left may imagine themselves more virtuous, history does not bear out the thesis that they are uncorrupted by power.

And so, by the power vested in me by no one at all, I absolve you of any sins, and forgive your confusion. But you should no longer be surprised.

Correction: The “milquetoast” Bush to which JDD Jr referred was Bush the elder, not W (and quite clearly so, on review), which does indeed make his story all the weirder. I really do regret the error.

The Repulsive American

Not long after the needle dropped on the new Wilco record, Schmilco, I heard the pejorative lyric “Always afraid of those normal American kids.” It’s a good song, for those of us alt-rock, alt-country, noise-rock fans (which I think has now become “Dad-rock”), but I immediately reacted negatively: do we have to have another cultural critique? Jeff Tweedy is a little older than I am, a GenXer in his 40s (he’s 49), so I know he’s heard how bad America is his whole life. When it comes to American culture, I have never seen or heard anything but criticism. What cultural or popular fad, meme, or trend has there ever been, in my lifetime, that praises normal American kids? Still, it’s a great song, very appropriate, reflecting my own experiences, yada yada yada…

When I was 21, I visited my uncle, who lives in Munich, a large city in Bavaria which has its own nefarious near history. In fact, at the time, he lived in a large house, even by American standards, on the Starnberger See, very close to the Schloss Neuschwanstein, Crazy King Luey’s swan song, before he kinda sorta drowned/was drowned before he could drain all the money from all the pockets in Bavaria to build it, and which inspired Walt Disney. Before both my feet had crossed the threshold to his home, my uncle declared, in his very best broken English, “George Bush is evil.” Those were his first words to me; I’d never met him before. Here is my nephew, the son of my beloved sister. I shall greet him, I the son of two Nazis, by deeming his head of state evil. 

This is the milquetoast George H. W. Bush, by the way.

Eventually, I shrugged it off, the offense redeemed by some grilled weisswurst and enormous pretzels. Oh, and beer.

It is my great fortune to work in Canada three days a week, but Canadian cuisine is not quite enough to redeem the same offenses, which are given on a weekly basis, especially now that Trump is threatening to take over the nuclear codes, surely damning the world to a nuclear winter. But even twelve years ago, long before Trump was a national political figure, the greeting was tinged with America is evil.

A student of mine this fall, even, a gentleman from Punjab, an immigrant to Canada, one of those fellows who really is smarter than the professor (and by a long shot), but who is kind enough not to shame me, said, when I first introduced myself to him, without any context nor any provocation, “America can’t be number one. No way, not with seventeen percent literacy. American can’t be number one.” Perhaps he said seventy-six percent; I don’t remember. I shrugged, being a guest in a very nice country Nevertheless, this unprovoked outburst against America was telling, and it did fertilize a few thoughts.

Why did he instantly refer to America’s literacy rate? That was interesting. His rhetorical move, there, was reminiscent of that notorious clip from The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels lists off all the things that demonstrably takes America down a few pegs. How long ago was that? Five years ago? Who was expressing pride in America five years ago? When was the last time you heard anyone of any intellectual or cultural capacity uttering the jingoistic “We’re number one!”? Donald Trump’s campaign slogan assumes the exact opposite! Jeff Daniels’ speech, of course, is an American Left wet dream, filled with metrics. America can’t possibly be number one. I mean, you’ve got to watch out for those normal American kids.

I was visiting other family over there, in Germany, which put me in the working and middle class neighborhoods throughout the region of Baden-Wurttemberg, you know, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Baden-Baden. Traveling back and forth to see grandparents (divorced), uncles, and cousins put me on the mass transit system many afternoons, where I could witness the behavior of normal German kids, just released from their literacy-building centers. Lookit, you’ve got to believe me when I tell you: German culture has never actually forsworn pagan culture. After seeing that unceasing cacophony day after day, I honestly don’t know how Western Civilization is going to survive, guided by those normal German kids.

Why literacy? Why did he glom onto that metric? How is literacy associated with greatness? When was America ever first in literacy? Was America ever great?

