Fear not the future

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What is contingent across the arc of human cultural development? What is inevitable? Interesting, if difficult to answer, questions. Last year I posted No fear of Patrick Henry College – the Borg shall assimilate. My argument was simple: an explicitly Christian institution which attempts to take over “secular” culture will be assimilated. There are long, and tiresome, historical debates about whether this in fact happened to the Christian churches when the Roman state adopted them and turned them into the Universal Church. But more recently, and specifically in the context of universities, there has been a long track record in the United States of Christian institutions being founded to stem the tide, only themselves to be swallowed up by the rising waters.


Harvard was originally a training ground for Calvinist ministers. Over its first century it became progressively more heterodox. Princeton was founded explicitly to serve as a second Harvard, a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy. It too was suborned. Wheaton college is in many ways the Harvard of contemporary evangelical America; and it reaffirmed its Protestant credentials when it fired a professor who converted to Catholicism. Nevertheless, the act itself was not without controversy on the campus, suggesting that the commitment toward ideological purity has wavered. Additionally, it seems clear to me that Wheaton’s loyalty to one American subculture has resulted in constraining its influence. Patrick Henry College reached out, its aim was to conquer the public space. But last spring while I was busy at something I like to call “life” a shakeup occurred at Patrick Henry, half a dozen faculty members left (there are fewer than two dozen told faculty members). Why? Ideological conformity and theological purity were being compromised. Patrick Henry aimed for the stars, recruited bright students and challenged the faculty. But such an environment naturally leads to intellectual hubris and the pushing of boundaries. Mental meekness and dullness often go together. Like an invasive species unleashed to control a pest any attempt to conquer the mainstream by mastering its toolkit may inevitably be self-defeating.

This is not just true of the evangelical Christian subculture. Books like Bobos in Paradise document the paradoxical stances of the bohemian bourgeois; 60s radicals turned “socially conscious” entrepreneurs & mercenary professionals. American culture is a massive and uncontrollable river. On occasion it changes course or jumps its bed, but it has its own will and logic and can process anything thrown into its maw. The extruded cultural material is often totally transformed, but the the human tendency to self-delude is great enough that those who have been reprogrammed by the river truly believe that they have won. There’s no point in standing athwart history if it will only drown you; ’tis far more productive to make use of the power of the current and outfit your ship appropriately so that your journey is as smooth and pleasant as possible.

Related: The New York Times has an interesting article about a new Christian college, New St. Andrews. I obviously don’t share their presuppositions, but I do respect their passion for learning. As long as books & faith are their focus they will persevere on their island surrounded by the river. If they challenge it then I suspect their fate is predestined.

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36 Comments

  1. It sounds like they are creationists. Then again, that may not be a huge problem if most of their students major in classics or other humanities.

  2. Let me boil that down to one sentence. 
     
    Let the spirit of the age be your sail. 
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitgeist 
     
    Not sure how that jives with the American Revolution. Many colonists risked everything on a slim chance for victory against the world’s only superpower. I wouldn’t call that going with the flow. A few thousand people changed the direction of the world. Without their sacrifice the western world would be logorithmically more authoritarian.

  3. I wouldn’t call that going with the flow. A few thousand people changed the direction of the world. Without their sacrifice the western world would be logorithmically more authoritarian. 
     
    that’s probably not true. it isn’t like england and the settler colonies are or were ever authoritarian.

  4. Actually the American Revolution was part of the late 18th century Zeitgeist – the age of reason – you had regimes that tried to herald Enlightenment to their countries – enlightened despots like Joseph II, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great. It was also a time when parts of the elite, influenced by Enlightenment values, called themselves Patriots and claimed that they represented the nation better than the established order; not only in North America and in France, but in the Low countries, South America, Britain, Ireland, Poland. North America was only the first success; perhaps because there the bonds of the established order were the loosest. 
     
    Anyway, this Zeitgeist business begs the question of what creates the Zeitgeist. You may very well be right that in America you can’t resist secularism. But in the Islamic world trends may be going the other way, there being a centripetal force towards aligning religious life to the ideal of 7th century Medina even in remote places like South East Asia.

