[extropy-chat] On difficult choices (was: Books: Harris; Religion and Reason)

Fred C. Moulton moulton at moulton.com
Sat Jan 14 22:55:48 UTC 2006

On Sat, 2006-01-14 at 10:54 -0800, Samantha Atkins wrote:
> On Jan 12, 2006, at 2:18 AM, Russell Wallace wrote:
> > The entities exterminating us aren't aliens from outer space in
> > flying saucers with force shields that can withstand a nuclear
> > explosion. The terrible truth is that we already know them. MTV.
> > East Enders. Zoning laws. MAs in political science.
> > http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110007760 
> > It makes sense, of course; the one thing an exterminator meme can't
> > look like is an exterminator meme, otherwise almost by definition it
> > wouldn't be one. Bacteria die to penicillin; HIV, the simplest
> > thing, slips by.
> > 
> I read this article.  Not to put too fine a point on it, I found it
> laughable.

Samantha correctly pegs the intellectual level of the Steyn article.  It
is also sad that anyone is taking it seriously.  The same article was
referenced on another list I am on a few days ago and wrote my comments
for that list. I reproduce the majority of my remarks here just in case
anyone is interested my view of the Steyn article.  It was written for a
different audience which in general has a lower level of science and
technology background than this group however I do not have time to do a

As originally posted to another listed:

The Steyn essay begins by claiming that much of "what we call the
Western world will not survive the century".  We are then given
a several thousand word grand tour of the problem as viewed by
Steyn touching on everything from gay marriage to Cameron Diaz.
The essay as I see it has a couple of major flaws;
 - the first being a lack of serious consideration of technology
 and business factors during the course of this century impacting
 on cultural norms, birthrates, etc.
 - the second is a failure to properly grasp some key issues
 about memetics and cultural beliefs.
Although the first is one that I find very interesting I will
not deal with it here but will instead focus on the second issue.

The essay contains various statistics and comparisons about birth
rates and replacement rates and the shrinking of traditional
European populations and the rise of Muslim populations.  Further
statistics are brought forth about how the number of Muslims
living in the United Kingdom who want be live under Shariah law.
It appears as if he wants to paint the picture of fundamentalist
Islam sweeping over much of the Europe.

Of course after hammering on the racial and ethnic demographics
we find the disclaimer near the end of the article:
    "But it's not about race, it's about culture. If 100% of your
    population believes in liberal pluralist democracy, it doesn't
    matter whether 70% of them are "white" or only 5% are. But if
    one part of your population believes in liberal pluralist
    democracy and the other doesn't, then it becomes a matter of
    great importance whether the part that does is 90% of the
    population or only 60%, 50%, 45%."
It would seem that the obvious point would be to discuss how to
promote acceptance of liberal pluralist values but Steyn does not
seem inclined to devote much space to what is obviously a major
question implied by his prior discussion.

Mr. Steyn writes of the Europeans holding the idea the "liberal
pluralist democracy" but surely he must realize that this is a
fairly recent development.  It was only a few centuries ago that
both Protestants and Catholics used torture and death on those
they considered heretics.  What happened was that ideas changed.
For many in Europe and the USA the link between religion and
government has either weakened or been cut.  Again this raises
the question of why does Steyn not focus more on memetics than
ethnic demographics.

I began to get a glimpse of Steyn's thinking when I compared
what he considered the primary impulses of a society "national
defense, family, faith and, most basic of all, reproductive
activity" with the what he terms the secondary impulses of society
"government health care", "government day care" and "government
paternity leave".  He argues that at least one party in the US
and most parties in the rest of the West have platforms which are
largely concerned with the "secondary impulses" and he says that
if we fail to pay attention to the "primary impulses" then the
"secondary impulse" items become unaffordable.  And I admit that
discussions of how to pay for welfare programs might be a topic
that persons interested in policy matters may want to pursue.
But is the thrust of Steyn's essay about paying for welfare
programs?  No, it appears not.  It seems that Steyn thinks the
West is not focused on the proper issues for the "survival of
the west".  And it is this concern that explains why Steyn leads
us on the tangents about gay marriage and Cameron Diaz.  And it
illuminates one reason why I find Steyn's thinking so flawed.