It must be discomfiting for the many non-Americans who must answer to this great nation, the United States of America, observing that it is truly ruled by stupid and superstitious people. And I know, for example, that my Punjab student, like so many who were given just a tiny advantage in birth, who took care of that advantage so that he might by careful living and hard work emigrate from a crowded, impoverished, violent hellhole to a great nation of peace and freedom like Canada, must be infuriated to see Americans laze about, scratching their full bellies, living like kings, and squealing about the unfairness of a little state redistribution, the hypocrites. There’s no way America can be number one, no way, not ruled by people like that. My God, they might even elect Donald Trump!

Is America great? It can’t be, can it? Not now, not run by those whose names appear on the first page of the Boston area phone book. It should be run by those whose names appear atop the Dean’s List at Harvard and MIT; then America would be great. In that day and at that time (may it hasten unto us!), policy would align with carefully investigated and researched university and foundation policy papers, and America could truly take its place in the pantheon of all the other run-of-the-mill social democracies, without error and with social justice. That would be greatness, greatness which can be measured according to so many delightful metrics.

As for me, I far prefer pursuing happiness, over against just about anything else. To me, true national greatness is a nation whose domestic policy is less policy, more distrust of government implementation, whose justice is worked out as locally as possible. I suppose the vestiges of that ideal are being cleaned up and swept away, regardless of whichever evil we choose this November. I think it is true now, as it was true then: “Always afraid of those normal American kids.”



Dispassionate Fact-mining

Absolute zero is difficult to imagine. As far as we know, it is only a theoretical possibility, measured as 0° kelvin, at which temperature all molecular movement stops, the absolute absence of heat. Its existence would theoretically be found at the very reaches of the universe, where the energy of the Big Bang has somehow completely dissipated; in other words, absolute zero cannot be achieved, but you can come close.

As far as wrongness is concerned, Adam Gurri has come as close to absolute as is possible. In his post Rhetoric and Due Diligence, Adam posits that scientists have a responsibility to gauge the rhetorical effect of their work. This request, brought forward in the cloak of the humanities, will have the unintended effect of returning us to the childhood of man, wherein we looked to a priestly religious caste to protect us from The Truth. The world has now grown up and is populated by adults, particularly the white, European variety, which has for centuries eschewed superstition and has dispassionately pursued The Truth.

Adam is particularly mistaken in his view of Scientists, egregiously assigning to them fallibility, not only in result, but also (and here, I think, is the reason we should start piling faggots around a large stake) in their motives. It is incontrovertible that Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are dispassionate, guided only by the Scientific Method, which is the cornerstone of The Truth, revealed to us by the Universe itself. Truth, then, is like a coal seam, and Scientists are only coal miners, trudging to their labor, lords of the underworld, to tirelessly mine Facts.

In the same way that a single coal seam can appear in many different parts of the world, e.g., Spain to Wales to Pennsylvania, and many methods can be applied in those various parts of the world for its extraction, so also Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are merely extracting Facts and Data in many and various ways, which they then haul to the surface for dispassionate examination and then application to The Truth, to which all Facts and Data eventually snap, be the Scientist at hand clever enough. If he is not clever enough, then another Scientist, undoubtedly, again, guided gently along the paths created by the Scientific Method, will eventually dispassionately discover how the Fact snaps to The Truth.

It may sound like a chicken-crosses-the-road joke, but the profoundly serious directive of Science is at stake: why do Scientists mine data? For the same reason miners mine coal: they are impelled to do so. It doesn’t matter who’s hurt or offended in the process; any such consequences are only the growing pains of a human civilization going through the inexorable process of cohering as one around The Truth. Some sloughing off is to be expected. Therefore, Adam’s homily on rhetoric clanks to the floor like so many iron manacles employed by the unfortunate and thoroughly representative Christian Spanish Inquisition: the humanities are not only not necessary, they are a hindrance to establishing The Truth.

