“It Absolutely Will not Stop. Ever.”

I know very little about the history and culture of India, but I feel comfortable saying that they have been around for a long time and possess a very deep sense of cultural identity and tradition.

But in the 20th century, India started to embrace certain key components of western democracy, and introduced new political and cultural strands into their way of being.  I think India bears watching.  They can serve as a petri dish for an experiment.  When democracy interacts with a tradition, who wins?  Can a reasonable peace and balance exist between them?  Or, must one destroy the other?*

For the sake of this post we will not assume that tradition is bad and democracy good, or vice-versa.  Both can be good or bad depending.

I thought of this as I came across an article about hotels in India.  As a traditional society, India has more “conservative” views on marriage and sexual morality.  But democracy seeks to empower individual choices.  Free-market capitalism looks for niches–ways to empower and monetize these choices.  Unmarried couples in India apparently have a hard time getting “privacy.”

Enter StayUncle. The New Delhi-based startup has tied up with hotels where unmarried couples can rent rooms for a duration as short as 8-10 hours. The idea is to help them with affordable rooms, without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.

“There is no law in India that prohibits (unmarried) couples from renting a room,” Sanchit Sethi, founder of the year-old startup, told Quartz in a phone interview. “As long as you have a government identity card, you should be given a room. We don’t live in the 1950s anymore. What we are trying to do is change the mindset of hoteliers.”

“Couples need a room.  Not a judgment.”

As the article came from a western newspaper, naturally no assumption existed that perhaps India’s discouragement of unmarried couples having hotel rooms has any validity.  They want something–an opportunity to live as they choose–and so naturally we should find some way to empower (and monetize) those choices.  “We don’t live in the 1950’s anymore.”*

What we want now is all that matters.

I thought of Empire of Liberty, where author Gordon Wood points out that almost immediately after the Revolution many of our founders watched aghast as “the people” began eroding many traditions.  One can argue that the Constitution represents a (mostly failed) attempt to put the brakes on the rapid pace of change.

I imagine that, given another couple generations of modern democratic practice in India, most of their traditions don’t stand a chance.  There is something thrilling, horrifying, and inexorable about the march of democratic ideals through traditional societies.  The Terminator reference from poor, doomed, Kyle Reese has its place here.

In the U.S. we have already legally embraced gay-marriage.  Now we moved onto tackling other “traditional” ways of thinking in the form of trans-gender issues, as predicted by both opponents and proponents of gay marriage.  Both democracy and tradition have their good and bad applications.  But I have serious doubts that we can redefine ourselves, our experience, and our place in the world at will and continue to find meaning.

Perhaps the root of the problem comes from the Enlightenment, or the Scientific Revolution, or the printing press/Reformation, or platonic gnosticism, or somewhere else. Whatever the root, a fixation on purely abstract principles or ideas will lead to an abandonment of meaning and rationality in the end.  In his A Philosophy of Inequality Nicholas Berdyaev makes this point quite well.  Absolute equality as a pure idea makes sense, he admits, much like a parallel lines continuing to infinity.  But such equality remains a fiction, a fantasy.  When we try and apply it reality we get the disasters of Revolutionary France, Stalinist Russia, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

We see the link between inequality (not servile inequality, but meaningful, purposeful difference) and meaning right in Genesis 1. God creates an intelligible, good world, and does so through distinction and duality, i.e. night and day, sea and dry land, man and woman.  Making sense of our world requires dividing it, in a certain sense.  To see meaning, to see God, we must see distinctions in creation.

The U.S. crossed the bridge of normalizing sexual relationships outside of marriage decades ago.  Again, now we have moved on to gender issues.  We long ago stopped defining gender by certain expected patterns or code of behavior. Now we do not even wish to define it biologically.  If we say now that gender can be defined purely based on one’s own personal, abstract feelings and thoughts, we will enter uncharted waters.  We risk losing the ability to say that anything means anything at all.

With no map to guide us, we should prepare for getting lost.


*China is conducting a similar experiment.  They attempt to maintain traditional Chinese values, technocratic top-down party political control, and a free market.  On the one hand they have yet to embrace democracy politically, so we might assume a slower pace of change.  But on the other, their economy is more modern and powerful than India’s, so this change might happen faster.

**The 1950’s reference gives this quote a distinctly American feel, as that era is considered the last gasp of traditional morality for U.S.  I don’t know if the same could be said for India or not.

