Thursday, January 20, 2005

The King and I 

Having a holiday in the middle of January is probably not a good idea. It’s too cold for parades. Everyone is more interested in shedding the weight gained during November and December’s holiday feasts than inviting friends and family over for yet another shared meal. Most private employers aren’t eager to give another day off work to employees who have just had holidays over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, especially since January is one of the busiest months for many businesses.

Most employees aren’t even that interested in the holiday—and it’s not because they are just too racist to take the day off from work. The real purpose of most official holidays is to create the four day work week; and the real purpose of the four day work week is to allow employees to take nine-day holidays while using only four vacation days. If you get thirteen days paid vacation each year (the American average), this holiday conservation can earn you up to thirty-one days to each year. But what are you going to do when the temperatures have snapped down below freezing and you’re financially tapped from gifts and vacation travel in December? We’d all be a lot better off if they moved the holiday out to August, when the good doctor gave his most famous speech, as Steve Sailer has argued. Doesn’t everyone agree that the long stretch of weeks without holidays from the Fourth of July to Labor Day could use an interruption?

At some distant point in the past, the country was divided over Martin Luther King. The progressives applauded King’s marches and movement. The conservatives had reservations about King and his movement. Many states held out for a time against adopting MLK day as a holiday. These days, however, everyone loves Martin Luther King, and I haven’t heard of anyone calling for the abolition of the holiday. Yet we are still divided over his legacy. The liberals remember MLK as a great American, but also as a great African American. They celebrate not just his support for equality but for his accomplishments in the advancement of African Americans. Conservatives claim that the modern civil rights movement has turned its back on equality in favor of special treatment for favored minorities. Affirmative action, for instance, seems to violate the principle that we judge folks by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

In college I somehow got mixed-up in the conservative movement. I attended conferences, edited feisty magazines and tutored myself in the library with conservative journals and books. The main targets of campus conservatism were political correctness. relativism and multiculturalism. Nowadays everyone has some idea what these are but in the early nineties we were still discovering them.

The conservatives countered political correctness with a vigorous support for academic freedom, free speech and free press. The best argument of the proponents of political correctness was that political correctness didn’t exist, that it was a figment of right-wing paranoia. This was defeated through endless anecdote—it’s hard to maintain something doesn’t exist when every few weeks a new example became a national scandal. The latest uproar at Harvard is as good an example as any of the censorious mentality that infects so many college campuses.

The conservatives countered relativism with what the left called “ethnocentrism” but the right considered moral universalism. The proposition was that the values of the West might have arisen historically in the Europe but were universally applicable to humans because the Creator or Nature had endowed all men with certain rights and obligations. You can see the appeal of this way of thinking for a conservative—it combines patriotism with a certain kind of high-mindedness. Our ways are the best but not because they are ours but because they are everybody’s.

This was related to the fight against multiculturalism, with it’s emphasis on the rights of minority groups. In various ways, the Left’s emphasis on valuing the perspectives and protecting or advancing the status of minorities was presented as a rejection of the American tradition of moral universalism, equality before the law and individualism. The left wanted a society keenly attuned to the differences and diversity of our people; the right wanted color-blindness, merit-based promotion and an emphasis on both our national unity and individual accomplishments. In the mind of a campus conservative, we wanted a society of character while the multiculturalists wanted a society of race and gender.

If they had issued conservative movement cards, I certainly would have been a card-carrying member. Nonetheless, I could not persuade myself that there wasn’t something wrong with the conservative ideology. It insisted that diversity wasn’t an important fact about our country or the world, when all my life’s experiences taught me the opposite. When they did speak up for diversity, conservatives insisted that they stood for a different kind of diversity—diversity of ideology rather than ethnic or sex diversity. But this is one of the least interesting kinds of diversity in the world. Which three women would you rather be stuck in an elevator with: A Stalinist, a neoconservative and a feminist or a Brazillian, a Norwegian and a Thai? What’s worse, no-one mentioned religious diversity, although this has since proven to be extremely salient.

I graduated from college six years after I started. I was an itinerant student, attending seven different college, and indifferent to the continuity of my studies, taking time off the spend three boozy months hitch-hiking around Ireland at one point and wandering my way through post-Communist Eastern Europe at another. At some point I started to look at the campus wars of the nineties with a jaded eye. The rhetoric of both sides seemed to conceal what was really going on. The left was engaged in a strategy of subversion in which political correctness, relativism, multiculturalism and feminism were tactics to undermine traditional rules and modes of behavior in American life. The right had adopted what was essentially leftist rhetoric of the early twentieth century—equality and universalism—in an effort ameliorate the effects of the subversion. In other words, the right was trying to use moderate leftist rhetoric to combat extreme leftism. What's worse is that the right hadn't persuaded many leftists but had persuaded themselves--they had adopted their own rhetoric as an ideology.

I wasn’t any sort of leftist. In fact, I was well on my way to becoming a decadent reactionary. The pursuit of whiskey, women and wealth seemed to me honorable ways of stooping below the struggle between the forces of leftism past and leftism future. The country may be divided over the meaning of MLK day—I just want it moved to August so I can better manage my time away from work.

I spent the long weekend over MLK studiously avoiding doing either the conservative thing—celebrating our country’s dedication to equality and color-blindness—or the progressive thing—celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans. Instead, I read a book called The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differntly…and Why.

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett started out as a universalist concerning the nature of human thought, convinced that all populations perceive and reason in the same way. Apparently, this is (or was) a very common assumption among psychologists. Prompted by a Chinese student, however, Nisbett began to read more broadly and discovered evidence that Westerners and East Asians have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years.