Should it ever be discovered that a Scientist, especially a Social Scientist, has lost his dispassion, or has even willfully departed from the Scientific Method, anywhere along the process, beginning with descending into the Data mine, extracting Facts, examining the Facts, and then snapping the Facts to The Truth, then let the dispassionate peers of that Scientist immediately banish him from Science and force him to become ordained into the nearest amenable religious order at hand. So when Adam Gurri cries out in the wilderness, “We must acknowledge the rhetoric of scientific inquiry,” I say to him, “Save your preaching for Sundays, Friar Tuck.”

Rhetoric is for children.

Rhetoric and Due Diligence

Featured image is Disputation between Luther and Eck at the Pleissenburg, by Carl Friedrich Lessing

This post has a companion piece the delves further into the details of rhetorical analysis.

I recently argued that scientists ought to take responsibility for the effects of their rhetoric. The response was largely negative. Most simply denied outright that scientists have any such responsibility, beyond arriving at accurate conclusions or generating more information. Many were concerned that such an argument would hold people responsible for the very worst appropriations of their work. If we did that, wouldn’t we say the Beatles were responsible for Charles Manson, given his fixation with Helter Skelter?

Sam half-agreed with me, but thought the burden imposed on scientists would be too great in practice. He also misread the argument—he described it as a two step process, “to seek the truth and, once found, to render it palatable to the public through the use of controlled rhetoric.”

There are not two steps, but one; rhetoric is what scientists practice from the very start. And moreover, what I am asking is not unreasonable, nor will I pretend that the uncertainty around this is any smaller than it is. All I ask is for people to acknowledge that their rhetoric has consequences. I also ask that they do their due diligence. This means nothing more than doing what can reasonably be expected of them, given how little is directly under their control.

Rhetoric All the Way Down

As I have said elsewhere, there is no valid distinction between rational evaluation and rhetoric. The way we evaluate things is by attempting to persuade others as well as ourselves. In a companion piece, I have attempted to demonstrate this at length by drawing on excerpts from academic papers, an essay, a tech blog post, and newspaper articles. That piece focuses on the nuts and bolts of this; here I will focus on the bigger picture.

What is an academic paper, if not rhetoric? The author must invite people to read it, in such a manner that they are more likely to actually do so. She must establish the credibility of her research, to say nothing of her own credibility. And she must persuade readers that her conclusions follow from the results of her research.

How does one go about getting a PhD? The dissertation process requires navigating the turbulent waters of department politics. Ultimately, you have to defend your work in front of a group of department veterans, who have the luxury of taking their time to pick you apart.

The name of the game, in each case, is anticipation. If you can anticipate your dissertation committee’s objections, you can have specific answers prepared. If you can anticipate what will catch the eye of a peer in your field, you can take that into account when writing your abstract. If you can anticipate which technical terms will illuminate rather than obscure the point you are making, or what research methods will be taken seriously, or what caveats will help to defend the ones that aren’t, you will have a better shot of winning your readers over.

And if you can anticipate what moral implications people will draw from your work, you can do your best to forestall the bad ones.

Due Diligence

The creative powers of human beings should not be underestimated. As such, the entire range of meanings that people are capable of reading into the same words or same arguments is impossible to anticipate in advance.

Let us grant that from the outset.

Nevertheless, where does that leave us? Scot free, where responsibility is concerned? I think not.

Let us return to my argument about Charles Murray. In hindsight, I should not have made such an argument without liberally excerpting passages from his work. But never mind whether my criticism was correct, for now. I made it because I thought he was a clear example of a certain kind of problem; it was poor judgment on my part to think that so contentious a subject could ever render “clear examples” without marshaling a stronger defense.

My argument went like this: if you look at Murray’s perspective, which I outlined, certain dangers should be obvious. If someone looks both ways before crossing the street, and only goes after he gets the light, then when a drunken driver comes barrelling through the light from the wrong direction, we certainly wouldn’t blame the pedestrian. But if the pedestrian doesn’t look either way and walks against the light, we would certainly say he failed to do his due diligence, whatever the faults of the driver. Murray was staring very intensely at the politically correct crowd, but from his vantage point he had only to turn his head to see other ways his work could be misused.

