The most interesting idea you’ve never heard of

On this Easter Monday, I’m reflecting on the most interesting new idea that I encountered in the last year (new to me, not new to the world). This is Rene Girard’s interpretation of the Christian crucifixion myth. I’m using “myth” to mean a story that tells us about who we are and how to interact with the world. I believe Girard is a practicing Catholic, but his theory should be no less interesting to the non-believer.

What I love about this idea is that it cuts across many different disciplines and levels of analysis — from psychology and anthropology to theology, politics, and comparative geopolitical history.

I’m astounded that I never heard of this extremely important idea until this past year. It seems monumentally important, if true. And — even if not true — still extraordinarily interesting and provocative.

Have I built it up enough?

I’m going to restate the idea in my own words without consulting any outside reference, so this account will include all the ways that I’ve been processing this Big Idea over the last few months:

  1. Life is hard. Even in the best case, every person suffers horribly.
  2. Trying to explain the suffering, we can’t help but look outside ourselves. We blame others.
  3. We are social animals, and the mob tends to concentrate this blame into a scapegoating of one person or group of people.
  4. Left unchecked, the scapegoating builds to a crescendo, and the mob kills the scapegoat. Or one representative of the scapegoated group.
  5. This problem — the potential killing of the scapegoat — is common to all human societies.
  6. The Christian crucifixion story centers on one archetypal instance of this type of scapegoating leading to mob murder.
  7. The government is completely powerless in the face of this type of mob. Government power (as represented by Pontius Pilate in the story) is corrupted or co-opted by the bloodlust of the mob.
  8. The essential plot twist in the story is that the mob got it wrong this time. This person we killed wasn’t the scapegoat. He wasn’t just innocent. He was divine. We killed God.
  9. But it was all for naught because God is immortal. Thus Jesus is resurrected.
  10. This myth-with-a-plot-twist has tremendous social utility. It bolsters the social compact that is necessary for a modern society to flourish, because…
  11. First, it puts the brakes on the mob’s rush to judgment.
  12. Second, for those who are scapegoated, it gives them the strength to carry on and — perhaps — the forbearance necessary not to retaliate.
  13. Also, in this idea is the seed of democracy, since it recognizes the sovereignty of the individual (who may indeed be divine).
  14. And modern Western democracies — as displayed so brilliantly in our own Constitution — balance the competing goals of (1) popular rule, and (2) protection of those not in the majority.
  15. By providing a social structure that constrains this universal human phenomenon of murderous scapegoating, the Christian crucifixion myth sets the stage for Western democracies to be (relatively) stable and peaceful.
  16. And that stability and peace allows for the emergence of the modern world.

I’m pretty persuaded by #1-12. It’s transformed the way I think about religion and human nature and the purpose of myth. The second part — #13-16 — is intriguing but I’m less sure.

Of course, there are lots of examples of Christians engaging in scapegoating, sometimes even murderous. So the prophylactic effect isn’t 100% reliable. But even a small improvement could be important.

UPDATE: HT Rod Dreher (and indirectly, Peter Thiel) for turning me on to Girard.

Share this post

“I would have expected a big religious revival to explode any minute now”

On EconTalk, Harvard historian Jill Lepore says something that I’ve been thinking — that we are overdue for a religious revival. Russ Roberts asks her about the revival of nationalism and nationalism’s attraction as a “feeling of tribal belonging.” Here is her response:

I think it has a lot in common with religious revivals… I would have expected a big religious revival to explode any minute now, because religious revivals tend to happen in the aftermath of a very significant… sea-change in the body of knowledge… or received notions of how we understand the natural world. So, I think… the accelerating, the sort of knowledge-vault metaphor of the Internet and the kind of revolution of machine learning and artificial intelligence and all the anxiety about a world of knowing that most people don’t understand, at all, is just the kind of thing to set off a religious revival. 