Notice that in the list of "secondary impulses" each of the
items listed is a government welfare program.  Now notice that
in the list of "primary impulses" national defense is one that
often considered a government activity but what of the others;
family, faith, reproduction.  The lack of distinction by Steyn
between society, government, family and individual further weaken
his point.  There is another weakness in the list and that is the
use of the term faith in the list.   It raises the question of
faith in what: faith in money; faith in your favorite baseball
team, faith in Allah, faith in what exactly?

I found Steyn using another term in an unusual manner,
the term secular.  Consider Steyn's description of the
"progressive agenda--lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism,
multiculturalism".   But secularism usually is used to refer to
the lack of religious influence in public affairs of society.
Yet this inclusion of secularism in the description ignores the
religious backgrounds of many people in the early and current
progressive movement.  Putting "secularism" in the description of
a progressive agenda might score rhetorical points with some in
his audience but with me it just further erodes any possibility
of taking him seriously.  And his lack of intellectual rigor is
further demonstrated by a discussion of multiculturalism that is
at a level I would expect to hear at a frat house kegger not in
a serious analysis.

His trotting out of Cameron Diaz is not much better than his
discussion of multiculturalism.  Attempting to make any sort of
important point by describing the Cameron Diaz appearance on the
Oprah Winfrey show is about at the same level as if Shaquille
O'Neil wanted to show his basketball skills by playing a little
one on one with a seven year old.  Steyn gives us this line:
   Why then, if your big thing is feminism or abortion
   or gay marriage are you so certain that the cult of
   tolerance will prevail once the biggest demographic
    in your society is cheerfully intolerant?
I consider myself a feminist yet I have no illusion about
the problems that can occur when a majority of persons in a
society are intolerant.  We have ample record of that in the
history of many societies including this one.  My point is that
a threat of some future intolerant majority is not a  reason for
abandoning feminism or for stopping the efforts towards getting
the government's nose out of marriage and personal relationships
between consenting adults.

And this gets to what I think is a key point; it is a memetic and
cultural battle that is occurring.  In some cases the cultural
conflict erupts into violence.  We have seen this before when
heretics where persecuted and burned in Europe; and we see it
now it the violence that some Muslims direct towards others who
they see as the enemies of Islam.  My position is that we need
to understand and continue the memetic and cultural struggle to
advance the ideas of forethought, free markets and individual
liberty.  Of course this memetic and cultural struggle will
be weaken other religous faiths just as much as it weakens the
Muslim faith.  Perhaps this is something which in the unwritten
background of Steyn's essay, it is hard to say.

My impression of Steyn's essay is that it while it seems to try
to address some questions which are potentially interesting it
is thin on substance and thick on rhetorical tricks that fail to
either amaze or amuse.  I wish that Steyn has been more direct
rather than attempting the rhetorical route.  Perhaps it was a
matter of personal style but it is not persuasive.

So if I am so dismissive of Steyn's essay, why did I spend my
time writing this rather getting some sleep?  It is because of
the damage that views like Steyn's do to the movement for free
markets and individual liberty.  Too often people mistakenly
associate conservatives like Steyn with free markets and when
I mention the value of free markets some false impressions are
made and I spend valuable time trying to convince people that
free markets and individual liberty really mean free markets and
individual liberty instead of the rhetoric that a conservative
like Steyn got published.

If persons are interested in Islamic fundamentalism and religion
in general and our modern society then I recommend the book The
End of Faith written by Sam Harris.  I will warn you that he
expresses himself very forcefully and directly and persons with
delicate sensibilities are hereby warned.  For those too busy to
buy and read the book you can get a free MP3 download of a talk
he gave a few weeks ago in San Francisco at:
Just scroll to the bottom of the list, the title of the talk
is "The View from the End of the World" and covers much of the
material in the book.  The talk was well attended and was standing
room only, fortunately I found a chair.


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