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October 4, 2020
On the podcast this week, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America by Bruno Maçães. Here is Jerry's ideological Turing Test book summary:
Like Europe, from which it descends, America is organized around individual liberty, but what liberty means has diverged. Just like Rome incorporated Greek culture just as that civilization was reaching its end, America has incorporated European. That is just repetition, however. The real act of creation came when the Roman Empire fell and a new beginning from the ruins was possible. Maybe that’s where America is today, and what looks like the abyss to progressive liberals is actually empty space full of possibility.
Maçães does not care for Tocqueville, who he thinks missed the point of America because he saw it as the culmination of European history rather than the beginning of something new. He likes William James the pragmatists: unlike the liberal European instinct to arrive at a final truth, they believes not that there is not truth, but that there are many truths, all equally valid if they help us, even if they are contradictory. To Maçães this means a world open to possibilities and creativity.
American culture is antithetical to European culture because it is focused on efficiency and productivity. In a society where everyone works, there are no classes, which is a problem for European conservatives. Everything is mass-produced and there are no limits imposed by tradition, religion, or class. In such a world, man is beset by angst. The European solution is to reorder society, while the American solution is escapism. Socialism never took root in the U.S. because you could always go west.
The U.S. resisted taking on world leadership after WWI. America was the economic and military center of the world, but it didn’t want to take on the cultural mantle from Europe. That’s not stainable. The Soviet threat papered-over the differences between America and Europe and now they are surfacing. With that threat gone, it’s crazy to expect the U.S. to continue to accept the limits imposed on it by the liberal world order, especially when the likes of China break the rules. Meanwhile, Europe cannot fathom any path that is not in the direction opposite Nazism.
Americans experience life as a movie of TV show, and this explains guns, the death penalty, religion (which in America is about possibility, not limitations). Political correctness is about portrayal rather than any reality. Reagan wasn’t really a liberal (or an American conservative), he was an American who wanted people to find their own happiness in their own truths—they should be able to play the characters they want in their own movies. Europe, by contrast, is incredibly limited in its possibilities of existence. Westworld is right about race.
Television taught Americans to think of themselves as characters in a stories, and the Internet is an extension of that where one is character and creator at the same time. On the internet you have to act to be seen and to exist. Nothing is real, everything is an invented story. Americans don’t pine for the real world but for their own story. Everything is symbolic and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Liberalism has been so effective at specifying the conditions of a free society that is produces an answer to every political question, thus there is no freedom in liberalism. This is anti-American so Americans are pursuing a post-liberal, post-truth way of living based on the principle of what Maçães calls unreality: “everyone can pursue his or her own happiness so long as they refrain from imposing it on others as something real—as something valid for all.” No universal truths, except perhaps one, which is the right to exit, to change the channel. Westworld again.
Meanwhile, Europe wants to freeze time because it thinks it’s at the end of history, at the apotheosis of a free society except “we should keep very quiet or else the magnificent edifice of freedom might be shaken too hard.” The reaction from both sides is grasping for hard truth: socialism/green religion or tradition. American populism by contrast arrives at a different conclusion from the fact of relativism. It’s about a constant appeal to voters/viewers with new content. Everything is permitted, even the illiberal.
Technological progress is predicated on massive inequality, which is why we need universal basic income.
The Truman doctrine went from tactic to principle and led to Vietnam. Iraq was about the struggle for meaning—creating a new reality after 9/11—and it also turned out badly. If the U.S. wants to create its own reality, it has to do so in a way that allow others to find their place; where other value systems are accepted. Neoconservatism is over.
The U.S.’s permanent strategic goal has always been to prevent a single power from controlling Eurasia. This has meant standing up to European powers, but now the threat comes from China. Maçães doesn’t think a Cold War model will work against china because we’re too coupled and decoupling is self-defeating. He thinks a better approach is to act as a balancer much like 19th century Britain was relative to European powers. The danger is an Sino-Russian alliance.
The American experience with Covid highlights its its embrace of unreality. “First Trump evaded reality by believing there was no problem, then everyone else evaded reality by believing the problem was Trump. … When America turned from the virus to protest, it also revealed that the fight against the pandemic was after all a story—not a necessity—which could be replaced by a better story.” The experience with Covid will accelerate the transition to living in a surveilled virtual reality.