Many on the left decry the “cultural imperialism” of the west, and they have some good points to make.  But have they considered that the non-traditional morality that those on the “academic left” tend to support is also a form of cultural imperialism?

Standardization is Decline, Easy as ABC

A few years ago I wrote another post under this same theme about restaurant regulation in the EU, based off a particular quote from Arnold Toynbee, which reads,

In a previous part of this study we have seen that in the process of growth the several growing civilizations become differentiated from one another.  We shall now find that, conversely, the qualitative effect of the standardization process is decline.

This idea that “standardization is decline” is exactly the sort of pithy phrase that drew the ire of many of Toynbee’s critics.  In his work Toynbee attempted to create universal general laws of history based on his premise of the uniformity of human nature.  Toynbee’s writing could sometimes degenerate into ideas that seem so general as to be almost meaningless.*  On the subject of standardization, we easily see that surely not every instance of standardization brings decline and limits freedom.  Standard traffic laws, for example, make driving much easier and much safer.  Toynbee’s critics have a point.

But some of Toynbee’s critics seem afraid to say anything without caveating it a million different ways, and this too is another form of saying nothing at all.  Toynbee’s assertion about standardization is of course is not true in every respect, but is it generally true?

I like historians like Toynbee who try and say things, and no one I’ve come across tries to “say things” like Ivan Illich.  Toynbee threw down a magnificent challenge to the prevailing view of history (in his day) that more machines, more territory, more democracy, more everything meant progress for civilization.

But he did not know Ivan Illich, who allows almost no assumption of the modern world to go unexamined.  Toynbee poked at some of our pretty important cows.  Illich often aims for the most sacred.  In Medical Nemesis he challenges the assumption that people today are healthier than they were in the pre-industrial era.  In ABC, he (with co-author Barry Sanders) attacks the idea that universal literacy brings unquestioned benefits to civilization.  In fact, he argues the quest for rote literacy will end with meaninglessness and possibly, tyranny.

Illich begins the book by referencing a quote of the historian Herodotus, who wrote 1000 years after the death of Polycrates. He commented that the tyrant of Samos,

was the first to set out to control the sea, apart from Minos of Knossos and others who might have done so as well.  Certainly Polycrates was the first of those whom we call the human race.

Illich comments that,

Herodotus did not deny the existence of Minos, but for him Minos was not a human being in the literal sense.  . . . [Herodotus] believed in gods and myths, but excluded him from the domain of events that could be described historically.  He did not see it as his job to decipher a core of objective historical fact.  He cheerfully [placed] historical truth alongside different kinds of truth.

This may seem an odd place to begin a book about language.

Later Greek and Roman historians attempted to explain the minotaur and Minos not as myth but as exaggerated historical reality.  So, the sacrifice to the minotaur must really have been a sacrifice of perhaps money or troops to some cruel despot.  Herodotus will have none of this, and neither will Illich.  Those that seek to explain away myths attempt a kind of standardization of truth.  This standardization inevitably involves a reduction, a narrowing, of the meaning of truth, language, and human experience.  I think this explains why he begins with this quote from Herodotus.

Historians misread prehistory when they assume, Illich contends, that language is spoken in a wordless world.  Of course words can exist without exactly defined meanings that last beyond the context in which they were spoken.  But many often assume that this means we have barbarism because without an established language, we cannot have “education” in the sense that we mean it.  Speech remains different from language.  Lest we think that Illich is nuts, we should consider the impact of early forms of standardization:

  • In ancient Egypt, scribes with a unified written language could keep records, and could thus hold people accountable to pay taxes, work on the pyramids, etc.
  • In ancient China, too, the power of scribes over language gave them enormous power within the halls of power.
  • Illich argues that medieval oaths used to be distinctly personal.  Those that swore would clasp their shoulder, their hands, their thigh, and so on.  Towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the rise of Roman, classical concepts of law came the fact that one’s signature stood as the seal of an oath.  By “clear” we should think, opaque, or lacking substance because it lacks context.  This impersonality can give way to tyranny.
  • Henry II attempt at reforming English law (and thus, it would inevitably seem, unifying language as well) was done to increase his power by making it easier to govern and control the population.  Does not much of modern law do the same thing?
  • Isidore of Seville once wrote (ca. 1180) that letters “indicate figures speaking with sounds,” and admitted that until a herald spoke the words, they had no authority, because they had no meaning.  The modern age allows those in power to multiply their authority merely through the distribution of lifeless pieces of paper.
  • One of the first advocates for a universal language and literacy, Elio Nebrija, made his argument just after Columbus set sail.  He bases his argument on hopes of creating a “unified and sovereign body of such shape and inner cohesion that centuries would not serve to undo it.”  He frankly admits that the diversity of tongues presents a real problem for the crown.

