more with the wacky

Dr Baber complains that I am always passing comments on those wacky Americans.1 Modestly veiled in her comments is a pointer to a really interesting essay about the different ways in which the two Americas think of government.

She thinks that it is these differing attitudes to government which explain, better than religion, the split between Red and Blue America. But I think there are religious aspects to her divide as well. The two styles of social organisation she describes correspond to the religious and social divide in Albion’s Seed.. The “red” or Republican model based on family and clan, which does not trust government to supply anything but protection against other, worse governments, clearly corresponds to the “Border” habits of the Scots and protestant Northern Irish who were so influential settling the South. The “blue”, Democratic, trust in public office reflects another religious Protestant tradition about government: that of the East Anglican puritans, Scandinavian Lutherans, Quakers, and other priggish people.

This might be taken to strengthen Harriet’s argument that the key differences are not religious. It certainly shows that they are not theological, since there is very little theological difference between Calvinism in Houston and Boston, yet a huge difference in how this is understood to demand society be modelled. But we already know that religion has very little to do with theology. I think the religious aspect of these divides suggests a further commonality.

The weak spot of her argument comes here “Traditional societies” operate according to the Red plan—neopatrimonialism or “Big Man government.” To make the system function personal bonds and communal loyalty have to be maintained. Members of traditional societies can’t afford to take social risks or tolerate non-conformity since any deviation from established traditions and conventions threatens the fabric of personal relationships on which the safety and well-being of all depend. Social stability rests on “personal morality” and the integrity of the family, and on willing cooperation. Religion supports “personal morality” and willing conformity to social conventions and traditions.

This is confusing two sorts of social bonding mechanism. Family ties, and personal bonds seem to me a substitute for conformity in social matters or opinions rather than a reinforcement. A society genuinely based on small-scale personal relationships can survive a great deal of dissent and be very tolerant ona micro scale. This is how liberal churches are meant to work.

The use of explicit standards of morality, and of shibboleths, are means of enforcing trust beyond the limits of family and friends. The tradition of conformity as a moral imperative is much more closely associated with Northern priggishness than Southern mafia-based morality. It takes very little effort to think of conformist requirements that liberals think essential to civilised society – the whole complex of attitudes and taboos suggested by “political correctness” will do. The sacral quality of the American Constitution surely arises from the fact that it has to bind together immigrants who must learn to build a state without traditional networks of clan and family.

1 My only defence is that I pass comments on those wacky everyones.

This entry was posted in God. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to more with the wacky

  1. H. E. Baber says:

    The “neopatrimonialism” line comes from Africa’s Stalled Development. Lots of “traditional societies” in Sub-Saharan Africa operate according to this scheme and, when I was there during the last days of the Moi regime I recognized it immediately–this is the way Southern mafia-based societies, like my home town in New Jersey’s Sopranos Country, operate. I can vouch for the fact that the level of conformity to traditions and social norms is much higher there than in the politically correct venues where I currently hang and that the rules are more stringently enforced. It may be different amongst the Bushmen and other hunter-gathers who live in small family groups that don’t have much contact with one another–I think you’re right that tight personal bonds can substitute for conformity to social norms–but scale up from that and conformity becomes crucial in traditional societies.

    Because the mechanisms of social cohesion in traditional societies aren’t transparent, people can’t distinguish trivial deviations from the norm from ones that will tear the whole social fabric apart, so they enforce conformity indiscriminately. The assumption is that Chaos is out there threatening to break in, we keep it at bay by punctiliously observing all the rules and rituals: since we don’t know how or why this works (it’s “holistic”) we enforce all the rules–like the ancient Egyptians suppressing all novelty, working to get every detail right, to keep the chaos monster Apophis from eating the sun.

    Reds don’t understand the mechanisms of social organization and see any widespread deviation from things-looking-right as a threat to the social order. I’m still convinced that the religious rhetoric is a rationalization after the fact. For one thing, the rules weren’t always and everywhere justified by reference to religious considerations–in fact when I was growing up they almost never were. There was just some vague idea that if people didn’t dress and act appropriately, if they didn’t maintain this world of traditional families as represented on TV sit-coms, if boys wore long hair or blacks and whites danced together, some undisclosed Bad would happen–violence, crime, possibly a Communist take-over, whatever it was it wasn’t worth taking the risk to find out.

  2. Rupert says:

    That thinking – if you tolerate this, who knows where it will end? – is certainly widespread and often advanced as an argument in toto against questioning the small stuff. I first came across it at Sunday School, when I asked our evangelical teacher how anyone could believe that stuff about Noah… it didn’t impress me then, and I haven’t changed my mind. I don’t know how much nature/nurture balance goes into one’s predisposition towards social conformity, nor do I have any good idea of how to find out.

    What I find particularly interesting about the US is the degree of mobility. High degrees of social conformity may be an absolute requirement in a poor and difficult place, where resource contention means you’d better have membership.

    As things ease – and I don’t think it’s easier than in the US – you have the option of high-tailing it out of town to some Sodom-on-Sea, where you’ll find others like you and a sustainable — even nurturing — way of life. This has many social and economic repercussions, but (as my exasperated bible basher said) where’s the end point?


Comments are closed.