The Hays Code, the old PC, and formal power

On Twitter, psychologist Geoffrey Miller retweeted Columbia Pictures’ 1934 photograph in protest of the Hays Code, commenting that it dates from an erstwhile time when Hollywood “protested against political correctness.”


Yet how similar is our contemporary regime of political correctness to censorship under the Hays Code? The Hays Code was a (mostly) explicit list of prohibited obscenities and depictions, enforced by one central administrative office; it was an expression of formal power. On the other hand, today’s political correctness cares very little about censoring nudity or lewd sex acts, and not at all about protecting (western) religious faith and (western) national traditions from ridicule. In many ways its substantive aims are exactly opposite to those of the old regime. Joe Sobran said that the old regime was “nativist” (prejudiced in favor of the native, the normal, and so forth) while the new regime is “alienist” (prejudiced in favor of the alien, the marginal, the dispossessed, the eccentric). Modern political correctness is also enforced by the Cathedral, i.e. by a decentralized (and often capricious) coalition of ideologically-aligned individuals and institutions; it is an expression of informal power.

Are great and beautiful things possible under the rule of prudish formal power, even if modern minds might find its specific prohibitions to be wanting? In a short essay, “The Way We Were,” published in 1995, Irving Kristol pointed out that, at least in this context, the answer is: yes.

Perhaps no other issue excites such hysteria today as does censorship, and the threat it supposedly poses to our liberties. But from the founding of the Republic until 1950, we lived under a system of censorship of pornography and obscenity, and just about the only people who seemed interested in the matter were book publishers mourning lost sales. This censorship was for the most part local, so that books banned in Boston could be bought in, say, New York. Only when the federal government intervened—as in the case of James Joyce’s Ulysses—were the blunders of censorship highly irritable. In all of American history until 1900, I do not know of a single case where the prohibition against pornography/obscenity was directed against political speech, political or scholarly books. So much for its hypothetical “chilling effect.” As for its harming artistic creativity, it is worth noting that the same cultural historians who froth at the mouth at the very mention of censorship casually refer to the decades from 1920 to 1950 as the “golden age” of Hollywood (despite censorship by the Hays Office), of the American novel, and of the American theater.

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Ben Shapiro defines the alt-right

I read Ben Shapiro only occasionally. He has a facile understanding of the intellectual Right, and he doesn’t treat his adversaries the way he wants to be treated. But last week he gave an interview in which, among other things, he had a go at defining the alt-right. Not by who’s in it, but by what it believes. Here’s the result.

Basically, the alt-right is a group of thinkers who believe that Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity—which is racist, obviously. It’s people who believe that if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve the interior collapse of Western civilization. As you may notice, this has nothing to do with the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It has nothing to do actually with Western civilization. The whole principle of Western civilization is that anybody can involve himself or herself in civilized values. That’s not what the alt-right believes—at least its leading thinkers, people like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor and Vox Day. Those kind of folks will openly acknowledge that this is their thought process.

The rest of the interview is not very interesting. Shapiro gets to talking about his personal feuds with various right-of-center characters, and I don’t want to talk about that. But his description of “what the alt-right believes” is intriguing.

For now, let’s take the alt-right as a sphere of thinkers (mostly online) who dissent in some way from the constantly-shifting National Review-approved tenets of movement conservatism. John Derbyshire calls it the “dissident right,” which I think is a better term.

Shapiro is very clear that he believes there is a strict dividing line between conservatism (around these parts we’d call it “Conservatism, Inc.”) and the alt-right (or dissident right) as he defines it. So one thing that might be helpful is to check whether past conservative thinkers, especially those who were well within the mainstream of conservative thought, held what Ben Shapiro says the alt-right believes (“which is racist, obviously”) to be outside the bounds of reasonable conservatism.

We don’t even need to go back that far. Let’s take Robert Bork—who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan—in his book, “Slouching Towards Gomorrah,” originally published in 1996, only 20 years ago, and republished in 2003. My impression is that Bork’s jeremiad against “modern liberalism” was greeted with much acclaim in conservative circles. And see what Ben Shapiro has had to say about Bork. He complains, e.g., about the left’s “full-scale destruction of Robert Bork.”

Delving into “Slouching,” we eventually come to Chapter 15, “The Wistful Hope for Fraternity,” which is Bork’s attack on multiculturalism. I’ve scanned it in full, but I’ll quote the important bit. “What needs to be said,” Bork contends,

is that American culture is Eurocentric, and it must remain Eurocentric or collapse into meaninglessness. Standards of European and American origin are the only possible standards that can hold our society together and keep us a competent nation. If the legitimacy of Eurocentric standards is denied, there is nothing else. There are no standards from any other quarter of the globe that we can agree upon. Islam cannot provide standards for us, nor can Africa or the Far East. Yet a single set of standards is essential to a sense of what authority is legitimate, what ideals must be maintained. The alternative to Eurocentrism, then, is fragmentation and chaos.

