The Know-Nothing.

If I had to choose a passage to introduce you to Scott Alexander’s terrific blog Slate Star Codex, this isn’t the one I’d go with. But it happens to be one I want to riff on, so here it is…

Imagine a space-time rift brings a 19th-century Know-Nothing to your doorstep. He starts debating you on the relative merits and costs of allowing Irish people to mix with the rest of American society. And you have a hard time even getting the energy to debate him. You’re like “Yeah, there are some Irish people around. I think my boss might be half-Irish or something, although I’m not sure. So what?” And he just sputters “But…but…Irish people! It’s not right for Irish and non-Irish people to mix! Everyone knows that!” And not only do you not think that Irish people are a Big Deal, but you’re about 99% sure that after the Know-Nothing spends a couple of months in 21st-century America he’s going to forget about the whole Irish thing too. There’s just no way someone seeing how boring and ordinary Irish-Americans are could continue to consider worrying about it a remotely good use of their time.

The rest of this old post (from 2013) has nothing to do with the Irish. Alexander is a practitioner of polyamory, you see, which is some kind of modern offshoot of what used to be called free love, and he’s making a point about how unthreatening polyamory is, once you get to know the people who practice it. That subject doesn’t interest me at all – I endorse wholeheartedly his title (if not necessarily his argument): Polyamory Is Boring. But his analogy got me wondering. Would the Know-Nothing really come around as easily as Alexander imagines?

Let me extend the scenario. After your fruitless conversation with the time traveller, you part ways. A few months later, after he’s had time to settle in, read the newspapers, catch some TV, strike up conversations with cab drivers and strangers in bars, you run into him again. “Well, what do you think now?” you say. “The Irish aren’t so scary, are they?”

He shakes his head sadly. “You poor fool,” he says. “Everything we warned you about has come true. Irishness has completely overwhelmed the country. It surrounds you. And you can’t even see it.”

Of course, you ask the Know-Nothing to elaborate. But here my imagination fails – I have no idea what he’s observed in the intervening weeks to make him so depressed. I, like you, grew up in a culture so marinated in Irishness that its effects are totally invisible to me.

If you or I were to shimmer across the invisible space-time boundary that separates us from the alternate-history 2016 where the Know-Nothings successfully kept out the Irish, who knows what we’d find. I suspect we wouldn’t much care for the place. We’d find it stuffy, and exclusionary, and most importantly, in some indefinable way, insufficiently Irish.

But the fact that we prefer having been brought up in our own universe doesn’t mean that our side’s arguments (I mean, the arguments of the 19th century folks who took what we interpret to be “our side” in this long-dead dispute) were correct.

It just means our side won.

***

A few years back, in a post about cratering American birthrates (which I somehow tied in with a discussion of Robert Heinlein’s 1950 sci-fi novel Farmer in the Sky), I wrote that

If America wants to stay productive, it’s hard to see how it (and other developed countries in the same demographic boat, like Canada) can avoid taking in more newcomers.

I then went on for a few paragraphs about the downsides of large-scale immigration – problems of assimilation, mainly. But, I brightly concluded,

Eventually, most likely, the West will absorb and be fortified by the immigrant wave, as it has previous waves.

Recently I re-read that passage and I thought – wait, what? Do I have any empirical reason for believing that we will be “fortified” by new immigrants? What does that even mean?

I suppose I was making the same assumptions that underlie Scott Alexander’s parable of the time traveller. Strength in diversity! A nation of immigrants! The cultural mosaic! Irish, Ukrainians, Jews, Chinese – they’ve all successfully integrated, so why shouldn’t the next batch?

Only…if I were to extend the above list of immigrant ethnicities I would pretty quickly arrive at a few that have, as yet, integrated noticeably less well. (Depending where you live, you probably have a different unsuccessfully-integrated group in mind.) Maybe these groups aren’t to blame for their exclusion; maybe they’ve been discriminated against by the native-born. Maybe “integration” isn’t even a desirable goal. I’m not interested in arguing those points right now. I only mean there are differences between Irish immigration in the 1850s and Jewish immigration in the 1910s and (say) Syrian immigration in the 2010s. Differences in “them”, obviously, but just as importantly, differences in “us” – how many of us there are, what kinds of communities we live in, what jobs are available, and perhaps most of all, what we believe.

Some of those differences should make integration less painful. We’re certainly less overtly racist than we used to be, and we pay lip-service (sometimes without knowing exactly what we mean) to tolerance and diversity and so forth. On the other hand, we’ve adopted views on things like public displays of sexuality, and sacrilegious speech, and gender norms, that increase our cultural separation from some of the immigrants we’re welcoming. The observant Muslim parents of a teenage girl in 1950s Toronto might have worried about their daughter being picked on because of her headscarf, but they wouldn’t have had to worry about her being exposed to Snapchat or Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the new Ontario sex ed curriculum.

People who demonize conservative immigration skeptics like Mark Steyn and Steve Sailer as racists and Islamophobes and so forth tend not to actually read what they write, so it doesn’t register that their skepticism might be rooted in a concern for the fragility of our common liberal values – basic things like freedom of speech, religious toleration, and the right of uncovered women to go for a walk without getting harassed. Perhaps their paranoia is overheated, but at least it acknowledges that integration works both ways. The Irish didn’t just come to America and become more American; America became more Irish. And the same will happen with today’s immigrants.

