The Fundamental Cultural Antagonism
The Old or True Western Culture versus the New or Post-Western Culture
G. Stolyarov II
A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XL-- August 18, 2005
Today’s cultural battle is between two primary paradigms, a fact which most people loosely sense, but are unable to precisely identify, since the two sides of this conflict are often obscured, diluted, or misrepresented. The primary battle is not between “conservatives” and “liberals,” nor between “traditionalists” and “progressives,” nor even necessarily between reason and emotion (though reason and irrational emotion are certainly irreconcilable antagonists). The primary battle is between the Old or True Western Culture and the New or Post-Western Culture.
The Old or True Western Culture does not entail condemnation of anything and everything new. Quite the contrary, it is the only culture which allows radical, substantial innovations and improvements to human life to flourish. It is the culture with some of its early roots in features of Greco-Roman art, science, and thought, along with the early Hebrew conceptions of the linearity of time and human existence, the freedom of the will, and individual moral responsibility. Largely suppressed during the Dark Ages, it was again on the rise during the High Medieval era with the resurgence of Aristotelianism, culminating in the 15th century Renaissance, which further established the Old Western Culture’s implicit premises of individualism, objectivity, rationality, heroism, creativity, and productive work. In retreat during the horrid, barbarous religious strife of the 16th and 17th centuries, Old Western Culture made a monumental comeback during the 18th century Enlightenment, when all of its hitherto latent premises were made brilliantly explicit by an unparalleled line of thinkers, from Locke, Newton, Montesquieu and Voltaire to Jefferson, Franklin, Goethe, and Condorcet.
The 18th century was also the origin of a profound, carefully refined defense of a concept most critical to the Old Western Culture: capitalism. Through the advocacies of capitalism, in theory and in practice, by such pioneering geniuses as Quesnay, Turgot, and Smith, the foundations were laid for the subsequent unprecedented growth of universal prosperity: the Industrial Revolution, the defining characteristic of the most exalted of centuries: the 19th. Never before or again was there such an abundance of rationally-based science, technology, art, and music. Never before or again was government so greatly limited in its scope and prerogatives, while individuals were freer than ever before or since in developing their lives as they saw fit. The intellectual momentum of the 18th century translated into the social, political, and scientific momentum of the 19th, as individuals of all occupations and backgrounds applied the principles of the Enlightenment, which had spread from intellectual circles into daily life. Along with liberty and prosperity came increased civility, morality, and voluntary restraint from recklessness. From the new-found freedom of the middle classes to discover their own moral principles and pursue their own interests arose the Victorian Age, creating a norm of far higher standards of conduct, productivity, and communication than in any other part of the world at any time. Politicians addressed their constituents using terms and concepts too advanced for even the most “elite” circles of today. The formal suit and dress became the attire of daily life. Science and medicine enhanced standards of living, enabling the majority of people to live into their fifties for the first time, while some even managed lifespans of sixty or seventy. The belief in perpetual progress, in the consistent improvement of the human condition, was almost a universal in the 19th century, no matter what particular intellectual convictions one held.
And yet the optimism of the 19th century failed to materialize. Instead of being a century of perpetual progress, ever-fortifying rationality, impeccable civility, glorious art, and universal benevolence among men, the 20th century has been an age of incessant warfare, dictatorship, bloated government, mob politics, conformity, intellectual nihilism, sloth, and wanton anti-esthetic hideousness. Why?
During the 20th century, the Old Western Culture was always in the minority and always in flight from forces that sought to shatter it beyond repair. Its few colossal champions-- Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman, for example—made remarkable intellectual discoveries, but were either largely ignored or viciously smeared by the altruist-collectivist-nihilist axis of the mainstream. While technology continued to progress via the momentum left over from the 19th century, its development became increasingly stunted and lagging due to overwhelming government regulation of business. The airplane was invented in 1903, and, by 1917, all major world powers already had entire air armadas of their own. This speedy progress was the legacy of the 19th century’s laissez-faire approach toward technological innovation. In contrast, the first forays of man into space occurred in 1957, and, with the exception of one private launch in 2004, governments have monopolized the space industry since. It is still in its infancy, not anywhere near ready for mass usage.