The attack on Eurocentrism is ignorant and perverse in an additional way. Europe made the modern world. Europe and America made the world that people from around the globe desperately desire to enter. It is insane to say that they should enter this world in order to reject the culture that made it. European-American culture is the best the world has to offer, if one judges by where the people of the world want to immigrate. It is not hard to see what makes this culture superior. Europe was the originator of individualism, representative democracy, free-market capitalism, the rule of law, theoretical and experimental science, applied science or advanced technology, and so on through a list of achievements that have made the life of mankind much more free and prosperous. The static societies of Asia and Africa finally achieved dynamism, or varying degrees of it, only under the influence of European culture.

Bork is no longer around to speak for himself, but it seems to me he thinks there is a very consequential, even “inseparable,” link between Europe and America. I’d argue that the more important and definite link is between America and the governing traditions of Anglo-Saxon England. H. P. Lovecraft wrote that, “‘Americanism’ is expanded Anglo-Saxonism,” and I’m inclined to agree. But certainly Bork wouldn’t so carelessly write off the broader claim that “Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity,” i.e. from European peoples and their manifest ways of life, as “racist, obviously.” Moreover, does Bork sound like he would reject the specific claim that “if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve [its] interior collapse”? I am confident that Bork would not reject this claim—especially with Shapiro’s “too many” qualifier. Some would, but not Bork, and not American conservatism as understood until at least the 1960s, if not much later. Bork would find risible the notion that 800 million sub-Saharan Africans could be brought to America or to Europe without resulting in the “interior collapse” of these societies.

I don’t bring up Bork because he is the last word on what’s true. He isn’t. Rather, his chapter on multiculturalism is useful because it demonstrates just how far people like Ben Shapiro have warped “conservatism” toward utopian equalitarianism. The point is that, only 20 years ago, someone at the heart of conservatism, who is still widely admired, was willing to defend Eurocentrism.

We can go further: In that chapter on multiculturalism, Bork barely brings up the Constitution. Not once does he bring up the Declaration. That’s because Bork, although a great admirer of both documents, knew that Western ways are much more important than Western principles. The late Justice Antonin Scalia frequently liked to remark that, “Every banana republic in the world has a bill of rights. Every president-for-life has a bill of rights.” Indeed, anyone and any country can give lip service to values and principles, to documents and to pieces of parchment. It’s much harder to live those values: to abide by the rule of law; to abstain from sloth; to eschew corruption; to avoid criminality; etc., etc., etc. Which is to say, principles are easy, and ways are hard.

There are people on the dissident right who would agree that it is possible for certain, select ethnic non-Europeans to become Western-civilized. One need not agree with Richard Spencer about everything. But Ben Shapiro is basically correct. Most of us do not believe that “anybody can involve him or herself in civilized values,” believing instead that a mass influx of non-Europeans, which dramatically altered Western demography, would be incompatible with Western ways. One might think, for example, that it would have been a better idea (and would still be a better idea, although the hour is late) to try to maintain a strong European supermajority in America—the better to uphold Bork’s “Eurocentrism”—than to continue merrily plodding along toward majority-minority status. We also reject the idea that Shapiro’s naive universalism—his belief that “anybody can involve him or herself in civilized values”—is the “whole principle of Western civilization.” Rather the dissident right holds to a realistic understanding that there are limits to how many people from very different cultures can become Western-civilized. To quote Derb on matters of race and demography, “Yes, [we] think it’s very important, and [we] think the current taboo on talking about it is silly and counter-productive.”

Ben Shapiro seems to understand how and where the alt-right dissents from modern conservatism. He’s merely wrong that the alt-right’s realism about human nature and human difference is foreign to the conservative tradition or is a corruption of it; you can find this realism in Aristotle, Hume, the Founders, Tocqueville, Kirk, Bork, etc., indeed in basically any conservative thinker before 1960.

In other words, the alt-right didn’t abandon modern conservatism; modern conservatism abandoned the alt-right.

