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Marian Tupy and David Starkey discuss the cultural forces that undermine progress.

David Starkey: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 5 Transcript

By Marian L. Tupy @HumanProgress

By David Starkey

0:00:07.0 Marian Tupy: Hello, David Starkey. Lovely to see you. Lovely to see you. David Starkey’s of course, a historian of note primarily of the Tudor period in England, but a man of many other insights into other periods of English and British history. He’s a dear friend of many years, and recently we exchanged a few emails about human progress and some very interesting differences between us and our outlook on human progress have emerged. So I thought why not do a podcast about the things that we agree on, the things that we disagree on, the importance of free speech, the importance of studying history and that sort of thing. So, thanks for having me. Where are you?

0:01:07.4 David Starkey: I’m outside London, in a tiny village, in fact outside Canterbury, so I’m to the southeast of London, in Kent, which is known as the Garden of England. And I look outside and there’s a very beautiful garden, which is my bit of the garden of Kent, and it’s an early 18th century house. In America, you would call it colonial, and it’s a kind of house that you will find in Georgetown. It’s exact contemporaries, you will find this kind of version which has got relatively low ceilings and originally had very big fireplaces. In other words, built for cold climate as America was. You’ll find it in country districts like this. It’s called The Red House, because it’s built out of very bright red brick.

0:01:57.6 MT: Very good. Now presumably the ceilings are so low because people used to be much shorter in the past.

0:02:04.3 DS: Well, that’s not true. People… There were very wide variations of height then as now. Henry VIII… We were talking about my expertise in the Tudors, Henry VIII is 6’1″ tall. Edward IV, who was his grandfather, when they measured his skeleton in the 18th century after of course is the postmortem shrinkage and whatever, his skeleton was still 6’4″ tall.

0:02:36.4 MT: Right, but on average people were shorter.

0:02:40.1 DS: Probably, which you’re now going to talk about progress.

0:02:44.2 MT: Do you see how I introduce…

0:02:46.7 DS: Oh I can see how you think. The degree of primitivism is astonishing because of course, what happens is people get shorter after the 16th century. People are probably in their worst, they’re shortest in the industrial towns of the 19th century. With wretched diet, appalling accommodation, filthy atmosphere, those in country districts tended to be much bigger and stronger, which is why the Army recruits there. In other words, these things are not linear at all.

0:03:21.8 MT: Right. That’s interesting.

0:03:22.4 DS: And of course, they varied with class, they vary with genetic history. So for example, I mentioned Henry VIII, on one side of his family, they’re giants. The English Royal House, most of them are massive. On the other hand, on his grandmother’s side, on Lady Margaret Beaufort’s side, she is small, petite, quite wizened, and very, very different sort of facial structure. The main royal house, well it looks a bit like Prince Harry. But imagine Harry as a real rugby player with muscles and broad shoulders, but that same sort of strawberry and cream complexion, reddish hair, and appetites and temper to go with the red hair and the build. So these things… In other words, the past is not a simple pattern, it’s intensely variable.

0:04:21.0 MT: Yes, I think it’s… Yeah, it’s very…

0:04:22.5 DS: Which brings the idea of progress. Let’s demarcate the differences between [0:04:29.6] ____ you begin.

0:04:30.8 MT: Well, so human progress is really retrospective, the way that I look at it. I compare today with the past. I don’t compare progress with some sort of a utopian future that some college kid has imagined where there are no problems and everybody’s satisfied. I’m making a very simple point that compared to human history, on most aspects of human well-being, people are much better off today than they were in the past. Do you disagree with that?

0:05:06.2 DS: Not for one second. It is self-evidently true. If you look at the whole of our control of the material world, and that old biblical phrase, man is the master of nature, man is the sovereign of the animal universe. We have never established such control so completely with such effect, never ever. If you look in the history of medicine, if you look in the history of transportation, if you look in the history of food supply, all of these things manifestly what you say is true. If you look at the objective world, in other words, the world outside man. Now this progress, and I think it’s really very important to… You were talking about the past, the non-utopian version of it. What I think is very important is to understand how recent and how dramatic it is.

0:06:09.6 DS: In other words, there hasn’t been a gradual improvement. There is as you know, the Kuhnian theory of scientific change, which is that it tends to be cataclysmic as you shift from one paradigm to another. I think this control of the material environment has been similarly in terms of human history, it’s the last five minutes. Although the standard view of the Middle Ages is primitive and all the rest of it won’t do, and if you look, for example at the Middle Ages in terms of engineering, it’s much more sophisticated than Rome. The Middle Ages have the wheel plow, which the Romans didn’t, they had slaves, it made it easier, and the Middle Ages, if you compare, for example the engineering skill, we’ll keep on coming back to the Tudors, the engineering skill of something like the vault of King’s College Chapel, this vast structure of stone that is actually held in place by the… In other words, it’s kept up there by the knowledge of engineering that it’s pulled down there and the lateral thrusts of this vast weight controlled by elegant flying buttresses aside, it’s all in stone of course, and these huge windows and compare that with the primitivism of the Pantheon.

