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The fall of communism, the trouble with mental health awareness, and the Zemmourification of France
The best reads of February 2022
What a strangely uneventful month February 2022 was — so glad our grandchildren won’t be reading all about this period in history lessons. In Mandarin.
Being a massive neurotic, I’m always interested in the imaginative ways that people find to make themselves miserable. In UnHerd, Stuart Ritchie wrote about Munchausen by internet, where people effectively build an identity for themselves as a sick person. Some go to extreme lengths.
For instance, one report from 2019 describes a man in his 20s who went from hospital to hospital across the whole of Italy — and sometimes abroad — complaining of a wide variety of symptoms and pains that required investigation. He had a total of 41 known hospitalisations in a four-year period, and managed to convince enough doctors to perform invasive surgical tests that his torso was covered in scars. He was taking a variety of drugs, including testosterone — which was necessary since he’d had both of his testicles removed in one of his numerous unnecessary operations. When asked by aghast doctors the reasons behind this “mutilating operation”, he could only give a vague, noncommittal reply.
Curiously, ‘the factitious patients often claimed to have previously worked in healthcare — as a lab assistant in a hospital, say. This makes sense: people who are obsessed with illness might gravitate to jobs where they can observe and research it closely.’
Every time I hear the phrase ‘mental health awareness’ my heart sinks a bit, a term now overused to the point of meaningless. It seems to encompass everything from extremely serious conditions like schizophrenia and psychosis to the general sadness and melancholy that used to just be called, well, life. Here’s Lucy Foulkes, author of Losing Our Minds, on the problems of mental health awareness.
With every pithy hashtag and shiny celebrity endorsement, I keep coming back to the same conclusion: despite their theoretical benefits, I’m not sure how much these campaigns are actually helping. In the course of my academic work and writing on this subject, I have spoken to dozens of practising psychologists, teachers, parents and others who share my concern: that in some respects, the current public messaging about mental health might even be making things worse.
There is also the rather more subtle issue that, for some people, professional help might not actually be needed. Alongside telling everyone to seek help, the campaigns have promoted another idea – that mental health problems are common – and this too has led to confusion. The trouble is that the term ‘mental health problems’ covers so many different phenomena that the notion they are widespread is essentially meaningless. Sometimes, the term refers to transient, unpleasant emotions – in which case, of course, mental health problems affect us all. In other contexts, though, the term is used as a more sanitised, friendly synonym for severe mental illness and crises, from psychosis and suicide attempts to life-threatening eating disorders. The message that mental health problems are common, or even universal, is therefore not useful because it’s unclear what type of problem we’re actually talking about.’
As she argues, it’s probably easier to look on these things as part of a spectrum — like all human behaviour. That one is via Ben Sixsmith, who is worth a follow on Substack.
On the question of sadness, here is a great thread on mental ‘elf by Post-Liberal Pete, which includes the best-of-all life advice, from Robert Burton’s 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy: ‘be not solitary, be not idle.’
After Scott Alexander recently wrote a post called ‘Why Do I Suck?’ a reminder that he doesn’t, in fact, suck: Heuristics That Almost Always Work. No extract would really make sense, because it’s sort of a story, so read.
Alwyn Turner on James O’Brien, king of the upper normies.
He reserves a good deal of his scorn for the “cap-doffing, forelock-tugging” types who aren’t as articulate as him. But he is at least aware of his own humble place in the pantheon of polite society: “When did you realise you were clever?” he fawningly asked the fox-killing, kimono-wearing celebrity tax-lawyer Jolyon Maugham. He often comes across as sanctimonious, superior and smug, of course, but that’s part of the schtick, integral to his appeal. Because while the tone of more-in-sorrow-than-anger piety may irritate some, it provides a self-righteous safety-blanket for others.