The only truly revolutionary progress of the latter half of the 20th century occurred in two areas, information technology and biotechnology, that government simply has not had the time to thoroughly regulate yet, therefore allowing 19th century free market principles to take hold in those industries, with truly outstanding results. But, while we are tremendously benefited by computers, the Internet, and GM foods, other critical fields have not made nearly as much progress, due to the restraint of government on them. The typical medicine now takes 13 years to fully release onto the market, because of draconian FDA regulations that allow hundreds of thousands of patients to die while the approval process is bogged down in bureaucratic paperwork and red tape. Average life expectancy has suffered as a result. While, in the first half of the 20th century, it made the admirable leap from 47 to 71, a difference of 24 years, the improvement was meager in the century’s latter half: a mere 7 years, currently at 78 in the United States. Progress in technology and quality of life continues, but it continues at a decelerated rate, due to the myriad inhibitions by intrusive government on businesses and innovators, and the overall abandonment of the Old Western principles of individualism, rationalism, and laissez-faire.
Other technologies in the 20th century have been hijacked by the statists and collectivists. Would the atomic bomb, for example, or the concentration camps and mass extermination techniques of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, been possible in a laissez-faire society with strictly limited government? The 20th century world has been run by tribalist, primitivist butchers holding primeval superstitions grossly incompatible with the wonders of modern technology. In their hands, the technology has become a means of mass murder, as more men died at the hands of other men during the 20th century than in any prior age. The worst marauders of the past-- Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane—are innocent babes compared to the 20th-century trio: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
What caused the horrendous devastation of the 20th century and the abandonment of just about every fundamental of Old Western Culture? The culprit, in its totality, can be called the New or Post-Western Culture.
The New Post-Western Culture is really a culture much older than that of the West itself. It had existed, in one form or another, throughout the ages, in various parts of the world. The bloody, totalitarian, mass-sacrificing Aztec Empire exhibited it. So did the myriad tribes in Africa and pre-Columbian America, with their superstitious shamanism, drug-induced incompetence, absolute absence of privacy and property rights, constant inter-tribal warfare, and the almost universal practice of slavery. So did the decadent kingdoms of the “traditional” Orient, with their foot binding, caste systems, authoritarian power structures, and anti-rational ideologies, valuing anything—the empty Nirvana, the all-consuming Brahman, the sacrifice-demanding Confucian order, or the slothful, indolent state of Dao—that denied rationality, individualism, and progress. This “culture” also existed in pre-Enlightenment Europe among the masses, which had been bound in servitude to feudal lords, inquisitorial priests, and then authoritarian kings. It was no surprise that said masses failed to develop an autonomous, reason-based, individualistic approach to life. Pre-Enlightenment Europe was a place of religious fanaticism, witch burnings, Holy Inquisitions, tyranny, and incredibly lewd and unrestrained conduct of all sorts. It also exhibited parts of a culture that was massively revived during the 20th century.
Of the antecedents of the Post-Western Culture, it can be said that they were effectively wiped out during the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and Victorian Age. In the Western world itself, monarchies collapsed like dominoes and relatively free republics took their place, with the anticipated effect on the improvement of private morals and public conduct, of toleration and refinement, of intellect and industry. The poorest individuals had become respectable, and the great Alexis de Tocqueville even observed tomes of Shakespeare in the log cabins of American pioneers—ordinary men, not elite intellectuals. The Baroque, Classical, and Romantic movements, in succession, elevated people’s spirits to contemplate eternal beauty, rather than the bawdy, lewd, and obscene.
In the meantime, the era of true globalization took hold, as Western influence became ever-present in all parts of the world, enlightening hitherto backward peoples. With the expansion of global trade came increasing worldwide prosperity. Europeans and Americans tamed new lands, overthrew prior tribal dictators or authoritarian monarchs, and established more humane colonial governments of their own. In Latin America, the Spanish abolished human sacrifice and instituted Western industry, education, and agriculture. In North America, the British introduced the natives to the concept of property rights. In India, the British outlawed the caste system and the ritual suicide of widows. In China, the combined nations of the West eliminated foot binding, instituted freer markets, and suppressed the last vestiges of authoritarian reaction in their defiant stand against the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01. In Africa, with unfortunate exceptions such as the Belgian Congo, Western powers built railroads, hospitals, and schools, introducing the level of technology that remains the sole lifeblood of Africa to this day. Nations such as Japan took the hint and began westernizing on their own, with great benefits their citizens’ industry and standards of living. By the late 19th century, it seemed as if all the horrible ancient superstitions worldwide had been annihilated through the diligent efforts of Western intellectuals, scientists, entrepreneurs, and reformers.