Two other factors: (1) massive economic changes that have left some people behind and added a level of anxiety to modern life even for those who’ve benefited, and (2) the weakening of traditional social relationships due to social media.

I know a lot of very lonely people. And I know a lot of people who have very little economic security. And often the two go together.

The Left seems to be settling on “Antiracism” and an aggressive progressivism as the new “religion.” (See John McWhorter’s brilliant essay at the Daily Beast from 2015.) But I suspect that

I think it’s more likely that we’ll see a religious revival centered around some form of Christianity. Will it be some sort of hyperlocal form of orthodox Christianity as proposed by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option? Will it be something that comes out of the Emerging Church movement, perhaps a form that borrows elements of progressive political ideology? Will there be a new wave of televangelism empowered by Youtube and social media?

Or maybe it’s already started…

Is the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon a type of religious revival?

Share this post

“People who would like to do the right thing, but who just can’t get it up.”

I think what most people seem to be tired of are the sort of lint-headed, wooly-minded – what a lot of people call do-gooders – people who would like to do the right thing, but who just can’t get it up. That kind of candidate is going out of style.

That’s Hunter S. Thompson, describing the failure of George McGovern to beat Richard Nixon. Almost 50 years ago. And yet…

Jimmy Carter in 76
Mondale in 84
HW in 88 and 92
Al Gore in 2000
John Kerry in 2004
Mitt Romney in 2012
HRC in 2016

Ronald Reagan got it up. Bill Clinton, um, got it up. Barack Obama and George W. Bush both seem like do-gooders on the surface. But both of them got it up – Barack Obama with personal grace and high-minded rhetoric, GWB with big-hearted, frat-boy back-slapping.

Maybe Dr. Thompson was right, but it took us a while to catch up. A mojo-less candidate hasn’t won a presidential election since HW in 1988, though a couple have won the popular vote (Gore, HRC). And Trump defeated a slew of milquetoast do-gooders in 2016 – Jeb, Marco, Kasich, HRC.

I’m reading HST’s classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. This is the Bible of American political journalism, and it seems that most modern political journalists – while not actively trying to emulate Dr. Thompson – imagine that they would write something similar if they weren’t constrained by timid editors, corporate travel budgets, and other annoying market forces.

This is the first book by Dr. Thompson that I’ve ever read. And it’s quite something. I do fear that someone trying to imitate him might miss the pieces that make the book so special. You might be able to mimic the careening style… or the naïve idealism masked with cynicism… or the admission of bias… or the star-fucking . But are you also willing to be brutally honest? Do you love other people — not just the stars, but the stars too — as much as Dr. Thompson does?

And once someone has done this particular thing, do we need anyone else to do it again?

Two weeks ago, I knew very little about the 1972 election other than that McGovern was a pretty liberal dude who lost to Nixon. And now I’m convinced that American politics is still churning on the same wheel it’s been on since the 1960’s. And 2020 is likely to be a rerun of 1972. I put the over/under on Trump’s margin of victory at 23 points.

Share this post

Is Paul Ryan too far left for today’s GOP?

That’s what the New York Times implies with this headline:
“Ryan found himself on the margins as his party moved to the right.”

But is that right?  Isn’t Paul Ryan much more “conservative” than Donald Trump and his followers on many, many issues? (e.g., fiscal policy, free trade, traditional Christian morality, entitlement reform)

What would political journalism look like if reporters couldn’t use the terms right/left or liberal/conservative? Those words have become almost meaningless except as markers of tribalism. The vast majority of Republicans now support a president who is against free trade and who defies traditional Christian morality. Mainstream Democrats are all-in on free-trade and claim that sexual transgressions disqualify you from public office.

Note that the NYT changes the headline when you click through the actual article:
“Ryan Found Himself on the Margins as G.O.P. Embraces Trump”

They appear to be uncomfortable with their own left/right clickbait.

Share this post

Start typing and press Enter to search

Shopping Cart