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Why America is Different What the Bleep? It's a Movie!

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Taking the Cultural Temperature

by Christopher Chantrill
June 26, 2004 at 8:00 pm


AFTER A WEEKEND when the temperature of the culture war was reading Fahrenheit 9/11, it’s a good moment to recall what it’s all about.  Why can’t we all just get along?

Exactly.  The culture war is a disagreement over the fundamental basis of human society.  Are we humans creative, peace-loving creatures that just want to get along, or are we, at bottom, ruthless killers engaged in a brutal struggle for existence?

The disagreement over the “is” extends immediately to the “ought.”  Should we organize society to remove the irritating source of conflict and violence, or should we work to contain and channel eternal conflict and violence from destruction into creativity?

The Michael Moores of the world know the source of the problem.  It is inequality.  Some people have more stuff: more property, more power, more education, more money, more food.  Yet many people don’t have enough.  How could this be?  Obviously, if these good things were only shared out more equally, there would be less suffering in the world.  Simple arithmetic shows that there is enough for everyone. 

Since the United States has not shared its wealth, or not shared it enough, it is a small step to realize, as Michael Moore does when safely abroad, that Americans are stupid.

There are, of course, people who disagree with this philosophy.  They are called conservatives and they believe that all humans, indeed all animals, are ruthless killers engaged in an eternal struggle to survive.  Some animals survive by “only” killing grass.  Others kill insects.  Still others kill little baby ducklings.  Humans are called omnivores.  They will kill and eat anything.  

But humans are social animals; they have discovered that cooperation enhances their chances to survive and to thrive.  They also know that cooperation is hard work.  Why not cut corners and cheat?

The choice between cooperation and cheating has been symbolized in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  What is best for me?  Should I cooperate with or should I cheat the next person I see?  The answer is simple.  If I will never see that person again, the best strategy is to cheat.  If I will see him again and again, the best strategy is to cooperate.

Humans are resourceful creatures, and they have developed a sophisticated social system for encouraging long-term cooperation and discouraging cheating.  This system is called democratic capitalism.  It attempts to put people into long-term relationships that will strongly encourage them to cooperate instead of cheat.  In the personal sphere it champions monogamous lifelong marriage to encourage men to commit to sexual cooperation rather than sexual exploitation. 

In the political sphere democratic capitalism has created a combination of rule by the many, rule by the few, and rule by the one that differentiates government into three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive.  In separating these powers it has cunningly set the naturally combative people of the world into a situation where they must usually cooperate with each other to get the adulation they crave.

In the economic sphere democratic capitalism rewards people who offer products and services that other people are eager to buy and consume.  Its breathtaking inventions of contract, double-entry bookkeeping, the limited liability corporation, common law, risk management, and financial markets are the modern wonders of the world.

All in all democratic capitalism has transformed the world.  It has shrunk the extended family into the nuclear family, and replaced the tribe with the team.

But democratic capitalism is human.  It is utterly ruthless.  Ever since it first emerged as a world-historical force five hundred years ago, it has spread across the world in imperial conquest, sweeping all the peoples of the world into its orbit.  It has indeed, as Marx complained, imposed on all the world its “cash nexus.”

In the Americas it annihilated the existing agricultural empires and hunter bands.  In West Africa, limited by disease, it entered into a shameful trade in slaves.  In Southern Africa it enserfed the Bantu tribes.  In India it transformed, in China it humiliated.

Today its votaries are streaming into the last stronghold of the old order, where the extended family and the tribe still rule: the house of Islam.  Provoked by the terrorism of the well-born sons of Islam the forces of democratic capitalism have commenced their last great conquest, sweeping the sands of Araby into its orbit, once more transforming tribes into teams, and status into contract.

Provocation followed by conquest: it is the democratic capitalist way, a tradition that began with Cortez, and continued with Clive, the Trail of Tears, the Opium War, the Zulu War, only to be interrupted for a century by the Great European Civil War.

Its ruthless expansion is, of course, an outrage, and sensitive people like Michael Moore are right to be outraged.  But democratic capitalism will win.  It will win and keep on winning until the Next Big Thing hoves into sight.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust

Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity

Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

Drang nach Osten

There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion


“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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