I Made a New Word: “Neo-Calvinist”

It’s kinda clunky, and I’m not super-happy with it, but it’s the best I could do.

Hereabouts, we spend a fair bit of time discussing terminology.  Which covers it better, “liberal” or “leftist”?  That kind of thing.  Because definitions are important.

So I’ve tried to come up with a new one.  Not all leftists are liberals, and not all liberals are leftists, but they are all impaired to some degree by the same mindset.  David Stove called it “cognitive Calvinism.”  He explained it like this:

Calvinists believe in the total depravity of human nature: if an impulse is one of ours, it is bad, because it is one of ours.  The argument,

  • Our knowledge is our knowledge,
  • So,
  • It is not knowledge of real things,

could seem valid only to someone who felt that any knowledge we have could not be the real thing, because we have it.

He’s talking about an argument he calls “The Gem,” aka The Worst Argument in the World, which deserves the top link on every conservative blog’s sidebar from now until the end of time.  It’s the one-stop explanation of the Fundamental Contradiction of Liberalism, the fact that there’s no such thing as a fact.

indexBriefly:  A Gem starts from a tautology and ends by presenting some emotionally appealing conclusion as if it followed logically from the premise.  But nothing follows logically from a tautology by definition.  So, Stove argues, we’d easily see that

We can know things only

  • as they are related to us
  • under our forms of perception and understanding
  • insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes,

is a tautology (“we can only know what we can know”) if we weren’t emotionally wedded to the idea that we cannot know things as they are in themselves.

Stove thinks it’s only “cognitive Calvinists” who find Gem arguments appealing (as opposed to “politically useful” or even “true” (for those of us who don’t recognize that they are Gems)).  And, on the surface at least, “we cannot know things as they are in themselves” is a pretty depressing comment on mankind’s mental powers.  But Stove was a philosopher, and was used to arguing with fellow philosophers (the whole Gem-argument is laid out in a long discussion of Victorian Idealism, one of the driest and deadest relics of that long-vanished era).  Out here in the real world, where the intellectual level is much lower but the self-regard level is somehow much, much higher, people have no problem making the leap from “we cannot know things as they are in themselves” to “I possess the entire Truth.”

Hence, Neo-Calvinism.  Like the original Calvinists, Our Betters have granted themselves a plenary indulgence from the consequences of their theories.  Calvinists knew they were among the Elect, because the one sure sign of Election is an affinity for Calvinism.  And so while all knowledge has heretofore been Western / white / patriarchal / imperialist / whatever, and while of course we are utterly incapable of transcending the cognitive biases of our class situation — so proclaimeth St. Karl of the Holy Dialectic — the light of Divine Grace has descended on Our Betters.  They have been Saved.  They are, in Tom Sowell’s wonderful phrase, the Anointed.

Which is a term that would probably work well enough in context.  But I like “neo-Calvinist” because it calls back to the intellectual roots of Puritanism.  As Max Weber famously argued, Protestantism is not a religion of the proletariat.  Puritan* social histories are full of relatively unlettered, low-status people engaging in recondite theological debates, and one of the reasons the Salem witchcraft trials are so fascinating even to non-lesbians is the intellectual wattage of the judges.  Cotton Mather could produce 500 pages of densely-reasoned, impeccably logical prose to justify putting you on the rack.  As we are well aware, Our Betters love the form and the feel and the sound of intellectual debate, even as they’re “arguing” straight from the amygdala. It’s Cotton Mather logic — of course “spectral evidence” is admissible in court, because the girls are being tormented by witches, and witches use specters to torment.  QED.

“Neo-Calvinist” also gives a shout out to the prissy, moralizing, censorious nature of Our Betters.  In all matters except sex — these days, in all matters perhaps gay sex — they are prigs and scolds.  Bad speech must of course be banned, but also bad cars, bad lightbulbs, bad toilets, bad trash cans, bad songs, bad movies, bad shows, bad channels, bad books, bad websites, bad everything.  The Church of Correct Thought has its liturgies, its rituals, and of course its sacrifices, and participation is not optional.  You are sinners in the hands of an angry God, and since there’s no such thing as God, Our Betters will have to pinch hit for Him.

Once you look for it, you see this kind of thing everywhere.  This post was inspired by yet another takedown of “Vox,” this stupid news-explaining-blog-thing that has gotten the right blogsphere so worked up.  Professional jealousy aside — and what is this, 2002?  Didn’t we go through this “throw zillions of dollars at talking-point-spewing bloggers thing” a decade ago?  and wasn’t it a comprehensive disaster? — I really fail to see how this is any different from anything else the left media do.  How is Ezra Klein pretending to be objective while “explaining” that of course progressives are metaphysically correct about everything any different from any random MSNBC / CNN / ABC / CBS / New York Times knucklehead pretending to do the same thing?  Hell, I doubt if you could get more than a few of Rachel Maddow’s supporters to admit she’s anything but an up-front, straight-talkin’, truth-tellin’, honest-to-Gaia journalist.