I have to admit that I find it easier to understand some of the strangest sexual paraphilias than the human desire to listen to a James O’Brien radio show. Even if it’s not my thing, I can at least comprehend why someone might want to dress up as a gimp; but as to the pleasure of listening to a man angrily convinced of his moral righteousness outwitting some selected mentally-subnormal racist down the phone, I’m baffled. Still, each to their own!
Turner’s book is supposed to be very good, although I admit it’s still on my to-read pile, and at current projections, that to-read pile will outlive me.
In Palladium, François Valentin on Éric Zemmour and why, even if he loses, he wins.
Polls continually identify high levels of support for Zemmourian positions among the French populace. This includes topics like stopping immigration from Muslim-majority countries, perceived judicial lenience, and even support for the “Generals’ Letter” in which 20 retired generals and around 1000 members of the military declared that France faced a threat of civil war.
This convergence between Zemmourian ideas and French public opinion is not confined to the center-right. A recent Harris Interactive poll concluded that 67% of the general population are concerned to some degree about the idea of a “Great Replacement,” including 61% of supporters of La Republique en Marche (LREM), Macron’s political party. When asked whether they believed such a development would actually occur, 61% of the general population and 52% of LREM supporters responded that they did. The mainstream of French society—including the Macronist base—has shifted toward a consensus that, only a few years ago, was too radical even for Marine Le Pen to endorse publicly.
Essentially, French public opinion has been moving to the Right this century, while Britain’s has been moving to the Left.
Everyone wants to be a rebel, and in First Things, Joseph Keegin touched on the subject of ‘Insider Outsiders’.
Despite these laurels from the educational establishment, Moten is regularly described in interviews and profiles as an “anti-academic iconoclast,” even an “outsider.” These appellations are debatable. What is not debatable is his success. Moten has become an exemplar of a now-common phenomenon among academic theorists: that of the insider-outsider, the man who stands atop the very hierarchies he claims to oppose and defy.
That is basically the norm noww. Everyone wants to be a rebel, although almost no one in positions of influence actually is. They’re mostly rebelling against the prevailing social norms of 60 years, not fighting a straw man but a straw ghost. ‘I don’t care who I upset and what it costs me, I’m going to bravely stand up and say: “FUCK RACISM”’. [Audience claps]
Following the Canadian trucker protest. Andrew O’Sullivan wrote about the masculine aspect of so much populism.
And there’s something very blue-collar male about this populist anger. Trump, of course, identified the testosterone tribe he helped define and rally: ‘I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.’
You can see similar “tough people” fault-lines in the other recent Covid contretempsinvolving Joe Rogan. The millions of men (71 percent male, and evenly split between high school and college grads) who listen to Rogan’s legendary podcast have rallied to him, even as the media establishment has been waging a fully-flexed campaign against him and some of his Covid coverage. There’s something about masking — chin-diapers — and mandating vaccines, and vaccines themselves, that some men seem to find feminizing.
This macho posture is also on Twitter, of course. The scholar, James Lindsay, who has done superb work exposing and explaining the philosophical roots of critical theory, nonetheless plays a character online that is always bragging of his big dick, manspreading skills, and ways with a big sword. Another of Twitter’s new right soldiers, one Dave Reaboi, has a feed dedicated to stanning DeSantis, brandishing his biceps, and blasting his critics as wimps. As in: “Why do people mock David French as being weak, low-T and sexually incontinent? Because pieces like this announce he’s a little bitch … *also because, come on, look at him.” Never mind that French served in Iraq, and has long fought courageously for religious freedom.’
Sullivan is always worth reading, partly because he’s morally courageous, and partly because he tries to emphasise with people, even opponents, but he also has a healthy scepticism of male bravado. Personally I find the sort of overtly masculine prancing found on some of the Right in politics tedious, not just because it reeks of personal insecurity but also, can you imagine being stuck with someone who talked like all the time?
One of the most talked about Substack pieces of recent weeks, Richard Hanania’s Women’s tears win in the marketplace, caused surprisingly little controversy. Maybe the right/wrong people just didn’t see it; or maybe his points are basically unarguable.