Regarding Nebrija, Illich makes the thunderous point that he sought a universal language not to increase people’s reading but to limit it.  “They waste their time on fancy novels and stories full of lies,” he writes to the king.  A universal tongue promulgated from on high would put a stop to that.

We might be surprised to note that Queen Isabella (who does not always get good treatment in the history books) rejected Nebrija’s proposal, believing that, “every subject of her many kingdoms was so made by nature that he would reach dominion over his own tongue on his own.”  Royal power, by the design of the cosmos, should not reach into local speech.  Leave grammar to the scribes.

We live in a world of disembodied texts.  The text can be analyzed, pored over, dissected in such a way as to kill it.  As the texts lack a body, the text remains dead and inert.

But just as we assume that meaning comes when a text is analyzed rather than heard, so too we have created the idea of the self merely to analyze the self.  Ancient people, up through the medieval period, do not possess a “self” in the modern sense.  We see this in their literature.  No stratified layers exist in an Odysseus, Aeneas, or Roland.  No “self” exists apart from their actions.  So too in the modern era the self lacks meaning unless the self is examined.  So we turn ourselves inside out just as turn over the texts that transmit meaning.   But who is more alive, Roland, Aeneas, and Alexander Nevsky, or the man on the psychologists couch?

We might think, maybe the drive for universal literacy back then meant squelching freedom but now surely it is a path to freedom.  After all, we tout education as the pathway to independence, options in life, and so on.  Illich will not let us off the hook.  Education according to whom?  Universal literacy, again, can only be achieved through universal language.  And universal language implies a standardized education.  So to prove we are educated we need the right piece of paper, paper only the government can grant.**

Back to square one again.

So the passion for universal literacy ends in the death of meaning, and the death of the self.  In his final chapter Illich examines the newspeak of 1984 and sees it as the logical conclusion of universal literacy.  Words will mean what the standard-bearers of words say they mean, and this in turn will define the nature of truth and experience itself.

ABC is a short book and easy to read.  But in another way, reading Illich can be very demanding.  He asks you not just to rethink everything, but to actually give up most everything you thought you knew.  Agree or not, this makes him an important writer for our standardized and bureaucratic age.



*Obviously this post is not about Toynbee, but as much as I admire him and as much as I have learned from him, Toynbee’s latent and terribly damaging gnosticism (which comes from his failure to understand the Incarnation and the Resurrection) did at times lead him into a kind of a airy vagueness that greatly limits his persuasive power.

**I suppose to get Illich’s full argument on this score we would need to read his Deschooling Society.

11th Grade: Defending the Indefensible


This week we tried to understand why England and other nations allowed Germany under Hitler to increase its power, in repeated violations of the Versailles treaty.  Hindsight is always 20/20, and of course we know that lack of action spelled disaster for millions around the world.  But we need to avoid finger-wagging, and we need to shun the assumption that if we had only been there in the 1930’s, we would have done the right thing.  If we do not attempt to understand the past, we cannot learn from it.

We note first that the Versailles treaty that ended World War I was unpopular in England almost from the very beginning. Many perceived that it came down too hard on Germany.  As parents, perhaps you too have known the position of being too harsh at first with your kids, and then facing the dilemma of either a) Stick to an unjust course and not back down, or b) Change your initial pronouncement and back down.  Neither option satisfies, but especially if option ‘a’ would also mean hard work at keeping several countries on the same page and equally contributing, it’s easy to see why England went with option ‘b.’  They did so despite the protestations of France, who usually wanted to be harder on Germany than the British, which puts France’s 1940 collapse in a slightly different light.  Ironically, we celebrate (rightly) England’s resistance to the Nazi’s in the early 1940’s and mock France for surrendering.  But in the 1930’s, France in general wanted to be much tougher on Germany than England, but could never get English backing to prevent Germany’s rise to power.