The companion piece goes into greater detail on what exactly is entailed in a given standpoint and how it makes certain possibilities easier to see than others. But I don’t think the basic idea is all that complicated: Murray believed that our current system encourages us to think people with less than average intelligence are morally deficient. Thus it should have been obvious that some people could both think that and be hostile to political correctness, and so misread his work on different average IQs by group as an indictment of those groups. Murray was too fixated on making political correctness his enemy to do his basic due diligence against a much, much worse group.

Let’s focus on a more recent and clearer example of irresponsible rhetoric. This past week, Glenn Reynolds was temporarily suspended from Twitter because of the following:


In his post justifying himself, he talks about what one ought to do in a situation where people are rioting and you’re in a car, and so forth. But that’s rather besides the point. Does Reynolds have some special expertise here? Is there some way in which “run them down” would have actually been of help to anyone? Does he delude himself into thinking he was doing anything other than venting, expressing a feeling, and working up his like-minded audience?

“Run them down” is not a contribution, and tweeting it is certainly no way for a public figure with influence to behave. It is not how anyone should behave.

Reynolds and his friend immediately redirect the topic to the issue of how one-sided Twitter and other platforms’ enforcement is. This is a slick rhetorical move, to be sure, and stokes up their side quite effectively.

But it is a side issue. Of course Emmett Rensin and Matt Bruenig also behaved terribly—all the worse, in fact, because they were much more calculated about it. But that doesn’t make what Reynolds did right.

We live in an era that prizes “being yourself” in public and deplores any perceived artifice. Far from being a more worldly perspective, it requires the utterly naive assumption that the rhetoric of what we do and what we say has no consequences. Once you acknowledge these consequences—and we must, we have ignored them for too long—it becomes simply obvious that you should be thoughtful about how you act and what you say.


If you want to take a deeper dive, you can continue to the companion piece.

A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric

Featured image is Still Life With a Skull and Medical Book

This post is intended to be a companion piece to this one

This is going to be a nuts and bolts piece, fleshing out a few technical concepts with examples from a sample of texts. It is meant to be a companion to a shorter, more readable piece. I would suggest starting there, and then returning here if you feel the urge to dig deeper.

Contrary to Sam’s point that rhetoric is an extra skill that scientists would have to learn, I want to demonstrate here that scientists live and breathe rhetoric. A scientific paper is a work of rhetoric; the authors seek to persuade their peers in a number of ways beyond simply accepting their conclusion. This is what Deirdre McCloskey has been saying about economics for decades.

My corpus for this exercise will be the following:

Continue reading “A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric”

Life is What You Make It: A Reply to Adam Gurri

“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice/
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice/
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill/
I will choose a path that’s clear/
I will choose freewill/”

Freewill, RUSH, Permanent Waves

Adam Gurri, otherwise known as our noble founder/editor-in-chief here at Sweet Talk, recently published a critique he had offered to me in conversation on the nature of virtue over dignity as a helpful device for evaluating human flourishing and the good life. Here, I’ll try and attempt to reply to the ideas that Adam offers us. Hopefully he’ll find what I have to say convincing, or at least thought provoking.

Adam says,

“Let’s visit a common scenario; an adult who lives with his parents, and further, lives off his parents—he has no income of his own. Let’s say that he’s 35 years old. Crucially, let’s say his local economy is in a state equivalent to the height of the dot com boom; unemployment is so low, the job offers are practically knocking at his door. It would take very minimal effort for him to get a job that paid enough for him to live on his own, or with roommates. Or at least to pay his parents rent and cover his own costs.

Instead, he stays at home, and watches TV; primarily reality TV and cable news. He has minimal contact with his friends, and hasn’t dated since he was in school. His parents live to a very old age and he lives this way until they die. He needn’t have been perceived as a burden; perhaps they could easily afford to support him and were happy to do so.

