Cultural Wastelands

Tuesday, September 3, AD 2013


Most Toys



Daniel Greenfield at Sultan Knish nails what is wrong with our society by holding Japan up to us as  mirror:


The thing we have in common with Japan, China and Europe is that we have all moved into a post-modern future while leaving our values behind and our societies have suffered for it. It is a future in which stores have robots on display but couples are hardly getting married, where there are high speed trains and a sense of lingering depression as the people who ride them don’t know where they are going, and where the values of the past have been traded for a culture of uncertainty.

Marriage and children are more extinct in Japan than they are here. They are more extinct in Europe than they are here. And China is still struggling with a bigger social fallout headed its way.

Japanese modernism has made for a conservative society of the elderly. That is what Europe nearly had a few decades ago and it is what it would have had if it hadn’t overfilled its cities with a tide of immigrants. Japan survived the consequences of its social implosion only because of its dislike for immigration. If not for that, Japan really would have no future the way that the European countries which have taken in the most immigrants have traded their past and their future for the present.

That conservatism helped freeze Japan in time, that time being the cusp of the 90s when Japan was at its peak, and crippled its corporations and its culture, but also made the return of the right to power possible. It’s far from certain that a conservative revolution can save Japan, but so far it has a better shot at it than we do.

A society of the elderly may be slow to turn around, but it’s less likely to drive off a cliff without understanding the consequences than the youth-worshiping voting cultures of America and Europe. Japanese political culture may be lunatic, but even they wouldn’t have elected a Barack Obama. The prospect of an American Shinzō Abe backed by a right-wing coalition winning are poor. The last time Americans voted for a conservative message was 1980 and even Reagan’s message was leavened by liberal ideas. A genuinely conservative resurgence in which the type of politician who might have run for office in 1922 could become president on a similar platform is nearly inconceivable. 

Japan is a long way from fixing itself. As a country and a society, it’s still peering into the abyss.

The cultural eccentricities that Americans fixate on come from a society of young men unmoored from normal human connections, a decline of national values and an obsession with trivial consumerism– all commonplace elements in postmodern American and European life. The difference is that Japan got there first.

The loonier elements of American pop subcultures were predated by Japan. Indeed the latter are often influenced by the former. The same holds true with petty plastic surgeries, a truly epic plague among Asia’s newly rich, and some of the more ridiculous accessories for living a life with no meaning or human companionship, but we’re all going to the same place. Just not at the exact same speed.

The common problem is that our journey has no meaning. The postmodern world of robots, fast trains and handheld computers is shiny, but not meaningful. It’s less meaningful than the earlier technological achievements that saved lives and made ordinary prosperity possible.

We can go fast, but no matter how fast we go, we seem to keep slowing down. That’s what Japan found out. Its decline was social. And social decline translates into a technological decline, because technological innovation is powered by a society, not some soulless force of modernism. Innovation must have goals. And those goals must be more than mere technology. They must emerge from some deeper purpose.

American innovation hasn’t halted entirely because its tech culture had enough purpose to make the latest set of digital revolutions possible. But each revolution has slowed down, becoming another shopping mall with microprocessors, replicating the Japanese problem. And at some point we’ll run out of revolutions and be left with the skeleton of a digital shopping mall that is no longer anything but a place to buy more things.

A healthy culture transmits values. When it stops doing that, it dies. When the values no longer seem to be applicable, than the culture hunts around for new values, it undergoes a period of confusion while its forward motion slows down. That is where Japan is now. It’s where America has arrived.

The values of the left, that are present in both Japan and America, are a cultural suicide pact.The left pretends to add a spiritual dimension to modernism. It has been peddling that lie for two centuries and it has yet to deliver. In countries where it wielded full control, there was neither modernism nor values. Russia destroyed the economic, technological and spiritual potential of generations of its people. China is trying to use Communist values to avoid turning into another Japan, not realizing that those are little better than the collective obligations with which Japan rushed into the future.