  5. You may very well be right that in America you can’t resist secularism. But in the Islamic world trends may be going the other way, there being a centripetal force towards aligning religious life to the ideal of 7th century Medina even in remote places like South East Asia. 
     
    i think that the Zeitgeist is diff. in diff locations…the islamic world is going through some of what occurred in europe during the reformation. traditional authority has weakened in the face of mass literacy and decentralization of power as local believers reinterpret the canonical texts of the faith.  
     
    there could be a shock which changes america as some point in the future. i’m just saying that the priors should be weighted a particular way given our historical experience at this point.

  6. razib 
     
    Vaccines, skyscrapers and the moon landing are all inevitable. A world superpower founded on the principles of limited government is absolutely not inevitable. The concepts of Democracy and freedom (both ancient ideas) are nothing more than debating points without a strong nation to champion them.  
     
    Its impossible to test history with and without the USA. However America has sold the idea of freedom and capitalism for over 200 years. It doesn’t take a genius to assume the USA has had a major impact on Europe and the rest of the world.

  7. Looc, 
     
    Come on, let’s not backpedal so frantically. Razib objected to your postulating a “logorithmically more authoritarian” West without the USA, and now you’re talking about a “major impact”. With all the caveats that come with discussing such counterfactuals, it’s not like the United States took over territory and power that would have gone to a Hitler or Mao. Most likely, XVIII-Cen Britain and France would have dominated the historical stage, nations whose ideological momentum created the American founders.

  8. A world superpower founded on the principles of limited government is absolutely not inevitable. 
     
    sure, but england did that before the USA.  
     
    However America has sold the idea of freedom and capitalism for over 200 years. 
     
    britain abolished the slave trade (by force) and championed (after some debate in the early 19th century) free trade across much of the world. the world is more than just america, and we weren’t a major world-wide imperial power until around 1900 (we did fiddle in the new world a bit though).  
     
    my understanding is that we were a force as a model for many nations. that being said, in places like france the direction of the revolution was to take a very different form from that in the USA; and in places like latin america the revolutions really didn’t stick. additionally, latin american elites also drew nearly as much (or more) on eurpean ideas (e.g., positivism, or anti-clerical movements coming out of southern europe). 
     
    america as a force for “freedom and capitalism” seems more a product of woodrow wilson and FDR. that being said, in both cases one might assert that in the case of freedom was failure as the american polity rejected the idealism of the heads of state.

  9. J. Goard 
     
    Backpeddle? That was elaboration.

  10. Razib 
     
    England was ruled by a despotic, crazy king when the revolution broke out. His power might have been somewhat limited but British freedom and civil rights were SHIZZ compared to what was offered under the U.S. system. 
     
    I stand by my earlier points: (maybe this should be directed at J. Goard) 
     
    A)Victory during the revolution was lucky 
    B)America and it’s ideals have had a major direct and indirect impact on the world

  11. J. Goard 
     
    Wait a minute, maybe I missed what you were getting at. 
     
    Do I believe Europe is less authoritarian today because the USA is tucked away safely on a far away continent espousing freedom and capitalism? Yes.

  12. England was ruled by a despotic, crazy king when the revolution broke out. His power might have been somewhat limited but British freedom and civil rights were SHIZZ compared to what was offered under the U.S. system. 
     
    say more. what acts of despotism are you talking about? what rights do you think americans had that british did not have?

  13. Yeah, look at Canada and Australia and see what the USA could have been like – a Prime Minister instead of a President, A parliament instead of a congress. Crazy and despotic.

  14. Bryan Caplan made similar points about the American Revolution here.

  15. Razib 
     
    say more. what acts of despotism are you talking about? what rights do you think americans had that british did not have? 
     
    Without doing a book report how about the first 10 ammendments to the constitution?  
     
    http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/funddocs/billeng.htm 
     
    Google mercantalism, if you’d like to learn about how the British treated colonies from an economic standpoint. 
     
    Look, I didn’t come up with the phrase, “The shot heard round The world.” America was not inevitable and its creation had a major impact on North America, Britain, Continental Europe and ultimately the rest of the world. 
     
    If you don’t believe America has anything to do with a free Europe in the year 2007 fair enough. But I disagree.