Forgive me, but I cannot help but see that as a lower way of life than someone who puts in effort to provide for himself, is married and has children, has numerous friends, and continues to better himself in multiple ways. It seems to me that our hypothetical sloth has cut himself off from everything that imbues life with meaning, that is admirable or good.”

In his landmark work of political philosophy Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick stresses a concept known as the doctrine of separate persons.  In simple terms, every person is a completely different, unique individual. When we look at the world, we are confronted by a diverse panoply of individuals, each with their own set of values and interests. Nozick asks,

“Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Hefner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce, Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Raymond Lubitz, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Columbus, Freud, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Baron Rothschild, Ted Williams, Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison, Bobby Fischer, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, you, and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?”

The obvious point here is that humans are different from one another, with diverse understandings of how to live.  For Nozick in particular, the separateness of persons is a core ontological and moral fact, without which we ignore basic elements of our world and what it is to be dignified human being. To impose one form of life or association is to ignore this key observation, to disrespect fundamental notions of personal choice, autonomy, and the understanding that there are multiplicity of paths to “the good life”.

It is this presumption that I had relayed to Adam. He replies:

“To attempt to discard our ability to speak of whether other people are making good choices or not seems to me to simply embrace nihilism—a rather severe consequence if preserving ethical egalitarianism is your goal.”

Here, I think we are perhaps talking around a straw separateness. It is of course a useful enterprise to try and identify and encourage common activities among humans that might be beneficial for each of us. The very notion of living together in society is built on such common ground. However, as Nozick and the liberal political tradition remind us, there is a distinct moral danger in seeing such an enterprise as based on an abstract notion of virtue that applies to us all.

Thus this is not, keeping in mind Pamela Hobart’s helpful discussion, to disregard that there are some basic facts about humanity that might provide a path for what my co-blogger Paul Crider has eloquently and thoughtfully outlined as consisting of human flourishing. However, I think the facts about flourishing that are absolutely universal are fairly minimal. Ultimately, flourishing completes itself by allowing for those capacities at the top of the pyramid directed towards pursuing our own ends, specifically our highly personal conceptions of existential self-worth. Notably, to engage in those “experiments in living” which may not be favoured by others around us. When we see the world through this lens, we treat people as invaluable ends in themselves, a principle which often is used to best describe the kind of ideal for what we tend to see as the pinnacle of the worth and self-transcendent meaning Adam himself praises as his motivation for criticizing his hypothetical layabout.

The important thing to note, as my fellow contributor Ryan Long points out in his comment, is that these higher and lower ways of being have a highly subjective component.  Abstract analogs about the life of a man as being healthy like the health of a tree or a heart ignore that observation that the health and happiness of humans are in many ways distinctly unlike those of other living things.

Higher and lower lives are emergent from the preferences, values and interests of a person seeking to interact with the world, given the facts about them. If the man as Adam describes him is happy in the basement, I see no reason to judge him as inherently living a worse life, just because we have social expectations that presume otherwise. If it should turn out that this lifestyle is bad for him on his own terms, then we have not sacrificed his dignity through our criticism, but rather deeply honoured it. Of course, the determination of this is both problematic and fraught with practical difficulty, but still a far cry from the off-the cuff pronouncements Adam would have us make.

Adam also says,

“Akiva’s argument is that everyone deserves to have their dignity respected, and to categorize the layabout as living a lower way of life is to impose ourselves on them. In short, disrespecting their self-conception is the same as encroaching on their dignity.  I cannot agree. I am not going to crash into this person’s house and start imposing my authority upon him and his parents. I can respect their dignity as human beings able to make their own choices without thinking that all of their choices are good.’’