As America gazes at the ruins of Detroit and the insanity spewed forth by a digital frontier that increasingly looks every bit as eccentric and toxic as anything coming out of Japan, it is all too clear that we are Japan. There is no unique insanity in East, only a common disintegration of values in the East and the West.

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8 Responses to Cultural Wastelands

  • The man’s commentary is in need of amendment and correction.

    1. European cities are not ‘filled with immigrants’. Non-indigenous muslims make up about 5% of Europe’s population. A great deal of the immigration is intra-European movement. Also, Europe’s fertility problems are considerably less acute than Japan’s or those of the other countries of the affluent Orient. Europe in general has seen a mild recovery in fertility over the last 15 years and it is not inconceivable that they could return to replacement levels in a few decades. Germany remains in problematic condition, but France and Britain are near replacement levels.

    2. There is a reason politicians do not run on 1922 platforms. A 1922 platform would require the following

    – an 85% reduction in military expenditure
    – elimination of civilian espionage services and overseas aid programs (bar episodic war relief).
    – tearing up all of our trade agreements and jacking up tariffs
    – elimination of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment compensation.
    – elimination of actuarial pools for the banking system (i.e. the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation).
    -elimination of the whole portfolio of means-tested welfare expenditures absent some alternative.

    -releasing about 85% of those currently incarcerated in federal prisons

    The institutions of the central government are incapable of even passing a coherent expenditure plan and the mix of poor institutional design and confused public attitudes has not given us a central government with an unqualifiedly coherent direction in nearly fifty years. No such program could ever be enacted by anything but a Pinochet-style military regime and even then it would likely have to be phased in over time.

    That aside, politicians, crummy though they are, actually have to make policy, listen to congressional testimony and lobbies, and listen to disgruntled citizens. A 1922 program might be attractive to some hack with a column at The American Conservative and no concern for or conception of ends, means, and effects, but all that person is doing is striking attitudes.

  • I wonder what the prophet Amos would say had he lived in this day and age. Oh, I forgot – chapter 6 (this is an old, old story that humanity repeats over and over again like an insane alcoholic who thinks that just this one more time he can drink with impunity):

    1 Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
    and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
    the notables of the first of the nations,
    to whom the house of Israel resorts!
    2 Cross over to Calneh, and see;
    from there go to Hamath the great;
    then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
    Are you better than these kingdoms?
    Or is your territory greater than their territory,
    3 O you that put far away the evil day,
    and bring near a reign of violence?
    4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
    and lounge on their couches,
    and eat lambs from the flock,
    and calves from the stall;
    5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
    and like David improvise on instruments of music;
    6 who drink wine from bowls,
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
    7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
    and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

    8 The Lord God has sworn by himself
    (says the Lord, the God of hosts):
    I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds;
    and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.

    9 If ten people remain in one house, they shall die. 10 And if a relative, one who burns the dead, shall take up the body to bring it out of the house, and shall say to someone in the innermost parts of the house, “Is anyone else with you?” the answer will come, “No.” Then the relative shall say, “Hush! We must not mention the name of the Lord.”

    11 See, the Lord commands,
    and the great house shall be shattered to bits,
    and the little house to pieces.
    12 Do horses run on rocks?
    Does one plow the sea with oxen?
    But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
    13 you who rejoice in Lo-debar,
    who say, “Have we not by our own strength
    taken Karnaim for ourselves?”
    14 Indeed, I am raising up against you a nation,
    O house of Israel, says the Lord, the God of hosts,
    and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath
    to the Wadi Arabah.