Secondly, for a century prior to World War I England’s basic foreign policy goal meant establishing a continental balance of power.  After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, their basic theory stated that the presence of weak nations induced the stronger ones to fight over them.  Hence, a weak Germany might tempt both France and the Soviet Union towards war over German territory.

So many English statesman actually wanted a stronger Germany to balance out eastern and western Europe.  England drew upon quite recent history for this, as the Austria and Russia’s mutual interest in the Balkans (see map) plunged the world into World War I.

If we look at the map of Europe in 1933, we see British fears that central Europe could be a second Balkans, keeping in mind that the Soviet Union has seized the ‘slashed’ territory.

We also should not forget the situation in Asia in the 1930’s.  Traditionally we date the beginning of World War II in 1939, but Japan began an aggressive foreign policy in 1931 with their invasion of Manchuria.  While Japan did not directly threaten anything Britain held, they began to edge closer to their crucial outposts in Singapore and Hong Kong.  From Hong Kong, India stood just around the corner.  British policy had to take into account the possibility of enemies in the Pacific as well as the continent, and they got almost no help from the U.S. in dealing with the Japanese in the 1930’s.  One gets a sense of this if you look at the British empire ca. 1930.

Japan’s stark rise is almost as dramatic as Germany’s.  They had a rich cultural heritage but almost no natural resources with which to construct a modern military.  Japan looks like an aggressor in 1941, and in many ways they certainly were.  But we must rewind 100 years to the treaty imposed by Admiral Perry in 1858 upon them that forced open their borders.  While one can argue that forcing Japan to open up to western trade benefitted them in some ways, it was done on our terms and not theirs.

The allies made the mistake of humiliating Germany in the wake of W.W. I, and both England and the U.S. made the same mistake with Japan.  The humiliation continued in 1922 when England and the U.S. imposed upon  Japan a treaty that forced the Japanese to have a smaller navy than either England or the U.S.  Many in Japan felt that the west would only tolerate Japan remaining in an “inferior” position.  Japan could have acquiesced to this inferior status, and accepted what geography gave them, or they could try and change it.  The 1922 treaty proved that western powers were not going to let them do it in a peaceful way.  If they wanted more power, they were going to have to take the raw materials of others, which they began to try and do in 1931 by invading Manchuria.  One could argue that England was their in how to craft an empire.

The Allies were the good guys in W.W. II, but it is unfortunately a relative term, and we must be careful not to be smug about it.  In some ways we created the monsters that tried to destroy us.  The only real image of “great nations” they had in 1930’s were European ones who got there via imperialistic colonialism.  With China and Manchuria, I’m sure they thought they were doing what it took to be a “great nation.”

Finally, the economic situation needs our consideration.  Prior to World War I, Germany and England traded more with each other than anyone else.  Like other nations, the Depression hit England hard.  A stronger Germany would mean a stronger German middle class, and a stronger middle class meant better markets for English manufactured goods.  Many economists today believe, that a rising Chinese middle class will benefit our economy.  Ford, I believe, sells more cars in China than they do in the U.S., for example.   We have seen recently in our own time how “the economy” can dominate our own nation’s psyche.  I posed this dilemma to students. . .

Suppose you are a Senator whose state has a technology company that employs thousands of people, one that does  hundreds of millions of dollars in business with China.  Into your office comes someone from your state, who argues that because of human rights abuses and persecution of Christians in China, you should push for severe trade restrictions to try and get China to change their behavior.  Would you agree with her?

In class nearly every student said something like. . .

  • We cannot afford to lose business with China and put thousands of people out of work.
  • China’s human rights abuses is an internal matter for China, and while unfortunate and regrettable, we really can do little to change it.

Does this not sound similar, perhaps, to how nations reacted to Nazi persecution of Jews, ca. 1935?


Much of what I said above I found in Niall Feguson’s book The War of the World, and especially from his chapter “Defending the Indefensible.”  In fact Ferguson makes the claim that appeasement did not cause W.W. II.  Rather, a war which had already began in the Pacific led to appeasement in Europe.  Interestingly, though England tragically miscalculated in regards to Germany, they thought that Japan posed a more imminent danger than Germany was in one sense correct.  Japan’s attack of China predated Germany’s attack on Poland by a couple of years.

Neither Ferguson or I mean to exonerate England of course, but hopefully the students had a better understanding of why events transpired as they did.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin