On the Technocratic Bathos of Hanania et al.
Or; on the Tragic Social Irony of the Right Wing Wonk
After all that has happened over the last 2+ years, and as the sense of disorientation which has befuddled me— as (mostly) the world appears to have shifted and inverted, leaving me on the Right of lines previously I had thought I was on the Left of—, settles down, I’ve noticed on thing which has stayed consistent for me: the strange mixture of curiosity and contempt which I have for a character type I call the Right Wing Wonk (or RWW for short).
You see, I encountered these types years ago as a liberal, when my daily internet reading diet consisted primarily of Vox articles, Paul Krugman and Noah Smith columns, or, when needing a stiffer partisan kick, the liberal blogosphere of the likes of Brad Delong or LGM.
In those halcyon days you’d encounter on occasion the RWW: a white male, able to pass for under 40-years-old (regardless of actual age), khakis, MacBook, 1400+ SAT score (which you will hear about someway or the other1), economics BA, either lives in Arlington or a state university town in the South or Midwest— basically indistinguishable to a Left Wing Wonks, but he voted Republican and sometimes would have a white girlfriend or wife.
Trump’s political rise through 2016 seemed like it would be quite a catastrophic, even extinction level event for these child-tax-crediting, YIMBY[bocnMbyo]2, Lyman Stonites. The real world consequences have been more interesting than one might have thought—many indeed, did simply become more or less LWWs, but others oscillated around the various alternatives: Never Never Trumpers, Neo-conservative Russiagaters, early-2020-Covid-alarmist-turned-mild-lockdown/mask-skeptics-by-late-2021-(still 100% pro vax!), 2020 election defender/J6 abhorrers, etc.
What fascinates me about them is the contradiction at the core of their personalities—their practical embrace of the lifestyle and logic of the progressive ideology dominant in the elite and para-elite social classes, together with their sentimental and verbal attachments to what remains of traditional American conservatism, all maintained while insisting that the core problems of society are those of policy amiable to technical solutions.
Since I name dropped him in the title, I might as well use as an example Richard Hanania—certainly not the worst and perhaps the best among these types. Richard, on my reading, seems convinced that the primary problem faced by our current society is one of institutional and technological stagnation, brought on by the consequences of the post-1960’s leftward social/cultural drift as it impacted fields of law and other social institutions. That the absurd logic of the Civil Rights Act is something like the fountain from our woes flow.
In this understanding, the real crime here is that since the 1960’s there has been an accelerating trend to kneecap the natural intellectual aristocratic—perhaps idealized as the kind of square-jawed no-nonsense Clayton Forrester3 engineer or scientist of the Jet/Atomic Age cultural paradigm— in favor of “wokeness” or “diversity, equity, inclusion” etc.
This had led to the 1500+ SAT’d would-be Clayton Forrester (or maybe Wong or Singh) being replaced by the 800- SAT’d Shaniqua Jefferson-Jackson-Jones. Thus, our cars still don’t drive themselves, our nuclear fusion remains hot, and our Moon bases and Mars bases recede on the calendar like the horizon on a car trip.
The problem with this point of view is two-fold.
First, if things like the Civil Rights Act were really so important to technological development, you would see more discrepancy in outcomes for countries based on their policies. Instead, you see clustered convergence which is much more readily explained by other factors (Africa poor and low tech, Europe rich and high tech…for um, reasons.).
This is an underappreciated point generally4. E.g. if tax policy drove economic growth, countries would diverge significantly in their economic outcomes, and that would be traceable to their tax policies. Or, if public health policy drove infectious disease dynamics, disease outcomes from country to country would cluster based on policy paths. In either case, they don’t. Thus, our policies don’t matter very much in terms of generated outcomes.
Other developed countries have myriad different social/cultural policies, from Japanese ethno-nationalism to communism with Chinese characteristics to American wokeness to whatever the fuck it is Europe is doing. Yet they all are solidly unified in having entered the “diminishing returns” part of the technological curve (or, I’d argue, the “vanishing returns” part).
The second problem, is deeper, and more the source of the irony referenced in this post’s subtitle.
It is that the same bureaucratic inertia and malaise which the RWW resents (if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be Rightwing) comes as a necessary consequence of the technological and scientific triumphantalism which the RWW embraces.
Wokeness without the bureaucratic inertia and malaise returns to the harmless, laughable “political correctness” of the 1990’s, it is really the latter which is the evil.
Whether it is the green grocer’s “workers of the world unite!” or the nausea of the “In this house we believe…”, or “Just Say No!/ Support Our Troops!” some kind of soul-grinding political conformity is the necessary upshot of the kind of highly complex, technological society we inhabit.
Here then is the real source of irony for the RWW. In actual practice, he loves the lifestyle and even the techno-social form and structure of the Left-leaning world he inhabits, he really just wishes for a change of skin—the same character in a different outfit.
But the skins he prefer, the conservative ones, were themselves grounded in something very different and continued by social inertia, which was fundamentally at odds with the progressive, technological society we now live in and which he so much enjoys and wishes to even further enable, if only he could swap out the skin.
The conservative social and cultural forms came from a lifestyle which was somewhat incompatible with technological progress, in that it did not view the hazards and risks of life and problems to be solved or costs/benefits functions to be optimized, but as simply burdens to be borne. They depended on a sense of place and time which is incompatible with the technological society, and which it has to homogenize out of existence.
Thus, the technological progress which the RWW champions and complains that the Left is stifling, is the very same progress which destroys his sources of moral and aesthetic value.
Or, as I like to quote admittedly ad nauseum to people, as Cormac McCarthy via Anton Chugirh puts it:
Fascinatingly enough, they do seem to sincerely view standardized test scores every bit as sacredly as their rhetoric would suggest. One suspects that intractable arguments among them are e settled quickly if one finds a tactful way to he had gotten a 169 on the LSAT while the other got a 164.
My acronym for “Yes In My Back Yard! (but, of course, not MY backyard, obviously)”
From the 1950’s War of the Worlds, not the Mystery Science Theater parody
One which I must cringe to admit and give credit to Paul Krugman for pointing out with regard to tax policy. But he’s promoted enough abject retardation to more than enough make up for this one great insight.