  • Well Mr McClarey the man’s essay was missing his own point, until you added in our own words, about the words of Christ.
    Values, left or right, can be just secular values: and the loss or gain of them, leftist values or rightist values, would be as meaningless as the man-construed values themselves.
    I think he is talking about the fact that shared cultural values must be in place for a culture to work well. True– but-just be any values? He doesn’t talk about the way Western civi has done so well- based on the values of our shared revealed religion. Trying to impose state or secular values won’t work, for Goodness’s sake 🙂

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  • The consequence of an ageing population, like Japan’s was pointed out by Spengler at Asia Times, “it will spend less and save more for retirement. That is, demand will shift from present goods to future goods, that is, securities. The price level of present goods falls. The price of future goods rises, that is, the compensation for waiting for the future declines, and the rate of interest falls. The ageing population trades surplus present goods for future goods, that is, exports goods and purchases securities with the proceeds, shifting the current account balance to surplus. The exchange rate will rise…”

  • Cultural wastelands – it’s even more serious than what commenters have described above.

    Japan and now increasingly the West doesn’t have access to low cost, safe, non-polluting energy. The one form thereof which would meet criteria for cost-effectiveness and environmental safety is nuclear, but using that requires an attention to detail, a level of integrity, procedural adherence, devotion to duty and continuous self-assessment that is discouraged by and absent in today’s hedonistic, licentious society. Natural gas, coal, oil, etc., all pollute, and their apparent cost-competitiveness will be short lived as Japan’s and our nukes are shuttered (five recently in the USA – San Onofre 2 and 3, Crystal River, Kewanee and now Vermont Yankee). And wind and solar are a joke (if wind was so great, why don’t we use sailing ships for merchandise transport across the ocean, and if solar was so great, why don’t we bake bricks the way the ancient Sumerians did?). So we will be left with no access to cheap and safe energy. No technological civilization can last long that way. Everything we have – refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, hot water heaters, cars, etc. – relies on low cost energy supply, and none of us are prepared to return to the 19th century way of doing things. This is a very serious problem, and I submit that its our licentious and hedonistic ways that have caused this. If we can’t keep our pants zipped and our legs closed, how can we manage the atom, which is the greatest, best, cheapest and safest form of energy, but one requiring all the integrity, procedural adherence and compliance with law that every godless liberal progressive Democrat regards as anathema?

    When the lights go out and the air conditioners and refrigerators stop, remember that I told you so. There’s enough uranium and thorium to fuel a civilization of 12 billion for the next 10 thousand years without polluting the environment.

    And PS, don’t get me started on Fukushima which killed only 6 people outright, and those from industrial accidents. The new designs of passive safety (GE’s ESBWR, Westinghouse’s AP1000) completely obviate that scenario, and besides, Japan never adopted the safety upgrades that US BWRs implemented post-TMI. If they had, the event at Fukushima might very well not have happened. Japan’s culture rejected continuous self-assessment (which is the cornerstone of nuclear QA), attention to detail and procedural adherence. Now look at the result.

    Liberal – “I don’t need to assess myself because it’s all relative!” Godless horse crap!

  • I’m a fan of anime, which isn’t the same thing as being an expert about Japan, but it does provide some insight.

    Culture can err, in general, in two different directions with regard to sexuality: 1) disrespect for women, and 2) if it feels good, do it. The first is more of a problem among traditional cultures while the second is more modern (but not exclusively modern). It’s difficult to have both faults, but Japan has managed it. There’s a weird fascination with schoolgirls and not-particularly-consensual acts. There’s also “compensated dating”, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, but isn’t good either. And kinks are treated with the respect that any good modern culture would grant them since the days of Freud.

    The US and Europe are definitely under the sway of problem #2, although the hip-hop world is guilty of #1 as well. I don’t know where I’m going with this, and I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg between culture and sexuality, but I do think that Japan is uniquely messed up. I don’t think there’s anything in Asia that has a strong tradition of respect for women. I suspect that this is one of those things that historians will be able to see clearly, that the virtuous middle is a rarity.

  • Look at the state of so-called traditional areas of the country: McDonald’s on every corner, Wal-Marts in every town, Starbucks on every street. We have become such a bland, un-inspiring, superficial culture. We have long rejected both beauty and productivity. Especially in conservative regions, it seems like nothing is valued anymore. IN North Carolina, they bull-dozed countless acres of valuable farmland in my area. (Piedmont Triad)

    In Republican regions of Pennsylvania and Virginia, historic American battlefields have constantly been threatened by short-sighted developers. (The Wilderness Wal-Mart and the Gettysburg Casino). I thought only liberals attacked America’s heritage.