Klein’s just an extra-sanctimonious jerkoff, even by the left’s world-class standards.  Which is great for me, I guess — I got a new word out of it — but I don’t see how it needs thousands of words of impassioned “analysis” elsewhere.  He’s just another neo-Calvinist, pretending his prejudices are God’s will.  Same as it ever was.

UPDATE: Just for giggles.  It appears this “Vox” site screwed the pooch on one of the very first stories it reported.  They claimed that Kentucky, which just lost the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, “has a graduation rate of 82 percent” for its ballers.  Except, ummm…. it doesn’t.  Not even close.  That 82% figure is from ten years ago.  Their entire philosophy now is one-and-done, and there’s exactly one senior on the whole team.  Serious you guys, this is top-notch journalism.


*I’m well aware that not all Calvinists, much less all Protestants, are Puritans.  But it’s the sense of the word, not precise doctrinal definitions, that matter.

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7 thoughts on “I Made a New Word: “Neo-Calvinist”

  1. nightfly

    The Catholic Church dealt once with a heresy, the name of which escapes me at the moment, that held that not only was salvation predetermined, but those who lived a holy and just life, and who turned out *not* to be among the predestined, would be punished *even more severely* at the Final Judgment for the temerity of imitating the True Elect.

    I think we can just go ahead and call this Leftactivism – the extreme strain of militant Leftism, that absolves any misbehavior among their own kind because, as predestined Elect, they are incapable of sin; whilst those who true to contort themselves into good compliant fellow travelers are expendable.

    1. Severian

      I like “Leftactivism,” but I really want to keep something about “Calvinism” in there, to indicate that it’s both a) religious, and b) pseudo-intellectual in that peculiarly tautologous way.

      I honestly don’t mind “activism” if the word is used in its dictionary definition. Pretty much all politics is “activism” in that sense — you think your positions are better for the body politic, and you advocate their adoption. But the left has thoroughly co-opted that (Jonah Goldberg once said that the KKK are “activists for social change,” too, if you go by the dictionary, but that phrase is only ever applied, self-congratulatingly, to leftists).

      So I’d read “Leftactivism” as just “militant left activism.” Which no doubt includes forgiving your own side’s sins — since the Elect by definition can’t sin — but it doesn’t make that explicit. Neo-Calvinism does. Calvinism is also a seriously disputatious doctrine — even minor, obscure figures wrote books, and all those books are approximately 1,000 pages long. But they all hinge on a particular interpretation of scripture that I highly doubt is convincing to anyone that doesn’t pretty much believe it all already, and would be just about meaningless to anyone not thoroughly steeped in the issues. Our Betters are like that, too — they love to “debate,” but their “arguments” are all tautologies, and 99% of their time and effort is spent on defining why your data don’t count.

      I suppose I should add here that I’m not trying to slander any modern Calvinists (assuming there still are some). I’m certainly not trying to imply that the Missouri Synod, say, is a bunch of leftist hacks. I guess I’m assuming that very few, if any, people today are actually old-school, Calvin-reading, hair-shirt-wearing, Calvinists, and so I’ve appropriated the term. I will happily change it if that’s not the case.

  2. Gary

    Briefly: A Gem starts from a tautology and ends by presenting some emotionally appealing conclusion as if it followed logically from the premise.

    I’m not sure if I disagree with you or if my thoughts are just an elaboration of the quote above.

    Stove’s “Gem” arguments have to do with our alleged “cognitive depravity.” That is, the supposed human inability to actually know anything because we can only know things “as they are related to us,” “under our forms of perception and understanding” and “insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes.”

    People who believe this proves we cannot achieve real knowledge become radical skeptics, which leads directly to extreme relativism: if no one knows anything, then any idea or opinion is just as good as any other. And if any idea is as good as any other, why not choose ideas that make you feel good? Ideas that flatter and absolve you of guilt and responsibility; that don’t force you to think hard about what’s true, just or good; that allow you to avoid the discomfort of questioning long-held, comfy beliefs. I think this explains the Left’s tendency to latch onto “emotionally appealing” conclusions.

    If I differ with you, it’s that I don’t believe they reason–even “swillogistically”–forward from Stove’s Gem tautology to any specific conclusion. Gem-based skepticism creates a cognitive psychology in which anything goes, causing people who swallow the Gem to be drawn mostly to “emotionally appealing conclusions.”

    On the other hand, many of the Left’s positions are based not on epistemological skepticism (or even humility about the limits of one’s knowledge), but on the exact opposite, an unwarranted, arrogant overconfidence in the beliefs upon which their opinions and policies are based, for example:
    1) Health care is a human right, not something you buy, and legislation like Obamacare can provide this to everyone while reducing costs, maintaining quality of service and strengthening our economy.