And then all the evils came back. They came back because the denizens of the West had rejected their own enlightened culture.
The early 20th century was an age of immense doubt among Western intellectuals with regard to the best elements of their historical legacy. The Germanic school of thought, the authoritarian views of Fichte, Hegel, and Marx, had finally seeped into the mainstream. New fashionable “intellectuals” came along. Freud doubted human rationality and portrayed man as an inherently perverted monster. Einstein and Planck challenged the Law of Identity and the absolutism of space and time. Stravinsky tried to pass off disgusting primeval noise as “high music.” Picasso committed a similar deception, disguising his contorted, nihilistic doodles as “high art.” A new class of “social reformers,” from Lloyd George to Clemenceau to Kaiser Wilhelm to Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, usurped the political arena and “progressively” departed from the ideals of laissez-faire. The gargantuan state behemoths they created could not help but fight one another eventually. Thus came the decisive turning point in the 20th century’s battle against Old Western Culture: World War I, a spectacular slaughter of millions of men for no purpose except “national honor.”
The West emerged shattered from World War I, but, in its disillusionment, it abandoned the only culture that could restore it once more, that of the Enlightenment and its intellectual descendants. Instead of questioning the rabid nationalism, tyrannical statism, and sacrificial collectivism that caused the war, the Western world allowed those same ideas to fill the vacuum that the passage of old Enlightenment paradigms left behind. Artistic decadence, in the meantime, ballooned. Never before had the world seen a spectacle so revolting as the likes of 1920s Weimar Germany. Socialist, communist, and fascist revolutions, some violent others “legal” but no less coercive, swept across Europe. As gargantuan government failed to manage the money supply, triggering the Great Depression, the intellectually vapid masses responded by clamoring for more government regulation, more of the same problem that caused the Depression in the first place. On both sides of the Atlantic, the brutal tyrant Hitler and the mild tyrant Franklin Roosevelt used this opportunity to rise to power. World War II, in essence, was a war between the total dictatorship offered by the Axis and the quasi-dictatorship of the welfare state offered by the Allies. The quasi-dictatorship system won, and then split into two rival camps: the milder regulatory governments of America and Western Europe and the severely regulatory governments of the Warsaw Pact. The milder regulatory governments won, implying that the latter half of the twentieth century has seen a diminution of outright butchery and political murders, but still a gargantuan increase in just about every other government activity. Government is now a mellow, subtle tyrant instead of the overt, brutal one it had been before.
As commendable victories against fascism and communism were scored, what happened in the West during the meantime? Culturally, it has descended even further. In the early 20th century, once the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Kandinsky and Picasso, corrupted “high music” and “high art” with their dissonance, the people, with vestiges of Enlightenment rationality, took refuge in popular entertainment. Early on, popular esthetics was a reaction against the corruption of high art by the anti-rationalists. Ragtime and jazz music were beautifully melodic and harmonic, and composers like Scott Joplin and George Gershwin turned them into high art forms of their own. Comic books and science fiction novels about rational heroes that win in the end posed a counter to the rubbish of “modern” literature. While the intellectuals had abandoned the spirit of the Enlightenment, it lingered a bit longer in the masses.
During the 1960s, the spirit of the Enlightenment died in the masses as well.
The decade of the 1960s, culturally, was a more horrendous age than any before it. Even the fascists and communists committed their murders while retaining vestiges of civilized life. Hitler and Stalin both admired classical music and representational art, for example. They both maintained that their regimes’ atrocities were committed for some worthwhile principle or ideal. The hippies dealt away with even the pretense of moral, political, and esthetic values. Theirs was a pure nihilism: protest for the sake of protest, destruction for the sake of destruction, a wanton orgy of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll for the sake of the orgy itself, and the self-debasement that accompanied it. The hippies protested, not for a noble purpose, but to broadcast the f-word through the loudspeaker at Berkeley.