0:07:35.6 DS: It’s a magnificent structure, but it’s just a lump of cast concrete, or compare the dome of Saint Paul’s with the dome of the Pantheon. The dome of the Pantheon is just solid. It’s just concrete and tile, the dome of Saint Paul’s is a staggering confection of wood, of concrete, of stone held together because of lateral thrust again, by a huge iron chain, so the extraordinary technological… Oh, and the Middle Ages had clocks, mechanical clocks, Rome didn’t, but nevertheless, in almost always the change we are talking about begins at the perfect identifiable moment of time. It starts really in the 15th century and it accelerates from there. It’s what we call the Renaissance of Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and that change seems to me to be due, which is the origin of our idea of progress. Remember, earlier civilization… The idea of progress itself is a piece of progress, right, it’s a new idea. The first proper book on it is by previous generation of my teachers at Cambridge, JB Bury in the, either late 1920s or early 1930s, called “The Idea of Progress.”

0:08:55.8 MT: Yeah, I have it, yeah.

0:08:57.0 DS: Yeah, of course you do. Most earlier civilizations had notions of either decline, things getting worse or cyclical, the classical view that…

0:09:08.3 MT: Right. So, Hesiod has his periods from Gold to Silver to Bronze, and it’s a decline, and then…

0:09:18.0 DS: That’s the classic Roman and Greek view, and of course even Christianity, which is often described as either introducing this notion of direction in history, of course it does, the idea of redemption and all the rest of it. Christianity is in no way about an idea of progress, and certainly it’s got nothing to do with this world. You remember the last days, which so many people in America seemed to think come at round every Tuesday. Poor primitive people in America, [chuckle] coming round every Tuesday is in fact Armageddon, it’s total destruction. It’s the disintegration of civilization here.

0:10:00.5 MT: Who has the cyclical view? Is that in the Far East, mostly?

0:10:04.5 DS: Most of the ancient historians, or almost… Again, if you look at the classic accounts of politics, we need to look at politics separately obviously, if you look at the classic accounts of politics in both Plato and Aristotle, the two people who give us our entire vocabulary of monarchy, aristocracy, republic and democracy and all the rest of it, they saw politics as a series of successions of types of government naturally falling over and lapsing into each other, and they recognized, and I think this will come up in our discussions, that probably the most fragile form of government is the democratic republic. And the great miracle, and here I’m going to be polite about America, is that America has survived as long as it has, it is the only proper long surviving republic. Obviously one thinks of Venice and whatever, but that’s a narrow elitist aristocratic city state. The survival of America, which owes, I think, everything to those reviled figures, the founding, it owes everything to two things… It can’t owe everything to two things… It’s got two tributaries: One is the skill of the Founding Fathers, the other is your great good fortune in having been a British colony and not a French one, in other words… [chuckle]

0:11:36.6 MT: We’ll get to colonies in a second but, yeah.

0:11:38.8 DS: No, just one second, the inheritance of one of its… Several of the key elements of progress, a relatively free society and a structure of profoundly well-established property law, the inheritance of common law, and the fact that your revolution leaves all those things intact, all of those things intact, as well as your great good fortune, that it happens at the right moment of the enlightenment, before the enlightenment goes mad at the end of the 18th century.

0:12:14.0 MT: Right, so the key here is that the Constitution is written at a time when the enlightenment, where the mainstream enlightenment embodies a certain set of values, which then America enshrines in its Constitution, and I can’t resist saying this joke I heard many years ago about… You said how it was America’s fortunate it was colonized by the British, not by the French. And the joke is that an Englishman walks into a French national library and asks to see the constitution, and the librarian says it’s over there under periodicals. Because…

0:12:50.5 DS: Indeed. Because, I mean, there have been five… Look at the history of France since the revolution.

0:12:56.3 MT: Five republics?

