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Word of the day: Jacobin n

  1. a Dominican friar [ME, fr MF, fr ML Jacobinus, fr LL Jacobus (St James); fr the location of the first Dominican convent in the Rue St-Jacques (street of St James) in Paris; ]
  2. a member of a radical political group advocating a democracy in which all should be equal, and engaging in terrorist activities during the French Revolution of 1789; broadly a member of an extremist, radical, or terrorist political group [Fr, fr Jacobin Dominican; fr the group’s meeting in the former Dominican convent in Paris;]
  3. a type of pigeon with a cowl-like crest of feathers about the head [Fr Jacobine, fem of Jacobin]

Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library, Copyright (c) 1996 Helicon Publishing and Penguin Books Ltd

Leave it to Dr. Jerry Pournelle, once again, to effectively articulate something I have long understood but never written down. This is from an essay on the current and previous Iraqi conflicts, Jacobinism and the Principle of Pursuit.

The notion that “all men are created equal” is a noble concept, and useful when establishing a government by the middle class which has only begun to wrest political control from an aristocracy that controls most of the wealth. It is useful as a legal principle in a nation governed by the rule of law. Objectively, though, it is nonsense. All men — and women — are not created equal. Some are smarter than others. Some are so stunted as to be counted human only through religious assumptions and legal definitions. If we expand our horizons beyond our own borders, the notion becomes even more absurd. Be it heredity or be it culture or be it a combination of both, nothing is more clearly false than the assumption of the equality of cultures, societies, and the people who live in them. To say otherwise would be to say that a culture of death and destruction which seeks to enslave as sub-human all those outside that culture; which says that there can be no peace with outsiders, only conquest; is the equal of the liberal democracies that believe in the notion of equality. Carried to extremes, the assumption of general equality states that the only thing the Nazis did wrong was to lose.

The essay is well worth reading itself, but I’d like to say a little more about the notion of Cultural Relativism, the idea that all cultures and ideas are equally valid. I often hear it said that we can learn from Native American or African cultures, because they are somehow “closer to nature” and thus in touch with some essential cultural principles that we in the West have forgotten. It could be true, and we can gain what knowledge that is there to be gained, but are primitive cultures worth preserving, if they can not fight for themselves? How can we even talk about a culture being under threat, today? What does that say about cultures, and what do we do about it?

Some cultures have been essentially unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years, while others underwent “progress”. Are they all equally valid? I have heard exactly that proposition from the kind of academics you see on TV. The first question I would ask of them is: does that mean that the idea of progress is invalid? Have we really gained anything from thousands of years of discovery, invention and cultural evolution, or was it all a waste of our time? The discussion generally does get around to that point, eventually, and I have heard some say exactly the latter, which shows a wilful, blissful, obstinate ignorance of the real costs of a backward, primitive culture, the unspeakable waste of life that went along with them.

The desire to breed large numbers of children was once justified by high infant mortality rates and the need to stave off tribal conquest by weight of numbers. A larger population is more difficult to displace or subjugate, and will have more young men to defend its borders. This has worked well for the Chinese peoples, examples of successful cultures, in my opinion: not only have they survived, with the core of their culture intact, but they have not wallowed in primitivism. Communism is a temporal abberation that is already on the way out: in China it resonated with the need for national unity, in the face of external threats, but the new enemy, Western culture, is already inside its borders and undermining its foundations. I don’t believe that Communism in China will live to see its centenary, but China will remain. Its core culture is ancient, but not primitive, because it has adapted, evolved, dare I say: progressed?

The next stage, however, is to deal with the consequences on a global scale. China has already suffered the effects of its population explosion, that started with the drop in infant mortality fostered by Western medical principles. Is Western medicine flawed, because it led to huge population increases? Not if you consider population excess as a medical problem: its prevention is always better than any possible cure. To prevent population explosion means a change in culture, to move away from the idea that procreation is always good.

Isn’t it great to have children? To bring a new life into the world, raise it as best you can, to feel that swell of pride as he or she matures into an adult person? The thing is: everyone else feels the same way. Your child is unique and precious… like everyone else’s. We feel the way we do about children because it was good for their survival in a harsh world, and evolutionary selection favoured children who were brought up that way, so they would feel that way about their own children. If parenting is so necessary and valuable, why is it so hard, and becoming more and more difficult? There is a clear conflict between our desire for procreation and the life we live today, and we see it clearly in our culture and economy, with no easy way out.