Nisbett writes that the Greeks developed a system of thought based upon individual agency, categorization of objects, open debate and logic. The East Asian thinkers developed a system of though based on harmony, awareness of context and cooperation. According to Nisbett, westerners have always looked at the world as made up of individualized atoms whereas the East sees the world as made up of a continuous substance. These ways of thinking persist today. In one striking example, American and Japanese students were shown a pyramid-like object made from a reflective plastic and told that this was called a “Jax.” When shown a number of other objects and asked which one was a Jax, the American overwhelmingly chose a pyramid regardless of what it was made of while the Japanese chose the objects made from the reflective plastic regardless of the shape.

I tried a version of this experiment in a bar over the weekend. I was having some off-the-record drinks in the Mars Bar with some gossip columnists from a foreign-owned yet surprisingly xenophobic New York tabloid. This is possibly one of the dirtiest bars in New York now that the Village Idiot has closed. I grabbed a couple of my friends and drew a pyramid on a napkin, telling them it was a Jax. Then I grabbed another napkin and drew a large circle with a smaller circle. Next I broke off a piece of the crumbling walls and drew a pyramid.

“Which one is the Jax?” I asked.

They chose the pyramid.

“That’s interesting because the Japanese would have chosen the napkin.”

“No wonder we went to war with those fuckers. That’s clearly not a Jax. It’s a fucking bagel.”

To prove Nisbett’s point we planned on stopping at a Sushi joint and conducting the experiment with the chefs. First, we took a cab up to the Cellar because it was the bartender party. Instead of giving the bartender’s year-end bonuses, the bar lets them split the till for the night. I felt I pretty much had a moral obligation to go. After a couple of glasses of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, we made our way uptown to Bungalow 8. The gossip columnists love the place because it is always packed with improbably good looking women, and the columnists tend to pull above their weight class with would-be models who hope to get their career started with an appearance in the pages of the tabloid.

I hadn’t been in Bungalow for a couple of years, so it felt a bit like we were doing the time warp again back to 2001. It’s still as ridiculous as ever. One guy who I talked with was about to leave for a cannon-ball run style race across Europe in either a classic Cadillac El Dorado or a new Bentley. Apparently he has both in a private garage in Manhattan. Somewhere along the way I lost my scarf, my copy of Nisbett’s book and forgot to stop in the Sushi joint for the other half of the experiment.

The “why” part of Nisbett’s book is disappointing. He claims that differences in ecology created the economic circumstances that led to different ways of thinking. I cannot say whether Nisbett is accurate in claiming that the ecology of China encouraged rice-based agriculture which required a communal and context oriented mind-set. But I know his description of the ancient Greeks is wrong. To Nisbett the Greeks were urban dwelling traders and pirates, when in fact ancient Greece was a highly agrarian society.

But if it wasn’t ecology or economics, what could have caused the Greeks and Chinese to develop such different ways of thinking? Nisbett’s book exhibits an annoying bio-phobia, never considering that the differences in cognitive process may rooted in physiological differences. I’ve never understood why it is considered better that differences in behavior or ability are caused by ecology rather than biology, but this is a prejudice in a lot of recent books about the diversity of peoples on our planet.

How could physiology cause the different ways of thinking? Nisbett’s book avoids mentioning IQ but the different cognitive processes he discovers also correlate with differences in IQ. The contextual-communal thinkers have higher average IQ’s than the object-logic thinkers. Could logic, then, be an adaptation to counter the handicap of having a lower IQ? That is, could the dimmer Westerners have developed a way of thinking that the bright Chinese didn’t need? It certainly seems to me that the tools of logic and categorization are very useful but perhaps they are unnecessary for very bright people. If so, there would have been selective pressure in favor of logical thinkers in the West that would not have had as much influence in the East. Even the Western emphasis on individual liberty could be the result of Westerners not being quite smart enough to be collectivists.

I mentioned this theory to the pretty girl who had come into Bungalow with the race-car driver. He had evacuated the bar in favor of the bathroom, presumably to revive his spirits with powdered medications. She had blonde curls that fell in front of her eyes when she talked. It was hard to pay attention to what she said because the long legs stretching out from her a tiny sweater-skirt demanded so much attention. I think she replied that my hypothesis was surprising because it would indicate that so many good things in the world—logic, individual liberty, philosophy and science—were the result of the West being a bit thick in the head.

I told her that this was not so surprising. We don’t necessarily think that the best civilization is the tallest or the one with the best eyesight. Why would being smarter necessarily make you better? Perhaps it’s more desirable to not have the average intelligence of your society be quite so high.

The music had gotten louder, and she had to lean in close to hear me. Her knees were pressed against my legs, and she was propping herself up with a hand on my thigh. Her hair smelled like rosemary and mint.

“What are you two on about?” the race-car driver asked.

“Oh, well, MT here was just telling me how you don’t have to be the biggest to be the best.”

He smiled and stretched out his hand to her. They were off to dance and I was left with my whiskey and heretical thoughts about biodiversity on Martin Luther King Day.

Update: Razib of Gene Expression shares his thoughts on The Geography of Thought.

More Updates: I recovered my copy of the book!

Update Mania: In the comments, Greg Cochran helpfully points out that we have a good candidate for the genetic basis of the different ways of thinking. If only I had known that at Bungalow 8. Maybe I could have impressed the leggy blonde with talk of the seven repeats on an allele. Here's the article Cochran did with Henry Harpending on the subject.