We can understand the decline of free speech as a kind of female pincer attack: women demand more suppression of offensive ideas at the bottom of institutions, and form a disproportionate share of the managers who hear their complaints at the top.
What is left to contribute on the question of how feminization relates to pathologies in our current political discourse? First, I think that the ways in which public debate works when we take steps to make the most emotional and aggressive women comfortable have been overlooked. Things that we talk about as involving “young people,” “college students,” and “liberals” are often gendered issues.
Second, I think there’s a certain weirdness to the arguments made by both sides of the gender issue. To simplify, you have the left, which leans towards the blank slate and opposes gender stereotypes but demands women in public life be treated as too delicate for criticism, and conservatives, who believe in sex differences but say to treat people as individuals. But if men and women are the same, or are only different because of socialization that we should overcome, there’s no good reason to treat them differently. And if they are different and everyone should accept that, then we are justified in having different rules and norms for men and women in practically all areas of life, including political debate. How exactly this should be done is something worth thinking about. Finally, I argue that much of the opposition to wokeness is distorted and ineffective because it avoids the gendered nature of the problem, which also makes fighting it difficult.
Public debate has historically involved all-male contests, and men know what the rules are when contesting other men; it’s almost like a contact sport, in which you expect to get hit and it’s nothing personal. Indeed, it’s considered dishonourable and unmanly to take it personally. This is harder to do in a mixed-sex environment.
What is more, the sex ratio of any political movement clearly has an influence on its style, and the Great Awokening is surely related to the huge increase of women at universities; its tone is quite different to, say, the 1968 protests, when radical Leftism was far more male-heavy.
Kate Clanchy had her publishing deal with Picador cancelled recently because a bunch of whining hysterics objected to some perfectly harmless descriptions of people who belonged to the sacred races. She wrote about it this month.
Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2).
I have to admit that my instinctive response is: what a bunch of awful, insufferable little shits who, in a just world, would be conscripted to fight in Ukraine. Maybe after some sober reflection I’ll form a more balanced judgement.
As I have said probably quite a few times, most young people are not rebellious. That was all an invention by advertising and marketing gurus, because rebels are sexy. Far more young people would like to be morality patrollers telling other people what they can and can’t say. That is far more enjoyable than being a rebel, which is actually hard and tiresome and involves years of initial unpopularity.
Readers might ask exactly what it was about the photo that attracted so much attention. The answer is that the group pictured was stale, male and pale, out of touch with the demographics of modern Britain, evidence that people aren’t doing enough to integrate, and exposing a lack of inclusivity. What one might also notice is quite how many of the people accusing the group of being too white are notably low in melanin themselves. Why exactly is it that white people living in cities see white people in the countryside as acceptable targets for this hostility?
The simplest explanation is that they’re the ones badly out of touch with Britain. Castle Donington, where the photo was taken, has a population of 6,400 and is 98.64 per cent white. Leaving aside the point that Britain’s non-white population skews young, a conservative estimate of the probability that 17 randomly chosen men from the area would all be white is very high. Activists used to thinking of London as the norm are badly out of touch with modern Britain beyond the city, and immediately assume that any group that isn’t at least 13 per cent black and 18 per cent Asian must simply be deliberately excluding others and accordingly worthy of scorn.
A better explanation is that all-white gatherings are perceived by some as belonging to an outgroup. If you believe the ‘default’ member of political society is a heterosexual white Christian man, then the great project of the left is to assemble a winning majority out of everyone else. The dislike of white people makes far more sense through this frame. We don’t need complicated models to explain relatively simple prejudices; ethnic minorities which vote progressively are the in-group, white older voters are the outgroup.
Most of the anti-white discourse is obviously by white people trying to seek status, unaware or uninterested in the downstream consequences of normalising that kind of language. Their thinking involves completely asymmetrical rules about how we treat difference races, which is unsustainable and illogical; but you don’t need logic when you have social taboos on your side.