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Scalia’s compact case for originalism

Martha Minow, in one of a series of tributes to Justice Scalia published in the Harvard Law Review, recalls an interview he gave before a group of students and colleagues in Brazil:

I will tell you the killer argument in favor of originalism. I go to law schools just to make trouble. I give lectures and stir up the students. It takes several weeks for their professors to put them back on track. And what I tell them is: ask your professor. Your professor is probably not an originalist. That means he is a non-originalist. But that is not a philosophy of interpretation. It just means he does not agree with Scalia. But, then, what is your theory of interpretation? Scalia knows what he’s looking for. He’s looking for the understanding that the people had of the terms that were adopted. Once you show him what that understanding was — you got him. He is handcuffed — he cannot do the nasty, conservative things he would like to do to society.

How do you control your judges? You know what? Think about it. There is no other possible criterion except “what did this text mean, what did the people understand it to mean, when it was adopted.” You either adopt that or you tell your judges — wise, wonderful judges who went to Harvard, Stanford, and maybe even Yale Law School — you must know the answers to all these profound moral questions like homosexuality, abortion, suicide. … You either use originalism or you tell your judges: “You govern us, whatever you think is good is okay. Whatever you think is bad is bad.”

Some of the other tributes are also quite affecting. I especially enjoyed Chief Justice Roberts’ and Justice Ginsburg’s. Cass Sunstein’s was a bit unfair and too clever by half.

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Lee Kuan Yew on the post-war breaking of the British spirit

In a speech [video] given on October 22, 2002 on the eve of Commemoration Day at Imperial College, Yew describes the degeneration of Britain under communism and diversity:

It was a different age and a different generation. After six exhausting years of bombings and privation, Londoners in the 1940s took great pride in themselves, were courteous and disciplined. Bomb sites were cleared, with the bricks neatly piled to one side and little make-shift gardens created.

Perhaps the most impressive sight I came upon was when I emerged from the tube station at Piccadilly Circus. I found a little table with a pile of newspapers and a box of coins and notes with nobody in attendance. You take your newspaper, toss in your coin or put in your 10-shilling note and take your change. I took a deep breath – this was a truly civilised people.

After three months of London, I abandoned life in a bed-sitter in Swiss Cottage, for the university town of Cambridge where survival skills were not necessary, because the university, which catered for 10,000 gentlemen, and a few young ladies, assumed they did not have such menial skills and so ministered to their needs.

That Britons are better off materially than they were is visible everywhere. But that quiet pride and self-confidence, that national cohesiveness that marked out the British people after victory in World War II, has dissipated. Many of my British contemporaries believed that the loss of empire caused that loss of elan. The mirage of Commonwealth unity beguiled the British people from facing up to the hard reality that Britain was no longer the heart of an empire.

Looking back at those early years, I am amazed at my youthful innocence. I watched Britain at the beginning of its experiment with the welfare state; the Atlee government started to build a society that attempted to look after its citizens from cradle to grave. I was so impressed after the introduction of the National Health Service when I went to collect my pair of new glasses from my opticians in Cambridge to be told that no payment was due. All I had to do was to sign a form. What a civilised society, I thought to myself. The same thing happened at the dentist and the doctor.

I did not understand what a cosseted life would do to the spirit of enterprise of a people, diminishing their desire to achieve and succeed. I believed that wealth came naturally from wheat growing in the fields, orchards bearing fruit every summer, and factories turning out all that was needed to maintain a comfortable life.

Only two decades later when I had to make an outdated entrepot economy feed a people did I realise we needed to create the wealth before we can share it. And to create wealth, high motivation and incentives are crucial to drive a people to achieve, to take risks for profit or there will be nothing to share.

It is remarkable that powerful minds like Sir William Beveridge’s, who thought out this egalitarian welfare system, did not foresee its unintended consequences. It took more than three decades of gradual decline in performance before Margaret Thatcher set out to reverse it, to restore individual incentives and the motivation to succeed, to encourage risk-taking, necessary for a successful entrepreneurial economy.

In the five decades since I first came to London, so much has changed. I remember enough of the past to regret the passing of that age when power and influence made London throb and hum and count for much more in the affairs of the world.

Five decades ago, London was a grimy, sooty, bomb-scarred city, with less food, fewer cars, and deprived of the conveniences of the consumer society. But the people, then homogeneous, white, and Christians, were admirable, self-confident and courteous.

From that well-mannered Britain to the yobs and football hooligans of the 1990s took only 40 years. I learned that civilised living does not come about naturally. There are other significant changes. Britain is now multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious. Churches are nearly empty on Sundays with many de-consecrated and converted into places of entertainment while some 500 mosques are filled to capacity on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath. There are also many Hindu temples and places of worship of other religions.

What of the future? I could not foresee my own country’s fate. In January 1968 when the British government announced its withdrawal from the east of Suez, including Singapore, I feared the curtains would come down on Singapore. I read, with unease, several scholarly articles in British weeklies comparing it to the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain. It was a most ominous analogy. It conjured up visions of loss of civic order, and of anarchy and barbarity in its place.

Fortunately, the past has not been an accurate pointer to the future. Today there are more people to-ing and fro-ing between Singapore and Britain now than then. And there are more British merchants, industrialists, bankers and professionals than ever in Singapore making a great contribution to our economy. Technological breakthroughs have made historical analogies misleading.

Many confidently predicted that the end of the Cold War would bring stability, and growth, the peace dividend. Instead the world is beset with new dangers, not least of them from fanatical Muslim terrorists. All the power and might of the United States may not be able to completely suppress religiously-driven terrorists. And America is fearful of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a Saddam Hussein. Technology has brought different races with divergent religions and cultures into constant interaction and with unexpected and unhappy outcomes.

However, breakthroughs in science and technology, especially in life sciences, promise mankind longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. It is the young across the world who will be the major beneficiaries of these discoveries but they will have to manage the problems that come with rapid changes in the way they live, work and interact with each other in an ever smaller world or there will be more strife and conflicts.

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J. F. Stephen’s world-philosophy, according to his brother

James Fitzjames Stephen’s brother, Leslie Stephen, wrote one of the famous Victorian’s biographies. Here’s an excerpt I really enjoyed:

“Despair is the vilest of words.” That expresses Fitzjames’s whole belief and character. Faiths may be shaken and dogmas fade into meaningless jumbles of words: science may be unable to supply any firm ground for conduct. Still we can quit ourselves like men. From doubt and darkness he can still draw the practical conclusion, “Be strong and of a good courage.” And, therefore, Fitzjames could not be a pessimist in the proper sense; for the true pessimist is one who despairs of the universe. Such a man can only preach resignation to inevitable evil, and his best hope is extinction. Sir Alfred Lyall’s fine poem describes the Hindoo ascetic sitting by the bank of the sacred stream and watching the legions as they pass while cannon roar and bayonets gleam. To him they are disturbing phantoms, and he longs for the time when they will flicker away like the smoke of the guns on the windswept hill. He meanwhile sits “musing and fasting and hoping to die.” Fitzjames is the precise antithesis: his heart was with the trampling legions, and for the aesthetic he might feel pity, but certainly neither sympathy nor respect. He goes out of his way more than once to declare that he sees nothing sublime in Buddhism. “Nirvana,” he says in a letter, “always appeared to me to be at bottom a cowardly ideal. For my part I like far better the Carlylean or Calvinist notion of the world as a mysterious hall of doom, in which one must do one’s fated part to the uttermost, acting and hoping for the best and trusting that somehow or other our admiration of the ‘noblest human qualities’ will be justified.” He had thus an instinctive dislike not only for Buddhism, but also for the strain of similar sentiment in ascetic versions of Christianity. He had a great respect for Mohammedanism, and remarks that of all religious ceremonies at which he had been present, those which had most impressed him had been a great Mohammedan feast in India and the service in a simple Scottish kirk. There, as I interpret him, worshippers seem to be in the immediate presence of the awful and invisible Power which rules the universe; and without condescending to blind themselves by delusive symbols and images and incense and priestly magic, stand face to face with the inscrutable mystery. The old Puritanism comes out in a new form. The Calvinist creed, he says in “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” was the “grain on which the bravest, hardiest, and most vigorous race of men that ever trod the earth were nourished.” That creed, stripped of its scholastic formulas, was sufficient nourishment for him. He sympathises with it wherever he meets it.

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Tocqueville on Mexico

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America back in 1835:

The Constitution of the United States resembles those beautiful creations of human industry which insure wealth and renown to their inventors, but which are profitless in other hands. This truth is exemplified by the condition of Mexico at the present time. The Mexicans were desirous of establishing a federal system, and they took the Federal Constitution of their neighbors, the Anglo-Americans, as their model, and copied it entirely. But although they had borrowed the letter of the law, they could not introduce the spirit and the sense which give it life. They were involved in ceaseless embarrassments by the mechanism of their double government; the sovereignty of the States and that of the Union perpetually exceeded their respective privileges, and came into collision; and to the present day Mexico is alternately the victim of anarchy and the slave of military despotism. … To the south, the Union has a point of contact with the empire of Mexico; and it is thence that serious hostilities may one day be expected to arise. But for a long while to come, the uncivilized state of the Mexican people, the depravity of their morals, and their extreme poverty, will prevent that country from ranking high amongst nations.

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