I Am a Howleyite, or Osama bin Laden Is Right

Why reply to McArdle, Douthat, and Poulos’ replies to my post about Kerry’s demography article when Kerry does it better than I could have? I think she’s exactly right that cultural change occurs on many margins at once and that individuals are not Zombie-like hosts of static, monolithic culture. And I especially like the conclusion:

Part of the reason we find it so difficult to think about demographic change is that we fail to notice the goalposts changing around us. It’s true that the people we call social conservatives in this country are reproducing faster than the people we call socials liberals. But what will it mean to be “conservative” in America a century from now? In 1908 being a social conservative meant something far less amenable to tolerance than “legal marriage is for straight people!” Yes, Utah’s birthrate is higher than that of Bangladesh. I don’t know how to worry about that particular factoid, because I have no idea what it will mean to be a socially conservative Mormon in 30 years. It certainly means something different today than it did 30 years back.

People constantly make the simple error of thinking categories of identity have stable content just because the labels don’t change. But you can have literally no one “converting” from one creed to another and still find the culture and world utterly changed. Indeed, the sect of Mormonism I grew up in, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is now deeply different than it was when I was baptized into it at the age of eight. Not only does it now have women in the priesthood and a non-Joseph Smith-descended Prophet-President, but it doesn’t even have the same name! If I had children I couldn’t raise them in the religion of my youth, because it doesn’t exist any more. Conservatives of all religions in the liberal world constantly complain about this. Though there is institutional continuity, neither ritual form not doctrinal content stay the same — not even in relatively conservative religious traditions.

Part of my whiggish conviction is the thought that, in these latter days, the transmission of culture from one generation to the next is increasingly low fidelity, because the culture parents grew up in does not last long enough to pass to their kids. There is fairly rapid cultural selection going on, and it has been very friendly to broad liberalization and very unfriendly to conservative norms. That’s why some religious folk think they have to raise their kids on isolated compounds. I had not-that-distant ancestors who spoke Norwegian, German, Lakota, et al, but I don’t really even know who they were, much less what they stood for. Maybe some natalist can convince the Taliban there is really no problem if they can just keep their birthrates up. But certain radical fundamentalist Muslims think they need to destroy liberal capitalist modernity for a very good reason. Unless they do, it really will destroy their creed and its culture.