    So, when will conservatives CEASE being their own worse enemies? What wise people willingly destroy valuable resources?

Of Tiger Moms and Ramen Noodles

Tuesday, March 1, AD 2011

I finally got around to reading Amy Chua’s stirring defense of the “Tiger Mom” approach to parenting.  For those unfamiliar with her parenting techniques, she sums it up for you:

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

Chua proceeds to justify this approach both in this article and in her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. On the surface this strict approach seems to work.  Her children and a staggeringly high proportion of Chinese-American school children perform remarkably well in school.  Furthermore, her comments about western parents’ obsession with the self esteem of their children are not completely off the mark.

Let’s assume that this strict approach is the best way to ensure that a child achieves academic success (ignoring for the moment that I was permitted to do all of the things that her children were not and I still managed to earn a Ph. D).  Setting aside any reservations one has about this almost totalitarian style form of parenting, my question is: and then what? 

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9 Responses to Of Tiger Moms and Ramen Noodles

  • I just saw Chua on Charlie Rose tonight. She says there isn’t just one right way to raise a successful child. Rose probes her on the place of morals in her parenting. She doesn’t seem to be religious. Her husband is Jewish and she says he takes care of that. Actually, she said her husband is a Constitutional law professor so he takes care of that. Typical of American secularists, I guess her morals are derived from the Constitution.

  • And if we have to share some Ramen Noodles along the way, so be it. It’s actually pretty tasty.

    Pack of ramen made with half-again extra water, a stick of celery chopped translucent-thin and added just before the noodles are done (or a handful of frozen veggie mix added when you add the noodles), crack an egg into it when the noodles are just about right, stir and serve– great dinner for two, costing less than a soda. If there’s any leftover meat you can flake into it, great!

  • After you’re done, add rice and you have another meal. You can even cook the rice using the left over ramen soup.

  • And yet there are scientists saying that if developing countries earn higher incomes over the next 40 years and eat higher on the food chain, they’ll use up the earth’s resources…so we should use more tax dollars to fund abortion now. They want to cull the population regardless of what they might eat.

    Thank you for the article.

  • I have heard from Asians themselves:

    They do very well in sciences/math because they are very hard working and will drill until they drop. But, when it comes to creative thinking, well, not so much. In other words, they make great technicians, but not necessarily great innovators. Anyway, that comes from some within the Asian culture, fwiw. Seems this tiger mom approach is right on track with that (and, after it’s said and done, good technicians are always in demand).

  • As is often the case with many controversies, the problem is lack of balance. Chua is probably right in thinking that children are more resilient than most American parents give them credit for, and will not necessarily wither or collapse when confronted with a serious demand or challenge. However, to insist on nothing less than total perfection assumes that every child is capable of reaching perfection — and as the mother of an autistic child, I know that is not the case.

    Not having read the book (only the media reports and responses) I don’t know if Chua addresses the fact that youth from high-achievement-oriented Asian cultures also have a very high suicide rate because they have been taught never to tolerate failure. Chua also has acknowledged that she backed off from the high pressure approach when her daughters reached adolescence and began to rebel.

    Finally, I believe a lot of the initial explosive response to this book was triggered by the headline the Wall Street Journal placed on it: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” As anyone who has ever written for a newspaper or other publication knows, the author of an article normally has NO control over the headline and a copy editor with a slightly devious sense of humor or desire to attract attention, can slap a misleading headline or title on an article such as this. Chua herself never said that Chinese mothers were “superior” but millions of people assumed she did.

  • Amy Chua has a sister with Down Syndrome. She knows not everyone is capable of everything. I think parents know very well their children’s limits. I think the difference in attitude is between “good enough” and “I know you can do better.”

    I think depression is more commonly caused by social issues than academic failure. There is some causation. If you’re studying you aren’t socializing. You may even become a social outcast. Remember all the geeks with no friends? It’s tough to balance.