  16. No matter how hard you try, you can’t turn the TV off.

  17. Without doing a book report how about the first 10 ammendments to the constitution?  
     
    you made a really strong statement here: 
    Not sure how that jives with the American Revolution. Many colonists risked everything on a slim chance for victory against the world’s only superpower. I wouldn’t call that going with the flow. A few thousand people changed the direction of the world. Without their sacrifice the western world would be logorithmically more authoritarian. 
     
    now, when i make strong statements i don’t need to do a book report, i generally know the topic pretty well, and can ratting off why i believe what i believe pretty quickly. you called the king of england a “despot,” that’s a really strong statement too. or i will say that it’s just my impressionistic opinion and i can’t really convince other people. 
     
    now: 
    America was not inevitable and its creation had a major impact on North America, Britain, Continental Europe and ultimately the rest of the world. 
     
    that’s probably an indisputably correct statement, but nothing like what you started out with.

  18. Yeah, look at Canada and Australia and see what the USA could have been like – a Prime Minister instead of a President, A parliament instead of a congress. Crazy and despotic. 
     
    yeah, i think that’s the point. it seems that though there were reversals the general trend after the glorious revolution was toward what you see in the UK and the settler colonies, and it wasn’t toward authoritarianism. i do think one might argue that the USA was consequential as a model and influence in the non-anglosphere; e.g., serving as an exemplar for the french revolution, and an explicit object of emulation in some latin american countries. but three points: 
     
    1) in the dynamic above the USA is an extrapolation of a british tendency (and in fact i tend to agree that our culture is basically british in origin despite the dominant non-british ethnic origin) 
     
    2) it seems likely that revolution such as in france was not totally contingent upon the american example. and in any case, most of the american leaders aside from thomas jefferson were not enthusiastic about what was happening in france.  
     
    3) in many of the latin american cases the model “didn’t take” (that is, republican democracy). these societies also played around with european models, and even monarchy (the empire of brazil, etc.).

  19. razib 
     
    that’s probably an indisputably correct statement, but nothing like what you started out with. 
     
    Whaddaya want me to keep writing the same statement over and over? My opinion is unwavering. In any case I’m glad you brought this back to my first post which happened to be directly on topic.  
     
    The founding of the USA (against all odds) is direct counter evidence to the concept of inevitability. You might classify that as… 
    an indisputably correct statement

  20.  
    Whaddaya want me to keep writing the same statement over and over? My opinion is unwavering.
     
     
    because i wanted to see if your opinion was based on a large base of knowledge or not. i think i found out what i needed to know. you sound like you’re being hassled as if it is strange to be expected to explain in detail the rationale behind strongly held opinions. it isn’t, here “cuz i believe so” really doesn’t add anything to the discussion.

  21. because i wanted to see if your opinion was based on a large base of knowledge or not. i think i found out what i needed to know. you sound like you’re being hassled as if it is strange to be expected to explain in detail the rationale behind strongly held opinions. it isn’t, here “cuz i believe so” really doesn’t add anything to the discussion. 
     
    The first 10 amendments to the constitution are better than what the British had, right? Getting the USA out of the shizz end of mercantalism was better too, right?

  22. Tiananmen Square photos 
    http://cryptome.cn/tk/tiananmen-kill.htm 
     
    Near the middle check out the Statue of Liberty the students made. 
     
    /Sorry Brian Caplan, no statues of the British royal family anywhere in site.

  23. Getting the USA out of the shizz end of mercantalism was better too, right? 
     
    this has a complicated economic history, and it leaves out the fact that: 
     
    1) the USA has periodically engaged in ‘neo-mcerantilist’ activities through its history 
     
    2) that britain abandoned mercantalism in the 19th century and become one of the most powerful forces for free trade (and a significant one since they controlled so much of the planet) 
     
    3) history is pretty complicated and can’t really be easily reduced down to slogans

  24. razib  
     
    that britain abandoned mercantalism in the 19th century and become one of the most powerful forces for free trade (and a significant one since they controlled so much of the planet) 
     
    Mercantalism created a searing hatred of the British in George Washington and many other revolutionary leaders. Since we can’t run history twice its impossible to know how much reform in Britain came as a result of losing the war. Ironically losing the war may have created a wave of reforms that actually helped the British. 
     
    Modern example: 
    The civil war in Iraq will almost certainly deter future American presidents from any serious adventurism.

  25. Not everyone feels that their personal or national circumstances are inevitable.

  26. Not everyone feels that their personal or national circumstances are inevitable. 
     
    dude, you need to take a statistics class and stop filtering what i’m saying through a deterministic lens. throwing up pictures of tiananmen square is an emotional ploy that works on retarded political blogs, not GNXP.  
     
