Illiberalism, and the Wood Age

  • “Illiberalism” and its history in the US;
  • How perhaps the “Stone Age” is perhaps better described as the “Wood Age” — how science can update stale conclusions;
  • How some “smart people” hold noxious conspiracy theories too;
  • Kristi Noem would have killed Biden’s dog, too.

Here’s yet another term to add to the mix of ranges from conservative to liberal, traditional to progressive, tribal to global. Are these all more or less analogous ends of more or less analogous polarities? Or is there something new here? I’m not sure.

NY Times, Steven Hahn, 4 May 2024: The Deep, Tangled Roots of American Illiberalism [gift link]

The writer just published Illiberal America: A History in March.

Hahn begins by recalling Donald Trump’s promises for “a second term of authoritarian power grabs, administrative cronyism, mass deportations of the undocumented, harassment of women over abortion, trade wars and vengeance brought upon his rivals and enemies, including President Biden.” Is this unprecedented? Maybe not. Despite the many people who have said, in response to the Jan. 6th violence, that “This is not who we are as a nation.” Maybe it is.

What they have failed to grasp is that American illiberalism is deeply rooted in our past and fed by practices, relationships and sensibilities that have been close to the surface, even when they haven’t exploded into view.

Illiberalism is generally seen as a backlash against modern liberal and progressive ideas and policies, especially those meant to protect the rights and advance the aspirations of groups long pushed to the margins of American political life. But in the United States, illiberalism is better understood as coherent sets of ideas that are related but also change over time.

This illiberalism celebrates hierarchies of gender, race and nationality; cultural homogeneity; Christian religious faith; the marking of internal as well as external enemies; patriarchal families; heterosexuality; the will of the community over the rule of law; and the use of political violence to achieve or maintain power. This illiberalism sank roots from the time of European settlement and spread out from villages and towns to the highest levels of government. In one form or another, it has shaped much of our history. Illiberalism has frequently been a stalking horse, if not in the winner’s circle. Hardly ever has it been roundly defeated.

This strikes me as mere tribalism, described with a less blunt word. Prioritizing unity of the tribe and expressing hostility toward others, prioritizing tribal myths and expansion of the tribe, and even “the will of the community over the rule of law,” which has become much more apparent among Republicans lately (in their support for Trump, among other issues), despite their avowed claim of being the party of law and order.

The article follows with examples: the Puritans of New England; anti-Catholicism; the expulsions of Native peoples to territories west of the Mississippi; slavery in the South; and on and on. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this too.

“What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there,” Tocqueville wrote, “but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny.” He pointed to communities “taking justice into their own hands,” and warned that “associations of plain citizens can compose very rich, influential, and powerful bodies, in other words, aristocratic bodies.” Lamenting their intellectual conformity, Tocqueville believed that if Americans ever gave up republican government, “they will pass rapidly on to despotism,” restricting “the sphere of political rights, taking some of them away in order to entrust them to a single man.”

The slide toward despotism that Tocqueville feared may be well underway, whatever the election’s outcome. Even if they try to fool themselves into thinking that Mr. Trump won’t follow through, millions of voters seem ready to entrust their rights to “a single man” who has announced his intent to use autocratic powers for retribution, repression, expulsion and misogyny.

And concluding,

Our biggest mistake would be to believe that we’re watching an exceptional departure in the country’s history. Because from the first, Mr. Trump has tapped into deep and ever-expanding illiberal roots. Illiberalism’s history is America’s history.

It’s occurred to me before that the United States’ policy of democracy, via its Constitution, was very much an experiment. And it was inspired by the Enlightenment thinkers in Europe, whom the Founders identified with, not by the motives of the earliest settlers to the continent, like the Puritans. It was an ideal, like the ideal of scientific rationality and reason (another product of the Enlightenment), that many Americans now seem perfectly happy to abandon, in favor of tribal solidarity and myths. (As long as a minority of the population, those who recognize science and reason, and use them, keeps the culture going.) Is this especially a problem in America, being so vast and inevitably multicultural? Americans used to brag about our nation being a “melting pot” of immigrants from all nations. The illiberal faction, which has always been here apparently, rather resents it.


Shorter items.

NY Times, Franz Lidz, 4 May 2024: Was the Stone Age Actually the Wood Age?, subtitled “Neanderthals were even better craftsmen than thought, a new analysis of 300,000-year-old wooden tools has revealed.”

Key point: some of what we “know” has been early assumptions, never re-examined until now. (This will always be true.)

In 1836, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, a Danish antiquarian, brought the first semblance of order to prehistory, suggesting that the early hominids of Europe had gone through three stages of technological development that were reflected in the production of tools. The basic chronology — Stone Age to Bronze Age to Iron Age — now underpins the archaeology of most of the Old World (and cartoons like “The Flintstones” and “The Croods”).

The revision:

Thomsen could well have substituted Wood Age for Stone Age, according to Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist and head of research at the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony, in Germany.

“We can probably assume that wooden tools have been around just as long as stone ones, that is, two and a half or three million years,“ he said. “But since wood deteriorates and rarely survives, preservation bias distorts our view of antiquity.” Primitive stone implements have traditionally characterized the Lower Paleolithic period, which lasted from about 2.7 million years ago to 200,000 years ago. Of the thousands of archaeological sites that can be traced to the era, wood has been recovered from fewer than 10.

Yes, exactly, you have to account for the biases in your data samples, even inadvertent ones. And change conclusions based on better interpretation of the evidence. This is what science can do.


Salon, Paul Rosenberg, 5 May 2024: Who believes the most “taboo” conspiracy theories? It might not be who you think, subtitled “White men with graduate degrees, a new study finds, are highly likely to hold especially noxious beliefs”

It’s not just dumb, gullible people who follow conspiracy theories. There are two things going on here, both familiar. First, smarter people are more adept at *rationalizing* their conspiracy beliefs than others. We’ve seen this in various books. Second, being smart is not a single kind of thing. People can be smart in one particular way, and extremely naive in others. And some of these successful, so-called smart people, have merely been lucky. And some people are just, as this piece notes, merely “reflexive contrarians,” apt to challenge convention wisdom no matter how well grounded.


Quick take: more about Kristi Neom, representative of the party that calls itself “pro-life.”

NY Times, Maggie Astor, 5 May 2024: Kristi Noem Suggests Biden’s Dog Should Have Been Killed, Too, subtitled “The South Dakota governor, defending her tale of shooting and killing her family’s dog, suggested that President Biden’s German shepherd, Commander, had merited a similar fate.”

Of course, Biden didn’t shoot his dog. He found it a better home.

This entry was posted in History, Morality, Philosophy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.