    2) Drastic measures must be taken right now to avert a climate disaster that will certainly occur within the next 30 – 100 years from now.

    3) High tax rates used to redistribute income is morally good and helps stimulate the economy.

    1. Severian

      Gem-based skepticism creates a cognitive psychology in which anything goes, causing people who swallow the Gem to be drawn mostly to “emotionally appealing conclusions.”

      That seems to be what Stove thought (coincidentally, he titled an attack on the extreme cognitive skepticism of Popper, Kuhn, etc. “Anything Goes”). If nothing can be known, then go with what appeals to you personally (or, in the case of Popper and Kuhn, what scores you endowed chairs and lectureships and international acclaim among trendy pseudo-intellectuals).

      I think Stove saw it as a two-part “argument.” The “conclusion” of the Gem “argument” (sorry for all the “quotation marks”) is: We cannot know things as they are in themselves. That’s the radical-skeptic, cognitive-Calvinist part. From that conclusion, they jump to “and therefore X,” where X is any relativistic bullshit you please. As in:

      Since nothing can ever be known, then
      – nothing can be better or worse, higher or lower, therefore
      — all cultures are equally valid

      And from there it’s just a hop skip and a jump to “but Western culture is uniquely bad, because they have so many historical evils on the balance sheet.”

      That’s basically what Stove said happened with Victorian Idealism. According to him, British Idealism was developed as a kind of halfway house for “intellectual refugees from Christianity” (his phrase). Its mission was to provide the emotional solace of religion, without all the Bible’s unscientific baggage –your basic “I’m spiritual but not religious,” except expressed by real philosophers. Stove claims that the only actual argument for Idealism was the Gem, and it only worked because it looked philosophical enough to fool people who really really really wanted to believe the conclusion.

      At the end of this very long essay, Stove also points out, almost in passing, that the Gem is the foundation of postmodernism, too. And that’s where most lefties got a hold of it, in a Humanities 101 seminar their freshman year of college. Postmodernism is just “it’s all relative, maaaaaan” badly translated from the French.

      Which, as you point out, would logically lead to complete mental and political inertia — we can’t act on knowledge we don’t have. But that’s where Calvinism comes back. Belief in predestination is the bedrock of Calvinism. Which, again, logically leads to either quietism or anarchy — if we’re saved or damned no matter what, why do anything we don’t want to do, or anything at all? But Calvinists were famously industrious, and even more famously fastidious. That’s because their doctrine was, like modern liberalism, fundamentally emotional, not logical. Intellectually they knew they were damned; emotionally, they were sure they were Saved. Because — conveniently — the sure sign of being among the Elect was an overwhelming affinity for Calvinism.*

      That’s why Our Betters are so sure that they are, in fact, our betters. We can’t really know anything, but look at all the bad stuff conservatives (=”my Dad”) did! My disgust at that must make me a better person, which means that — since we can’t really know anything!! — my preferences must be universally valid.

      Hey, nobody said it was a particularly coherent argument. But nobody said that about British Idealism, either, and it was the school of philosophy in the English-speaking world for about 150 years. And, of course, Calvinism is still very much with us….

      *I’d argue that the doctrine of predestination is itself a Gem. The one thing all Christians agree on is that God surpasses all human understanding. How, then, is he bound by the postulates of human logic? “God knows all; God is eternal; therefore God must have eternal knowledge of the saved and the damned” is valid only if God’s logic is the same as ours. “God is ineffable; therefore ____” is reasoning from a tautology, therefore a Gem.

  3. Gary

    We can’t really know anything, but look at all the bad stuff conservatives (=’my Dad’) did! My disgust at that must make me a better person, which means that — since we can’t really know anything!! — my preferences must be universally valid.

    Hey, nobody said it was a particularly coherent argument.

    The whole thing is a murky, muddled incoherent mess.

    To begin with, even the most absent-minded, ivory-tower philosophy professor, minutes after “proving” to his students that all knowledge is impossible, looks both ways before crossing the street–because even he realizes that his eyeballs will provide the “impossible” knowledge he needs to avoid getting squashed by a truck.

    And, given that a foundational belief of Liberalism is “the fact that there’s no such thing as a fact,” you’ve got to wonder how seriously lefties take their skeptical epistemology. Apparently not very seriously considering how little effort is devoted to resolving this blatant “Fundamental Contradiction of Liberalism,” and how much knowledge would be required to implement their wonderful top-down agendas.

    So they don’t really take the epistemology seriously, but like to keep skepticism handy as a rhetorical weapon, to undercut any fact, idea, opinion or policy they don’t like: eg “It’s impossible to know if free-market economies are generally more productive than a Communist economies”–which, in a poor imitation of logic, might morph into “free-market economies are generally no more productive than Communist economies.” Even though the latter assertion does not follow from the former, and blatantly contradicts their alleged belief that all knowledge is impossible. Never mind the incoherence. We’re making progress here.