    As for Eastern education being more suitable for technical skills than Western education which develops more creative skills, there is something to that. Amy Chua’s defense is that you need to learn the basics first. You can’t learn basic math but through repetition. You need both rote learning and room for the mind to roam.

    It’d be nice if psychologists could tell us the exact ratios of what kind of activities children need.

  • I was one of those geeks with “no friends.” (at school)

    I had much less depression that most of the popular girls exactly because I had enough confidence in myself to be myself more fully than they would ever dare– this, in spite of depression running in my family.

    It’s not social issues, it’s stress beyond what someone can deal with. Age-group social stress is probably one of the more common sources of stress because that is what most teens focus on, since we box them in with folks whose main connection is being born the same year and limit the number of alternative options for socializing. (thank God for the internet)
    I would imagine in a more family oriented culture, family based stress– such as shame from failure– would result in depression.
    (Different views of suicide are probably a factor as well– IIRC, many Asian cultures view suicide as a way to remove dishonor, not as an escape tactic.)

The Materialism of Limited Toolset

Wednesday, January 19, AD 2011

I make a point of always trying to listed on the EconTalk podcast each week — a venue in which George Mason University economics professor Russ Roberts conducts a roughly hour-long interview with an author or academic about some topic related to economics. A couple weeks ago, the guest was Robin Hanson, also an economics professor at GMU, who was talking about the “technological singularity” which could result from perfecting the technique of “porting” copies of humans into computers. Usually the topic is much more down-to-earth, but these kinds of speculations can be interesting to play with, and there were a couple of things which really struck me listening to the interview with Hanson, which ran to some 90 minutes.

Hanson’s basic contention is that the next big technological leap that will change the face of the world economy will be the ability to create a working copy of a human by “porting” that person’s brain into a computer. He argues that this could come much sooner than the ability to create an “artificial intelligence” from scratch, because it doesn’t require knowing how intelligence works — you simply create an emulation program on a really powerful computer, and then do a scan of the brain which picks up the current state of every part of it and how those parts interact. (There’s a wikipedia article on the concept, called “whole brain emulation” here.) Hanson thinks this would create an effectively unlimited supply of what are, functionally, human beings, though they may look like computer programs or robots, and that this would fundamentally change the economy by creating an effectively infinite supply of labor.

Let’s leave all that aside for a moment, because what fascinates me here is something which Roberts, a practicing Jew, homed in on right away: Why should we believe that the sum and total of what you can physically scan in the brain is all there is to know about a person? Why shouldn’t we think that there’s something else to the “mind” than just the parts of the brain and their current state? Couldn’t there be some kind of will which is not materially detectable and is what is causing the brain to act the way it is?

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15 Responses to The Materialism of Limited Toolset

  • This is like saying, “I’ve examined books with the most powerful microscopes and chemical detection kits, and I can’t detect anything except ink and paper. Therefore books do not refer to anything else and do not contain any ‘meaning’ — it’s all just ink and paper.”

  • The atheist would respond by saying:
    1. Our non-deterministic mind may be like a computer’s random number generator. In certain situations, or perhaps constantly, our brains pick random paths and this can be emulated by a computer though obviously the computer would end up picking different paths.
    2. Things like appreciation for beauty and justice are hardwired.
    3. It’s illogical to believe in something that has no proof of being or at the very least it’s reasonable not to believe in something that has no proof of being.

  • SB,

    Well, I think it’s a bit different, in that a book is a static record of information, while a human brain clearly has a lot going on in it — it’s just unclear to me a that the measurable activity includes the actual cause of the activity. But I’m having trouble coming up with another analogy. Perhaps trying to replicate a car and expecting it to drive itself around while neglecting to account for the existence of a driver?


