Taking the Narrow View

Han Kang’s 2007 novella (originally conceived as three separate short stories), “The Vegetarian”, which has now been translated into English and longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, tells the story of a woman who, after having a violent dream, resolves to become a vegetarian. Apparently, vegetarianism is far more abnormal in Korea than it is here because everyone around her is stupefied by her decision. Yeong-hye (the vegetarian) makes little effort to explain herself, and her family, despite their anger, annoyance, and concern, do not much push the issue; this combination no doubt adds to their incomprehension.

Thankfully, the situation is much less confusing to the reader (the other characters can not read Yeong-hye’s thoughts, for instance). After a normal person sees an especially disturbing horror movie, she might have a nightmare that a psychopathic killer is after her. Another type of person might go home from the theater and have a nightmare that she is a psychopathic killer. Yeong-hye is the latter, but instead of getting over it, she just gets worse. Life must destroy other life to survive, and this realization is too much for Yeong-hye to bear. So she does not stop at vegetarianism; eventually, she refuses to eat anything. Trees do not hurt anyone, so she wants to leave the murderous human race and become a tree. (By this point, she is in a mental institution, sometimes standing on her head because that is how trees grow, with their “arms” in the ground.)

The fact that humans must take life in order to survive does not drive normal people to insanity and martyrdom, but we are not completely unaffected by it either. Obviously, the West’s racial demise owes something to this general feeling. (I know; I’m pulling a Ta-Nehisi Coates here, and letting my personal preoccupations color whatever I’m reading at the moment.) It is easy to rouse a nation to defend itself against military invasion. The danger is immediate and personal. When the invaders are economic migrants or refugees of war, the life or death of the nation becomes more distant and theoretical. How many Europeans, even ethnonationalist Europeans, are willing to shoot-to-kill some border-jumper, who maybe just wants to live in a safe country where he can sell his falafels? Europeans understand that mass migration will change the racial character of their countries, and probably bring other changes too. All things being equal, many, perhaps most, would rather avoid these changes, but all things are not equal.

People, generally, will defend what is theirs, and also attempt to increase their share, even at the expense of others, but there is a limit to what they are willing to do for this end, and right now ethnonationalism falls on the wrong side of that divide. Whites are especially hesitant to defend their ethnonationalist privileges.

Why Whites?

“Whites have no right to keep other races out of America because we stole it in the first place.” “The West has exploited the Third World for centuries, so Western countries are obligated to accept immigrants from the rest of the world.” The universalist Left has been reciting these “white guilt” chants for generations. And it does leave a mark, but truthfully, the West is not so gullible/”pathologically altruistic” as to be swayed by third-rate sophistry. The West’s slackening will to survive is the result, not the cause.

The real problem is that these shallow Left-wing talking-points spring from a place deep in the Western intellectual soul. The desire for unity is universal among humanity, but only the West achieved the technological and moral sophistication to make it a human reality. We acquired the technological mastery to conquer the world. With great power comes great responsibility, and the world became our responsibility. Meanwhile, the West’s superiority in moral philosophy—mostly universalist—is possibly even greater than its technological advantage.

The real problem, in short, is ideological. We can not undo the history that brought us to this ideological point, but we can undo the ideology. Racial loyalty and ethnonationalist sentiment may be instinctive, but whether and how to act on this instinct is a moral value judgment, a moral value judgment founded on abstract first principles. Ultimately, the superiority of the ethnonationalist vision is an abstract ideological proposition, and it will succeed or fail on those terms.†

Most individuals will never consider demographic displacement a threat their immediate survival. No matter how much you spam your friends’ inboxes with crime statistics, it will not change this. Whites are not going to expel/exclude millions of innocent people on the basis of guilt-by-genetic-association. And even if we did, it would just be one more thing for us to feel guilty about a few generations later.

The Autistic Right

Should a doctor kill one healthy person, if he can use the organs to save five dying people? When the philosophy teacher asks this question, he assumes those in his audience have normal human minds, capable of understanding things that do not have to be spelled-out, and they will understand many of these things intuitively. He does not have to explain that, for the purposes of the question, the doctor does not have the option to go poking around for organs in the morgue. He also assumes his students understand that all six people are exactly the same (in everything except their health), and if the doctor saves the five people, each of them will go on lead lives exactly as worthwhile as the life that the healthy man would have enjoyed. If only he had not gone in for his check-up. He assumes his audience knows that if the doctor does save the five people, no one else will ever know about it. Patients are not going to die of preventable illnesses because they are too afraid to see their doctors. And the doctor himself will never be charged for murder. And the doctor somehow knows all of this beforehand.

In short, the philosophy teacher assumes that his audience understands the nature of the question. The doctor has only two options: kill one to save five, or let the five die. Even though the scenario is completely abstract, and impossible in the real world, how we answer the question, and on what grounds, gets at the root of what obligations we believe man owes to society. Actually, in this case, the question is (mostly) a shock device to scare-you-straight into thinking seriously about serious things, and you are supposed to think past the question, but again, normal human minds should understand this without any explanation.

In other (more concise and abstract) words, the art of abstraction is not all “autistic.” “Autistic” has become a buzzword that too many people on the Alt Right throw around as an insult. Whenever they encounter an abstraction that their minds are not nimble enough to follow, they dismiss it as “autistic.” In part, this is a simple case of Right-wing man disease; they would rather not have to think, and so they invent a rationale for why thinking is not necessary. Others of them exhibit autistic-ish symptoms themselves and are perhaps protesting too much. For instance, they might assume that if something has not been spelled-out, then it has been ruled out.†† Or not ruled out!

For many, I think this impulse is a post-Libertarian overcorrection. Apparently, many arrived atthe Alt Right after going through a Libertarian phase, which may have poisoned the abstract well for them. Libertarians are fairly unique in that their abstract moral ideology is pretty much the same thing as their blueprint for society which is pretty much the same thing as their theory of human nature. Most people pass through Libertarianism at a young age, so it was probably the first time they had thought seriously in abstract terms. They eventually find that Libertarianism is an ideological hamster wheel, or just unrealistic, and they get soured on the whole abstraction business.

Which is unfortunate, because leading a normal human life requires adequate abstract reasoning skills. And making the ethnonationalist argument requires these skills too.

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†A year or two ago (before Trump), the Alt Right critique of mainstream Conservatism was that it was an ideological hodgepodge, a collection of positions without much logical linkage to each other. The new party-line on the Alt Right is that Conservatism has failed to conserve anything because it is an abstract ideology that does not represent anything real. I think we had it right the first time. At least I did:

Contemporary Conservatism as a whole may not be a coherent ideology, but it does contain a coherent political core value—namely, “freedom.” Tellingly, mainstream Conservatism’s more literal understanding of freedom (relative to Leftist ideas) has attracted more able defenders and stood-up over time a lot better than has their social agenda. Their battle against expanding government in general may be a Sisyphean struggle, but in many significant areas—welfare, tax rates, gun control, school choice, specific business regulations—the political tide moves back and forth. Where the Right Went Wrong

So they have conserved something. (Even if that something is not that exciting to people like us.) Meanwhile, the intellectual rationales for American Conservatism’s social agenda never transcended its gut-level origins, and that agenda has gone down in flames. The lessen here is not that an ideal can not be based on something concrete, but that the ideal must be supported by a compelling abstract first principle.

††For example, the “Why Whites” section makes no mention of the West’s famous individualism. This is not because I do not think it is a contributing factor, but because it is not immediately relevant here.

Ryan Andrews is the author of The Birth of Prudence, a novel.