The final blow by the Post-Western culture against the culture of the Old West was struck in the 1960s precisely because the young generation of that time was the first to be raised entirely under a welfare state. Their parents still had exposure, in their early lives, to the transitional period between limited government and the modern behemoth, and therefore had absorbed, on some level, the last vestiges of Enlightenment rationality that accompanied a semi-free society. The “baby boomers,” however, were already fully immersed in a culture of paternalism, with the expectation that government take care of those unwilling to govern their own lives. With their autonomy subjected to the state, only a minority of the new generation managed to rediscover the world their ancestors had lost. The rest became infantilized, as any person would when willingly submitting to an authority playing the role of absolute guardian. The infantilized population cannot perceive the necessity of either moral standards or intellectual ones, seeing as all the benefits of this world just seem to fall to them from the sky, through the multiple intermediaries of government bureaucracy. Under the Old Western Culture, children were perceived as miniature adults, in an apprenticeship stage for learning the objective values and principles needed to function autonomously in this world. In general, children so raised grew up to become healthy, self-reliant, intelligent, erudite (or at least literate), industrious citizens. In contrast, the Post-Western Culture views adults as essentially children, with the need for constant oversight and supervision by a higher power that knows their needs better than they themselves do. In the 1960s, the media and entertainment industries, responding solely to the already established demands of their consumers, began to recognize that the refined, heroic esthetics of the past were not desired by the infantilized masses. Therefore, they began to give the masses what they wanted: the inane, vulgar, vapid, and hideous.
The culture of the hippies is essentially the dominant culture of today, with a few modifications in concretes. In truth, the concretes have become worse. Rock-and-roll had a semblance of harmony to it; rap and pop “music,” in their majority, not only have no harmony, but no melody, either. Strings of repulsive profanities are the substitute the Post-Western culture has found for melodies in general. The hippies’ wanton promiscuity, their culture of indiscriminate copulation, ubiquitous obscenity, and mind-bogglingly self-destructive substance abuse, are the “mainstream” of public conduct today. In the meantime, the mainstream of “high art” has gotten worse. While Picasso-esqe doodles are hideous, they are mere images. In our time, an icon of the Virgin Mary smeared with feces is considered the pinnacle of esthetic expression, having been displayed at the New York Metropolitan Art Museum itself. Some “artists” experiment with “statues” made of human hair, nails, skin, and excrement. Others use blood as a substitute for paint. Ancient tribal mutilation rituals, anyone?
In the meantime, individualism is largely dead among the masses. It is fashionable to curse, fashionable to listen to rap “music,” fashionable to engage in drug use and promiscuity—all the while supporting government programs that would bail people out for their own gross self-abuse, programs such as the system of handouts to the unproductive known as “welfare” or the exorbitant moneys spent by the U.S. government on fighting that self-inflicted predator, AIDS. The rank-and-file of the mainstream do it without a second thought; they have lost the ability to question; they have lost the use of their rational minds. They have descended to the level of the same savages who committed human sacrifice, foot binding, and caste-based persecution. The chants, dazes, and savageries of those distant times surely resemble those of our own. Thus, we have come full circle. The culture of the primeval is the Post-Western Culture. It reigns today.
The New or Post-Western Culture is the enemy of freedom-loving, individualistic rational men everywhere. It is the enemy that needs to be combated in order for the Old Western Culture and its universal reason and prosperity to emerge once again. The following chart summarizes the conflict of the two cultures, a conflict that will determine the fate of civilization itself. This list is by no means exhaustive, as the culture war can be fought on almost any front, but it should hopefully elucidate some of the principal conflicts.
As is evident, there is a plethora of issues over which the New or Post-Western Culture has usurped an intellectual guidance formerly offered by the Old or True Western Culture. For the advocates of reason, a colossal effort will be needed to restore the intellectual radiance of the 18th and 19th centuries and undo the lingering devastation of the 20th. Perhaps the 21st century will see a turning of the tides in the culture war. For now, any effort, no matter how small, to restore the influence of the Old Western Culture in any of the above areas is a worthwhile undertaking, and we should hope that the above basic overview will serve as a strategic map for the warriors of reason to employ in restoring the Old West, battle by battle.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician and composer, contributor to organizations such as Le Quebecois Libre, Enter Stage Right, the Autonomist, and The Liberal Institute. Mr. Stolyarov is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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