Maybe we’re cool with that, or maybe we’re just confident that the changes in “us” will all be for whatever we define as the better. But in the long run, it hardly matters what we think. The citizens of the future will uncritically adapt to the culture we bequeath them, and find arguments like this one as unfathomable as we find the frettings of the Know-Nothings.

***

I went off on a bit of a tangent there – I didn’t set out intending to write about immigration, not exactly. What got me thinking about Scott Alexander’s Know-Nothing was this passage in Brave New World.

Early on we’re introduced to Helmholtz Watson, lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering. Helmholtz is troubled by an inchoate sense that, despite the state of universal contentment society has achieved in the year 632 After Ford, something vital is missing. He tries to explain to a friend what he means:

He was silent, then, “You see,” he went on at last, “I’m pretty good at inventing phrases – you know, the sort of words that suddenly make you jump, almost as though you’d sat on a pin, they seem so new and exciting even though they’re about something hypnopaedically obvious. But that doesn’t seem enough. It’s not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.”

“But your things are good, Helmholtz.”

“Oh, as far as they go.” Helmholtz shrugged his shoulders. “But they go such a little way. They aren’t important enough, somehow. I feel I could do something much more important. Yes, and more intense, more violent. But what? What is there more important to say?”

I shut the book and reflected how in every generation, people complain that things are getting worse – morals are deteriorating, the scope of personal freedom is shrinking, tastes are coarsening, the best and highest works of our culture gather dust while the mob lavishes praise on ephemera. Optimists point to the fact that pessimists have been tolling the same doleful themes since at least Plato’s time as proof that the pessimists can be safely ignored: According to those old farts we’ve been driving off a cliff for two and a half millennia. Yet here we still are!

I share their optimism much of the time. Indeed, here we are! We’ve got it pretty good! Food is cheap, yoga pants are amazing for all sorts of reasons, and it appears euthanasia-on-demand will win the race against my accelerating decrepitude. Go toll your bell somewhere else, Gloomy Gus!

But reading Helmholtz’s report from the distant future, it occurred to me that perhaps the Gloomy Guses have been right all along. Every one of them.

In every generation things are lost. Some of those things are deliberately buried, because manners change, and people will no longer put up with blackface dance routines or teen sex comedies where the boys spy on the girl’s locker room. Often, in an excess of scrupulousness, good stuff gets buried with the bad. But most of the good stuff isn’t even deliberately buried, it just gets left behind and forgotten. And the people who’ve forgotten it don’t even know what they’re missing.

You might say it’s nothing to worry about. Our culture keeps generating new stuff to replace what’s lost, and if that new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff, that’s fine, the culture will just adjust its definition of quality and future folks won’t know the difference.

Assuming, that is, that the conditions enabling us to generate new stuff will always prevail. But what if they don’t? What if historical progress actually has an end point?

Brave New World illustrates one way we could put a stop to history: we could actually bio-engineer creativity out of the human race. Helmholtz Watson, with his vague urges toward individual expression, is an aberration in the world of 632 A.F. – a genetic mistake of a kind society is working to eliminate. Another hundred years of tweaking the mix in the test tubes, and socially destabilizing brooders like Helmholtz might be done away with entirely.

I wish I could say confidently that we’ll never elect to bio-engineer our humanity away like that. But even if the human race remains inwardly human, external conditions might impede our creativity. Overcrowding. Technological dependency. The sheer bulk of our past achievements has already made it impossible to be a generalist in the manner of Newton or Goethe or Ben Franklin; if you want to add anything significant to the corpus of cultural knowledge, you now have to specialize. We might reach a point where the number of ideas you have to know already in order to conceive a new idea is so immense that no human brain can handle it; we’ll have no choice but to turn the process of ideation over to computers. Even demoralizing reflections like this one, the fear that all the good ideas have already been thought up, might increasingly lead to torpor and civilizational paralysis.

In the worst case, humanity might go the way of the famous mouse utopia experiment at NIMH – mouse decadence, then mouse apathy, then mouse barbarism, then total population collapse. But I suspect we’ll settle instead into something not far removed from Aldous Huxley’s prophetic satire – maintained by robots, pacified by porn and marijuana, stimulating the atrophied remnants of our thymos with virtual status-seeking – unlocking special achievements in video games and the like. I mean, we in the West aren’t too far from that already, except that the robots haven’t taken quite all the jobs yet so some of us still have to work. And you know what, it’s not that bad. We can’t regret what we don’t know we’ve lost.

When the Know-Nothing time-traveller arrives on our doorstep, we’ll listen with raised eyebrows to his crazy harangue. “The arts? Philosophy? The struggle for distinction? Geez, it all sounds awful. Why don’t you go for a walk, old man, take a look around. You’ll see how much better we have things now.”

M.

PS. I was re-reading Brave New World to celebrate the recent wrapping-up of my own novel on a similar theme. More about this soon…

 

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