Incidentally I will be speaking to Sam on Wednesday in Millbank, on the subject of pessimism and my book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History. Book a ticket here, as in my imagination I picture no one turning up and the sound of awkward coughs following everything I say.
Everything Christopher Caldwell writes is worth reading, down to his shopping lists, and in American Affairs he looks at a highly topical subject, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its replacement by a kleptocracy called Russia.
If there was a signature policy catastrophe of the Gorbachev era, one whose effects have echoed through the decades, it was the extraordinary Law on Socialist Enterprises of 1987, which Gorbachev, enamored of Leninist terminology, called a “collectivization.” It was nothing of the sort. Half-understanding how capitalism worked, Gorbachev authorized state administrators to create an “economy of socialist democracy.” Unbelievable though it seems, managers of state enterprises were permitted to establish their own banks, which they could then borrow from, and to establish joint companies with foreign partners.
This arrangement produced none of the innovation and entrepreneurial vigor that Gorbachev had envisioned. On the contrary, Russia’s business leaders had plenty of incentives to make profits, but none to invest them. Executives could sell state assets to themselves or their partners at artificially low, state-fixed prices, and then sell them on to third parties at the market price. Zubok, like Kotkin, uses the word “cannibalization” to describe the process. Kotkin notes that exporters “accumulated fortunes that were hidden abroad by using mechanisms that the KGB had developed to pay for industrial espionage.” That stands to reason, for in the early stages, who but the KGB knew how to set up a shell company in a tax haven? Who knew how to buy a mansion through a trust? Once the system was up and running, of course, Western investors graciously agreed to fill this advisory role.
As always, Russia’s story involves endless tragedy.
Also: a thread on Ukraine and its geography. It’s all about rivers.
Looking at the map of Ukraine we might think it possesses uniquely good network of natural communications. So many rivers and all flowing to the World Ocean [Black Sea]. As you see, Central Russia where the Muscovite state originated, belongs to the endorheic basin of the Caspian Sea. Smaller rivers flow into Volga, Volga flows into Caspian and from Caspian, well, we aren't getting anywhere. No connection with the ocean
The long and short of it is that Ukraine has very unfortunate geography. ‘So far from God, so close to the United States’, as the Mexican lament goes; I wonder what Ukrainians and Poles think of that saying. Wanna swap neighbours?
Back to Éric Zemmour again, and this thread on the influence of Nietzsche on the French populist. It’s always impressive how high-brow French political debate appears to the Anglo, even when it comes to Right-wing populism, which is often very low IQ but in the case of Zemmour comes with a very strong sense of history and French destiny (even if his Second World War takes are, er, eccentric).
A thread on oxytcoin, including the revelation that ‘Administering oxytocin to normal people appears to make them more racist! this is hypothetized to be related to ingroup empathy and defense behavior’. Oxytocin’s link to ingroup empathy is well known. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cited the use of the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle hormone’ to produce ‘parochial altruism’; people playing group games who were sprayed with oxytocin were more likely to play altruistically towards members of their own group, ‘but they showed no concern at all for improving the outcomes of men in the other groups’. Oxytocin also ‘caused Dutch men to like Dutch names more and to value saving Dutch lives more’, although in that it showed no increase in hostility to outsiders.
Stone Age Herbalist — a highly-recommended account — on Bronze Age Neurosurgery. ‘A study of 19 skulls from the Italian middle bronze age showed that approx 80% survived cranial surgery - some form of trepanation, where a hole is created in the bone. Most common on the left parietal suggests violent trauma.’ And from the same account, the return of blood memory in the form of the 'epigenetically inherited trauma and irrational fears’.
And finally, “This current event is actually about the thing I’m obsessed by” - Ukraine edition. Why the Ukrainian war is actually about Brexit, trans rights, Covid or ‘the war on woke’.