The Abortion issue is one example; it is not an easy question to face, but why has the question even arisen? Do we have to consider such an unpleasant option? I support a woman’s right to choose, but her choices start long before the prospect of abortion needs to be asked: it is preventable. There are two complimentary ways to avoid the question, but it requires an enlightened, open, healthy culture to find the balance between them:

  1. Avoid pregnancy, which means a mixture of contraception, self-disciplne, and the discarding of the “go forth and multiply” religious doctrine that has resonated with our natural inclinations;
  2. Lighten the burden asociated with having a child, so that pregnant women will not feel the need to have an abortion at all.

Point #2 must work hand in hand with point 1, because no amount of religious dogma, government support, or ignorance will counter the intractable burden of overpopulation that increases the cost of living while reducing the value of each life. If this is a war, then the Abortion Issue is only one battle that is being exaggerated for ideological reasons, like Hitler’s misguided obsession with defeating Britain quickly in 1940.

Am I exaggerating? If recent news reports are correct, the Xmas presents you are buying for your children may have been made by other children. Each of those children is just as precious to his or her parents as yours are to you, but they live in overpopulated societies where they need to work alongside their parents to survive. The years I spent in school, studying science, maths, history, and where I gained the fundamental knowledge I draw on to write this, are not available to them.

In Inuit culture, at one time, it was acceptable to kill a baby girl at birth, because she would not be as productive as a boy would. The latter is an example used in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its description of Cultural Relativism, and the author goes on to say this:

The view that elements of a culture are to be understood and judged in terms of their relationship to the culture as a whole–a doctrine known as cultural relativism–led to the conclusion that the cultures themselves could not be evaluated or graded as higher and lower, superior or inferior.

If it was unwarranted to say that patriliny (descent through the male line) was superior or inferior to matriliny (descent through the female line), if it was unjustified or meaningless to say that monogamy was better or worse than polygamy, then it was equally unsound or meaningless to say that one culture was higher or superior to another. A large number of anthropologists subscribed to this view; they argued that such judgments were subjective and therefore unscientific. It is, of course, true that some values are imponderable and some criteria are subjective.

Are people in modern Western culture happier than the Aborigines of Australia? Is it better to be a child than an adult, alive than dead? These certainly are not questions for science. But to say that the culture of the ancient Mayas was not superior to or more highly developed than the crude and simple culture of the Tasmanians or to say that the culture of England in 1966 was not higher than England’s culture in 1066 is to fly in the face of science as well as of common sense.

— Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Today, in Western Europe and Japan, both parents need to work to afford somewhere to live, which means a demand for childcare, which thus also goes up in price. In some countries governments provide financial assistance to parents, as if just having a child alone was a service to society; in extreme cases that leads to people having children for a temporary financial gain, a short-sighted policy on the part of such people and the governments that support them at the expense of other, more responsible people.

Employers also pay the price when employees become such a financial burden that they either reduce employee numbers or collapse. Germany, today, has the most Socialist employment laws in Europe, with high taxes, heavy Union influence, and policies that make it difficult to lay people off. Germany also has the highest unemployment rate in Europe. Painful as it is, it is necessary to get this lesson across, that we need to balance our desires with the harsh physical realities of life, because we can not keep on breeding, expanding, and consuming more resources. We have nowhere else to go.

We must also realize that the hardships and tragedies we endured in the past, just to survive, are now preventable by the application of intelligence to all aspects of our lives. Life is no longer a struggle for survival, and a culture’s members need to recognise that they do not need brute force or sheer weight of numbers to keep their culture alive. We can now be reasonably certain of a long life, where it once was “nasty, brutish, and short”. We don’t need more life, more people; we need fewer, better people, to create a better world, and a better life, one that we can do more with. In conclusion: like it or not, the old cultural values are no longer fully valid in our shrinking world.

This is exactly why it is important to compare cultures, intelligently but with compassion, to understand what we need from a culture, and judge how well each is able to deliver what we need. In this, all cultures and ideas are clearly not equal, and a culture’s ability to manage change is a measure of its success and value today. I have seen Primitive human nature, during my time in Africa, and while my Western culture is not perfect, I know where I would rather be today. I write ideas like this to remind myself that I can’t take it for granted, and I aim to be part of the solution, not the problem.


Written by brian t

December 11, 2004 at 1:14 pm

Posted in life

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