How to Live in a Catastrophe

Women and liberals love catastrophes or the appearance thereof. It fills them with drama and purpose.

Elizabeth Weil, climate reporter, writes Nov.8 for New York magazine:

How to Live in a Catastrophe

Hello, excuse me, are you lost? Not in physical space or in your personal life — just kind of cosmically unmoored? It seems like we’re in a catastrophe. I mean, obviously we’re in a catastrophe.

Our clown-car democracy. Our warm embrace of surveillance capitalism. Dobbs. Just days ago, Elon Musk bought Twitter and the fascists openly rejoiced. Six months ago, a teenager killed 19 kids and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, while hundreds of law-enforcement officers stood around. Plus the big granddaddy catastrophe of them all, the planetary crisis. The planetary crisis … what a term. Your life is still stable enough that you’re reading magazine articles. You’ve got that huge lucky fact going for you. But even so, how could a person possibly stay sane and oriented? How could a person think straight and well in a moment such as this?

You try. You really do. You’re an A-minus person, maybe B-plus. You sweat out the record-high temperatures this summer in Shanghai or London or Anaheim or Salt Lake City or Sacramento.

In 2014, Joel Kotkin described this mentality:

In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.
The rise of today’s Clerisy stems from the growing power and influence of its three main constituent parts: the creative elite of media and entertainment, the academic community, and the high-level government bureaucracy.
The Clerisy operates on very different principles than its rival power brokers, the oligarchs of finance, technology or energy. The power of the knowledge elite does not stem primarily from money, but in persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society. Like the British Clerisy or the old church-centered French First Estate, the contemporary Clerisy increasingly promotes a single increasingly parochial ideology and, when necessary, has the power to marginalize, or excommunicate, miscreants from the public sphere.

In his book-in-progress, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression:
The Nature and Origins of Conservaphobia
, Rony Gulmann writes:

* Unlike the old French First Estate, the progressive Clerisy is not an official institution with a formal membership list. But conservative claimants of cultural oppression believe that it is all the more insidious for this very reason. Enjoying the plausible deniability provided by a façade of democratic idealism, the liberal elites have quietly colonized a host of powerful social institutions—the judiciary, academia, public public schools, large foundations, the media, entertainment, and others—through which they now pursue unofficially what earlier clerisies had to pursue officially. They do not marginalize or excommunicate in the name of some codified orthodoxy like Catholic teaching or Talmudic law. But conservatives believe that the cumulative social prestige arrogated by this “rising class” is the functional equivalent of such an orthodoxy, imbuing the liberal elites’ pronouncements with a special power to cut off debate and silence dissent. Seeking above all to maintain this power, this new secular priesthood will badger, scold, and bully all who defy it. And this means conservatives.

* Despite their official egalitarianism, liberals believe in their heart of hearts that they enjoy a more self-regulating and self-transparent form of human agency than has been attained by conservatives, the “bitter clingers” lost in a hallucinatory world of imaginary cultural villains.

* Naturally, liberals will deny that they are elites given to intolerance and bullying. But they can do so only because drives that were once acknowledged openly by earlier generations of modern elites have since receded into the invisible, taken-for-granted background of things, covered over by a veneer of pragmatism, therapy, and moral common sense—e.g., fears about mass shootings. But underneath this veneer, gun violence and other “policy problems” are being employed as occasions to promote a thicker social morality than liberals will acknowledge, to promote the disciplinary ethos that conservatives confront on an intuitive, visceral level that defies easy articulation. The resulting inarticulacy is what allows liberals to remain perennially insensible to the deeper truth of conservatives’ cultural grievances, which conservatives must always struggle to convey. Conservative polemics against political correctness may rest on exaggeration and distortion. But the exaggeration and distortion form part of an attempt to symbolically encapsulate the exceedingly subtle forms of illiberalism at play within this subterranean layer of human experience, for which we lack an adequate vocabulary. Hence what many conservatives acknowledge as their perennial rhetorical disadvantages vis-à-vis liberalism.

* Like the elites of old, today’s liberals insist that the lower orders be “not left as they are, but badgered bullied, pushed, preached at, drilled, and organized to abandon their lax and disordered folkways and conform to one or another feature of civil behavior.” Seen in the context of the mutation counter-narrative, the E.P.A. and other liberal institutions are merely carrying forth this longstanding tradition. Conservatives understand their conservatism as their resistance to the badgering and bullying, and this is why they cannot be see liberals as tyrants and usurpers, cryptofascists who are always scheming to undermine the natural liberty of the conservative. Liberalism has become ascendant, not by providing compelling solutions to discrete problems, but by suppressing and discrediting the free human nature that the conservative strives to retain.

* Conservative claims of cultural oppression are what Foucault calls “an insurrection of subjugated knowledges.” This is knowledge “located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity,” knowledge in which “lay the memory of hostile encounters,” knowledge which “owes its force only to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it.” Those hostile encounters are the badgering, bullying, and scolding with which modern elites have always sought to impose their disciplinary impulses, which have now become nearly invisible, taken for granted as “natural.” This problem may be articulated through various empirical claims many of which can be proven false. But the empirical claims are most profoundly understood as symbolic efforts to expose the contingency of the buffered identity, the buffered identity as the outcome of a parochial culture that hides itself behind a universalistic facade.

* What the progressive tries to pass off as an innocent request for clarification is in its unacknowledged undertones a direct assault on the conservatives’ character and intellect, the insinuation that no thinking person could possibly believe what the conservative claims to believe. Pretending to extend the conservative the benefit of the doubt, the liberal assaults him with his very magnanimity. Though feigning that he is engaged in a thoughtful exchange between inquiring minds, the liberal quietly invokes a presumed social consensus before which the conservative is expected to cower in fear.
Liberals can thus engage in conservaphobic bullying behind the cloak of plausible deniability. This plausible deniability moreover allows them to chalk up the ensuing conservative resentment to unhinged irascibility or paranoia. Employing a façade of rationalism to disguise the performative dimension of their dialectic, liberals reinforce a subtle social hierarchy that is just as pervasive as it is deniable. Liberals can thus drown conservatives in an ever-expanding accretion of insinuations and intimations, a Kafkaesque world each layer of which is recognizable only by reference to the rest, leaving conservatives unable to expose the bigotry of liberals even as they are submerged by it. The cumulative result of all the subterfuge, double-talk, and mystification is that ultra-liberalism is now regarded, not merely as the superior public philosophy, but also as a special vantage point that is somehow post-ideological and “pragmatic.”

* Hofstadter writes that “it is the historic glory of the intellectual class of the West in modern times that, of all the classes which could be called in any sense privileged, it has shown the largest and most consistent concern for the well-being of the classes which lie below it in the social scale.”132 But for conservatives, this putative magnanimity bespeaks the fact that intellectuals’ hierarchical impulses are invested in influence rather than acquisition. The “consistent concern” referenced by Hofstadter isn’t unvarnished altruism, but rather the characteristic ambition of modern elites, to “make over the whole society, to change the lives of the mass of people, and make them conform better to certain models which carried strong conviction among these elites,” as Taylor says. Like the elites of yesteryear, today’s liberals believe the lower orders are not to be “left as they are, but badgered, bullied, pushed, preached at, drilled, and organized to abandon their lax and disordered folkways.” That the bullying and badgering is now effectuated through the well-meaning solicitude of the family doctor rather than the stern admonitions of the village priest or constable does not alter the fundamentals of the project. For this solicitude is but the latest iteration of the civilizing process, merely a sublimated, intellectualized, and etherealized variant of the reforming impulses that were once expressed more brutally and openly by an earlier generation of modern elites. The bullying and badgering may now be subtle and indirect, and undertaken within the constraints of democratic norms. But conservatives sense that their cumulative impact is profound, because they have transformed our very understanding of who we are.

* Liberalism’s inveterate impulse to moralize all social activity never presents itself as raw, unabashed moralism, but always as a specific response to specific social problems which few deny are real. It is only to be expected that the elites’ reforming impulses will express themselves in a more scientifically sophisticated fashion in the context of a more scientifically sophisticated society, where the badgering, bullying, and drilling can be expected to assume a more circuitous and genteel form, advanced as focused correctives rather than in the name of discipline as such. But behind the focused corrective lies liberalism’s “silent” or “hidden” curriculum, which seeks to “mold people in a manner that helps ensure that liberal freedom is what they want”…

* Conservatives are driven on by the inexorable conviction that liberalism is not to be taken at face value, because what it holds out as its transcendence of conservatives’ moralistic authoritarianism is just another form of moralistic authoritarianism in disguise. Thus, Goldberg charges that environmentalism grants license to a level of moral bullying that would be denounced as totalitarian if motivated by traditional values.

* If feminism originated in the imperiousness of elite cadres bent on stigmatizing the housewife, this is as one more stage of the civilizing process, whose norms always spread outward from elite circles through the badgering, bullying, and scolding of the unwashed masses, whose capitulation will then be celebrated as liberation and enlightenment. Graglia charges that the feminist movement sought to eviscerate the metaphysical significance of sexuality, reducing it to the “physical assuaging of a genital itch.” And this is just another instance of the buffered identity’s war against “embodied feelings of the higher,” which it must reduce to biological impulses purged of all anthropocentric predicates. The disenchantment of sexuality by feminism was, just like the disenchantment of the world generally, advanced in order to cultivate a disciplined and productive citizenry. This is what the career woman exalted by feminism represents, the milquetoast technocratic egalitarianism of the liberal culture, in whose service every last vestige of traditionalist sentiment must be uprooted. Whereas liberals locate the meaning of feminism in the supersession of certain historical inequalities and the prejudices that permitted them, conservatives locate it in the disciplines and repressions of the buffered identity, for which “equality” is merely a vehicle.


About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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