    Oh, and believe me, I’ve encountered those in conversations. However:

    1. The random explanation does not seem to explain the actual experience. My experience of why I married my wife rather that someone else seems neither deterministic nor random, it seems chosen.
    2. If so, there’s no particular reason we should adhere to them, and yet most people do not think that. (Actually, more frequently, I’m told that justice and beauty are evolutionary adaptations for efficiency and can be arrived at through game theory, but again I don’t think that fits with our experience.)
    3. My whole beef with this line of thinking is that we do have evidence for the existence of the will — the evidence of experience. But in this line of thinking we completely dispense with that experience of being an I who decides things and instead assume that we’re not, simply because the particular set of tools we are using isn’t able to come up with a measurable thing which correllates to our experience. Now, I can accept it if someone is willing to explicitly say that he’s making a dogmatic choice to believe in the existence only of what is physically measurable, but I’m unclear why that should be considered an obvious or even necessarily rational choice.

  • They’re still better off trying to make artificial intelligence because it will be the will and intellect of man essentially presupposing decision questions and programming in the appropriate answers. If they ported the brain of a man into a computer, the computer would fail miserably, but would have the benefit of proving the effect of the will.

    Here’s what would happen, a robot run on a ported human brain would not have the will to help keep it in check. Let’s say the robot is set off to engineer a hybrid melon that is larger, sweeter, and juicier. The robot will start comparing known melon varieties and then naturally, because it has the mind of a man, start thinking of boobs. There will be no will to consider social norms or inter-human consequences and then divert the attention to the task at hand. The robot will then head off to grope the nearest woman and won’t stop until someone pulls the plug.

  • Doubt it? Then address how a harmless discussion about artificial intelligence led to mentioning boobs?


  • So in all those Star Trek episodes where Kirk had to make an evil super-computer blow up by telling it something like, “Everything I tell you is a lie,” the easier approach would have been to send Uhura into flash the computer?

  • “…the easier approach would have been to send Uhura into flash the computer?”

    Gives a new meaning to flash drive.

  • I think a computer with a ported human brain would still have a self-preservation instinct.

  • The funny thing is, I already know what would happen when the copy failed; it would be decided that the computer wasn’t set up right, or didn’t account for interactions properly, or other hardware failure.

    Failure is always a hardware problem, not a theory problem.

  • How’s this for an analogy: you walk down a beach with a metal detector. You find nothing but metal. You conclude that there’s nothing buried in the sand but metal, and since you’ve swept it already, there’s nothing left buried in the sand.

  • If it was possible, then the real question is will this human-computer hybrid have the same mental defects that humans do? If so, what will an interconnected, pervasive, system-wide binary intelligence with feelings of envy, greed, lust and pride do?

    Will it be SkyNet, or will it be the Borg?

    Either way, nothing good can come from it. One has to wonder why Bill Gates has been hiring biologists at an alarming rate? What is he really up to? With his intellectual inheritance of population control and eugenics – it could go either way – wipe people out, or assimilate them. Hmm . . . it is much more pleasant to think about a different kind of boob than Bill Gates.

  • AK – You raise a good point: why would anyone want to recreate the human brain, if not for its will? To a materialist, the human brain is only a thinking machine, and a screwy one at that. So why enshrine it? Why limit a computer to the confines of human thought?

  • Initially I thought that speeding up the computerized brain would be a benefit but trying to make it do things that the biological brain wouldn’t, might drive it crazy.

  • Pinky,

    If you are a materialist, then you necessarily live in fear of being wiped out of existence as if you never existed in the first place, since material existence is all that there is. Liberated from the oppressive commandments of an imaginary god, all ten of those pesky thou shat nots, then you are free to do all that is within your evolutionary impulses and technological know-how.

    What could be better than ‘living’ on forever, so you can become god, yourself? Since your thoughts and superiority are naturally selected by chance, then you MUST exercise this superior power, before another intelligent monkey figures it out and uses it against you.

    This brain download thingy will make the one who controls it, the god of the machine that is our paltry meaningless existence. Boy, I wish I’d spent more time studying computer science, now I’ll never get to be god.

  • Darwin — in either case, the question is whether the material, directly observable object is all there is, or whether there could be something beyond that.