Re: FW: an ex-Yugoslavian's view of USA

Date: Sun Feb 11 2001 - 09:06:17 MST

Denis Bider passed on a message from a fellow in Yugoslavia which evoked some
ideas about the general role of history and culture on the political and
ethical aspects of extropianism.

In a message dated 2/1/01 12:43:57 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

> According to my scarce knowledge, Ivo used to be a journalist in
> he came to US as a political refugee. He is now a snowboarding instructor
> Vermont during the winter, and lives in New York during the summer.
> The interesting message is the second one below.


> > The third thing
> > is the instinct to go with the herd. This instinct is extremely strong
> > in the US. You'll see people patiently waiting in line to enter the
> > bus. You'll see people orderly organized in rows of two marching
> > into the movie theater. You'll see drivers milling at the same slow
> > speed one after another at equidistance in the same lane. The
> > cozy, warm feeling of being a part of some larger unquestioned
> > structure is eerily welcomed in the land of the free. Everybody eats
> > turkey for Thanksgivings and all college bound teenage males wear
> > baggy kakis and polo shirts. That is also re-enforced by their
> > college education that emphasizes participation in uniformity. The
> > better you are at being mediocre, the more succesfull you will be at
> > being whatever you want to be. Thus, the top journalists are usually
> > neither the most talented writers, nor the most enthusiastic muck-
> > rackers. This is how the US preserves its cherished status-quo, so
> > the rich can sleep soundly at night.

This passage induced a pang of annoyance in me - it struck me as the
traditional Bohemian condemnation of the "bourgeois mentality," when in fact
I think much of it stems from a lack of appreciation for what a high-trust
civil society looks like when it's working. People wait patiently in line
when they have an expectation that whatever service they're waiting for will
be provided in a fair, efficient and timely manner. People organize
THEMSELVES into "rows" when they have an expectation that other people will
not cut in line. People voluntarily sort out their speed and spacing on the
road when they believe, based on experience, that other drivers will do the

Contrast this with what you see in classically low-trust groups that lack
strong values of a civil society (adopting Fukuyama's terminology). One sees
pushing and shoving in lines, because individuals harbor a feeling that if
they won't, others will cheat and take an unfair advantage of their patience.
 Lines don't form for access to scarce goods, because in such societies
people believe that those ahead of them will be able to offer bribes or other
covert favors to gain access. And one need only try to drive in a city
without a functioning civil society to quickly develop an appreciation for
how spontaneous ORDER does NOT arise when people don't trust each other. I
leave coming up with examples of where one is likely to find such situations
as an exercise for the reader.

The question that arises for me is whether the second part of the passage
quoted above contains an honest criticism of high-trust civil societies.
Without a doubt, there is a high level of conformity in thought and behavior
in the US and other such cultures. Conformity to VALUES of respect for the
autonomy of others is good, but reflexive conformity to IDEAS is inimical to
the proper functioning of a free society. The challenge, so far as I am
concerned, is how to encourage the one without the other. This is obviously
possible in theory: "Meta-values" of tolerance and polite skepticism serve to
curb the tendency that high-trust societies may have to fall into shallow
channels of "group-think". In practice, this task is obviously difficult.
We see in all high-trust societies (I'm thinking of the US, England, Germany,
Scandinavia and Japan) a significant propensity for the great majority of
people to accept a "standard model" of how their lives should be lived
without any question or deep understanding of how that set of behaviors has
come to be or why they might or might not be the best way they could live
their lives.

The irony is that because high-trust cultures with functioning civil
societies provide a comfortable basic level of "social security", people who
grow up in such cultures are more able to simply accept the status quo as a
"proper" basis for life (to use that galling English adjective that sums up
so many unquestioned assumptions) and never develop the habits of mind that
come from deep questioning of the world around them. This breeds complacency
and, ultimately, a kind of chauvinism that is inimical to the very kinds of
progress that made those societies possible in the first place. More
abstractly, there seems to be an inherent paradox in our current cultural
scene, where healthy skepticism about social issues has led to the paralysis
of post-modernist subjectivism, which is itself incompatible with many of the
basic functions of trust and civility. All of which has brought me over the
years that I have considered these questions to the conclusion that only by
returning to the root values of the Enlightenment can we balance both the
good that comes from trust with the need for on-going skepticism.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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