    Mercantalism created a searing hatred of the British in George Washington and many other revolutionary leaders. Since we can’t run history twice its impossible to know how much reform in Britain came as a result of losing the war. Ironically losing the war may have created a wave of reforms that actually helped the British. 
     
    and yet around 1/2 of the populace seems to have sided with the crown. the hatred wasn’t universal at all.

  27. putting pictures of tiananmen square as ‘arguments’ really isn’t something i’m going to be excited about here. there are plenty of weblogs where you can assert and your fellow travelers will clap happily. if someone makes a strong statement i expect them to be able to offer a very detailed argument quickly. if you can’t, you shouldn’t say anything, your opinions aren’t worth shit without some back up. sputtering angrily when asked to back up your claim isn’t cool. 
     
    i hope this has been instructive for other readers.

  28. So let me see if I understand this: Students under the Communist Chinese Party got pissy and stood up to columns of tanks, signifying that King George III was tyranical (he had gout, too), that the USA invented limited government, and that without that contribution, Chinese students could never make replicas of French statuary. Correct?

  29. Somewhat more seriously, the USA’s biggest impact on the world seems to have come as much from its abilities in mass production as it has from its form of government. Also, the growth of our influence seems to be somewhat related to our abandonment of the principles of limited government.

  30. the USA’s biggest impact on the world seems to have come as much from its abilities in mass production as it has from its form of government.  
     
    i believe paul roemer has argued that increased economic growth rates in the 19th century were in part due to the enormous economies of scale and the opening toward specialization offered by the united states (england didn’t need to feed itself if the USA could export raw commodities cheaply en masse), which at least for a period wasn’t constrained by malthusian imperatives (the frontier didn’t close until 1900).

  31. “The first 10 amendments to the constitution are better than what the British had, right? Getting the USA out of the shizz end of mercantalism was better too, right?” 
     
    The entire American constitution – with the exception of the non-establishmentarian clause – is a constitutionalization of rights that were considered to be inate in English law ( constitutional, or not) for centuries, at least in theory ( in pratice it helped if you weren’t catholic). The day after the “revolution” the courts were dispensing the same laws as before ( Basically English common law modified by local additions – which is, in fact, what describes the entire AngloSphere), and the activist supreme courts of latter years had not got started. English history does not seem to be too influenced by America ( except perhaps the early Whigs and disestablishmentarians) and a hell of a lot of the demand for universal suffrage etc. was from the labour movement, not generally influenced by America. America was not the power you think it was in the early nineteenth century, it’s influence was what you would expect from a provinical power, with a population much smaller than Ireland ( then).  
     
    I’ll not mention slavery :-) 
     
    The supreme court has upheld the freedom of speech to a much greater extent than other countries, but has not maintained other freedoms so well. There are 2 million in jail, most for victimless crimes like personal drug use. These laws exist everywhere, but are most punatively applied in the US. 
     
    In any case: the amendments – without going through them all are basically ( with, as I said the exception of the first) constitutional write ups of what was then English law ( England had militias at the time, often county based). Amendments 5 onwards are banal descriptions of how courts work until 9th and tenth. Article 4 is a re-assertion that an Englishman’s home is his castle. The second part of Amendment eight is just word games, and I think that “excessive” fines have been imposed ( a woman is trying to garner – as I write – a million dollars from Apple becasue they reduced the price of the iPhone by $200 after she bought it) , and – by the standards of most other democracies – “cruel and unusual punishments” inflicted on the citizenship of the US ( the death penalty, particularly the electric chair). These fine words are culture-bound, or era-bound, and thus useless. 
     
    And US was anti-establishmentarian because it had to be.

  32. Eoin, I won’t dispute our debt to the English, but calling the American constitution just a reiteration of English common law is like pointing out Jesus was a Jew. Where they ended up is far more pertinent than where they started.

  33. P.S. I agree that the freedoms recognized by the Constitution remain in part ideals given the overwhelming stupidity of the populace.

  34. I’m not sure where I side in this debate but Brittons certainly don’t have the same level of free speech enjoyed by Americans. 
     
    Boy ‘who was attacked’ by Slovakian woman may face racism charge 
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=483974&in_page_id=1770

  35. I’m not sure where I side in this debate but Brittons certainly don’t have the same level of free speech enjoyed by Americans. 
     
    Boy ‘who was attacked’ by Slovakian woman may face racism charge 
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=483974&in_page_id=1770

  36. Sorry for the double post. Please delete 2nd and this.

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