While Adam may claim his adherence to the basic principles of toleration (“Hey man, virtues are about becoming a rad dude, none of that fascist break down your door stuff!”), I want to remind Adam of an insight he has long stressed- that of the importance of rhetoric, ideas, and norms as key social elements. As John Stuart Mill famously argued, public opinion, and the prejudices that we as a mass public may hold of the lives of others can deny them their respect and dignity as much as any law we might pass. If the rhetoric we use has impact, and Adam surely seems to think that it does, our criticisms of those with diverse lifestyle preferences do little more than to restrain them from having the full psychological liberty or even the basic ability to act so as to be truly free.

Indeed, ethical egalitarianism has largely been accomplished by disregarding these strong notions of the good life, and viewing humans as valuable distinctly for the dignity they have as unique experiencers of the world around them. As I have mentioned to Adam previously, talk of removed social judgement and a strongly teleological ontology makes me think first and foremost of the fate of racial, sexual, and gender minorities and other disadvantaged groups who have spent countless years oppressed under someone else’s conception of what it means to be a fully complete human being. As Martha Nussbaum has shown, certain emotions in particular that are associated with such judgements have a pernicious history that it is important not to ignore.

So let me ask this of Adam, and those who would share his view. To borrow a question from my economist colleagues, “Compared to what?” In other words, virtue for what life, and by what person leading it? What is the moral opportunity cost of a world where we imagine people as largely akin to a row of identical plants seeking to approach a Platonic ideal, and treating them as such? Incoming with the potentially cleansing clouds of good judgement are too often the quickly wrathful storms of arbitrary intolerance.


Tracing the Origins of Flourishing

Featured image is The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants.
This argument (though, I grant a VERY weak form of the trope), that Western Civilization rests necessarily on Christiandom, seems logically and empirically false:
First, if this is true, then the rise of whatever is good about Western Civilization must have had an incredibly long incubation period. Long enough that dialectical materialism might even be true. The Great Enrichment postdates the emergence of Christianity by 1800 years, give or take; and Christiandom (as established by Constantine) by 1500 years.
Second, there are enough contradictory data points, both Christian nations that lagged in making progress, and nations not explicitly Christian that did not lag so, that any interpretation of the existing data that arrives at this conclusion is a spurious reading at best.
Finally, I find the elements of Western society that are most imbued with Christiandom the most troublesome. That is, whatever the influence of Christiandom on Western society, I hardly consider it a positive.
Western society has progressed, since the Great Enrichment, wherever the radically egalitarian treatment of processes of coordination and cooperation among disparate individuals has been adopted. Liberalism.
This is from my point of view a particularly Christ-like way to treat people, but Christiandom has not always acted so Christ-like. A Christ-like treatment of people requires sacrifice, which goes beyond egalitarianism-in-process and practices personal voluntary sacrificial charity, even toward one’s enemies. Such an attitude cannot be enforced or underwritten institutionally. It must be an organic byproduct of gratitude for Jesus’ completed work in an individual.
Where more people are living in a Christ-like manner, we can hope to see a more egalitarian attitude prevailing.
Thus, importantly, there is nothing special about the institutions of Christiandom that helped to bring about flourishing. Rather, where those institutions enjoyed a special relationship with privilege and power, Christiandom was a rot.
I do think that Christ-like behavior may have been important for the rise of flourishing, though such behavior would have happened on such a micro-scale that it would not have been easily reported. Particularly since the practitioners of said behavior would try to remain anonymous where possible.
And let me clarify that Christ-like behavior may not be peculiar to nominal Christians. Tonight I listened to a Muslim man talk about how he forgave the Fishtown racist who tried to shoot him in the head with a shotgun, and even worked to prevent the murder-by-State of his would-be murderer.
Where individuals organically generate trust among neighbors and equal treatment towards others (sympathy), as compared to circumstances where individuals generate distrust and tribal attitudes (faction), social coordination and cooperation are free to emerge.
Institutions that encourage sympathy and discourage faction provide fertile soil for the emergence and acceptance of markets, and dignity toward marketeers. Impersonal exchange rests upon the virtues of impartiality.
Though expressed in somewhat different terms, Cathy, following Auntie D, gets it right.