    After using their alleged skepticism to bludgeon ideas they dislike, they then simply assert the truth of ideas they do like, based on their emotional reaction to the idea. Of course, “look at all the bad stuff conservatives (=’my Dad’) did!” is just an adolescent rebellion against conservative ideas that somehow remind them of their unfairly overstrict and insufficiently demonstrative father, and is pure nonsense in the context of “We can’t really know anything”: a) How do you know what these “conservatives” actually did? b) How can you tell they were “conservative”? and c) How do you know that these things were “bad” (in fact, what the hell does “bad” mean when you cannot even know for sure if it’s raining outside?).

    So the feigned skepticism is just a corrosive agent, slathered liberally on the girders holding up the edifice, intended to weaken and destroy the core of accepted ideas, values, customs and norms of society (=”Dad”); after which new ideas are baldly asserted with just the force of vehement emotion to back them. No need for logic or supporting evidence, emotional appeal and intensity is sufficient. From what I know of Postmodernism, its great innovation was to hide the blatantly illogical and/or unsupported assertions in huge dung-heaps of stinky, impenetrable, jargon-clotted prose. This happens after they’ve “established” that there is no such thing as truth, only competing “narratives,” ie “it’s all relative, maaaaaan.”

    As I said, the Left’s perspective is a muddled incoherent mess–which, not coincidentally, works to their advantage. The more clearly Americans understand what the Left is all about, the more they will reject it. King Barack, for example, got elected by pretending to be a “reasonable centrist” and hiding how far to the Left he really was and continues to be.

    1. Severian

      So they don’t really take the epistemology seriously, but like to keep skepticism handy as a rhetorical weapon, to undercut any fact, idea, opinion or policy they don’t like…After using their alleged skepticism to bludgeon ideas they dislike, they then simply assert the truth of ideas they do like, based on their emotional reaction to the idea.

      Bingo. That was what prompted Stove to come up with The Gem and write the whole long essay about it. Idealism is an absolutely ludicrous philosophy. It’s the belief that the so-called “real world” is really an idea, and so cannot exist without a mind to perceive it — ours, God’s (Berkeley), the Forms and Categories (Kant), the World Spirit (Schopenhauer I think), etc., according to taste. He wondered why very good, competent philosophers would not only believe such a thing, but believe it to the exclusion of all else (in the English-speaking world, Idealism was philosophy, from the late 18th century to the early 20th). He scoured their writings, and found only one “argument” they all used and seemingly considered universally valid — the Gem.

      The only explanation for this is exactly what you said — it gives you enough philosophical-sounding ammo to shoot down positions you don’t like, but it shields you from the consequences of your own beliefs, since it’s fundamentally emotional, not logical.

      But it’s actually worse than that, Stove says, because once you have a habit of Gem-style thinking, it pollutes all your thought processes from there on out.

      You cannot expose yourself to even a short course of
      Berkeley’s philosophy, without contracting at least some
      tendency to think, as he wants you to think, that to speak
      of (say) kangaroos is, rightly understood, to speak of ideas
      of kangaroos, or of kangaroo-perceptions, or `phenomenal
      kangaroos.’ But on the contrary, all sane use of language
      requires that we never relax our grip on the tautology that
      when we speak of kangaroos, it is kangaroos of which we
      speak. Berkeley would persuade us that we loose nothing,
      and avoid metaphysical error, if we give up kangaroos in
      favour of phenomenal kangaroos: in fact we would lose
      everything. Phenomenal kangaroos are an even poorer
      substitute for kangaroos than suspected murderers are for
      murderers. At least a suspected murderer may happen to be
      also a murderer; but a phenomenal kangaroo is a certain kind
      of experience, and there is no way it might happen to be
      also a kangaroo.

      (From here. Sadly The Plato Cult is not available online.

      You could call most of liberalism the philosophy of phenomenal kangaroos, if that weren’t also a great name for a prog-rock band. Start talking about kangaroo-perceptions, and next thing you know, kangaroos have rights and there are seventeen different zillion-dollar government programs designed to redress Marsupial-Americans’ longstanding history of oppression.

      Of course, nobody’s going to stop the march of progress with mere logic. But the Gem is a handy reference tool for when the more pompous swillogists start gassing on and on about social justice or whatnot. Who am I to judge? Well, I’m me — a human being and an American citizen, same as you are. Politics is nothing but an electorate-wide judgment. And, as we know, liberals are the most judgmental critters in captivity. The only reason they can delude themselves into thinking they’re not, is because they’re “thinking” in Gems. That such “arguments” have fooled far, far smarter people than your typical proggie is no excuse for falling for it now.

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