0:13:00.3 DS: No, two empires, three monarchies and… Two or three, depending on how you count Charles X and five republics in 200 years. It’s a record of staggering formal instability although, of course, I would always say that France has never really changed very much since Louis XIV, and all you get are would-be Louis XIVs, be it Napoleon or be it President Macron playing this bizarre combination of Napoleon and Louis XIV. Anyway, just coming back to the business of progress, do we agree on the question of material progress? What I think we’ve then got to do is then to distinguish it from where we would disagree, which is progress in man’s mastery of himself. I think we’ve developed pretty well absolute, in as far as one can, absolute mastery of the external world. I think we have failed to do anything very much with ourselves, and in fact, I would argue in some ways that our mastery of the external world has made our mastery of ourselves worse. I want to draw a very, very sharp distinction between where I think we can simply shake hands and we can stop talking about it because we actually agree, which is material progress, and then to look at the much… What I think is the much more difficult question, which is the idea of, if you like, political, social, human and so the progress of mankind, humankind as an entity.

0:14:48.1 DS: Because here, to come up with a nice subtle phrase, you produced a nice subtle joke about the French constitution. Let me tell you what I think of your progress project. You are presenting it as a Te Deum, as a thanks be to God on the whole thing. It’s not, it’s a requiem. You are a requiem, you are the last generation, I predict, that will say these kind of things. There is a very important article in this week’s British Spectator, The London Spectator, by Neil… By my friend Neil Ferguson and saying effectively, we are becoming China. So let’s have another phrase, and this I think encapsulates much, though not all, of what I want to talk about. At the beginning of last year, at the beginning of 2020, we caught a Chinese virus. I think the consequences of that Chinese virus are that we will finish up with a Chinese society. China not simply exported from Wuhan, which it undoubtedly did, let’s… Trump was absolutely right, it is a Chinese virus. Let’s stop pussyfooting around, whether it came from bats or from a laboratory, there’s no doubt about it. And it’s also with deadly effect exporting the Chinese society and we are falling over and letting it happen. And the big question we now want to debate is why is this happening? What has gone wrong?

0:16:27.5 MT: So let me interject there for a second, so I agree that that should be the essence of our discussion. I think I was reading a lot of articles by your former Chief Justice, Lord Sumption. He’s a…

0:16:38.0 DS: You’re not thinking of… He’s a member of the Supreme Court, he was never president. We had a monstrous woman who was president in his days who was a known judicial spider, and she was a catastrophe. Jonathan, of course, the really key important thing about Jonathan is he is fundamentally a historian. He’s a great medieval historian, as well as a great lawyer.

0:17:00.3 MT: And the one thing that I learned from him, his big concern is that this is the first time in generations, certainly since the Second World War, that the government in Western societies has learned that if they can create enough of a sense of crisis and impending disaster, that they can then shut down the society and basically control it, and his concern is that what are the future crises, real or imagined, where the government could simply exercise this kind of control? If it can for example, convince the majority of the people in England or in the United States that climate is “an emergency,” then any… Sorry, existential problem, existential threat, then obviously, an existential threat means that anything to avoid the destruction of human existence must be permissible, right?

0:17:57.5 DS: Precisely. In other words, what we’re dealing with, and again, it’s all of this, dare I say, it was even better expressed because Jonathan is a great mind, he’s not a particularly good writer. All of this was put together, patronizingly. All of this was put together much more brilliantly by George Orwell. George Orwell is about a society based on fear, and the combination of fear and the human reaction to it, leads naturally to illiberalism, it leads naturally to 1984. 1984 is a war, permanent war society. In other words, if you want war on the virus, we constantly use this phrase war on, and war on the virus, war on…

0:18:45.3 MT: Drugs, global warming.

0:18:47.3 DS: Whatever, and that of course then justifies any possible suppression of freedom. Of course it does, and… Or it was put even better by Benjamin Franklin, that great, greatest of the phrase makers of the Founding Fathers. That wonderful line about those who will sacrifice for little security, freedom end up by losing both. And what we did with COVID in the name of a false security, we have committed the absolute sacrifice of freedom. Now, why is this so important? It is, because I would argue, if we go back to the founding fathers, if we go back to the Constitution, if we go back to this astonishing four or 500-year run that we’ve had in the West… Remember, progress is a specifically Western phenomenon. Can we get this absolutely right? No other society has ever been founded on an idea of progress. Let me give you an illustration. Think of China, which we constantly go on about, “Wasn’t it wonderfully technologically sophisticated?” Yes, it was. I have the great privilege of going round the first emperor exhibition at the British Museum with one of our great media personas, who’s Jeremy Paxman.

0:20:13.1 MT: Oh sure, yeah.

0:20:15.3 DS: Always grumpy, bad-tempered, asks the same question 14 times and still don’t get the answer that he wants. And we’re going round this exhibition, and there were two things that struck both… Well, one of them struck me, because I am bright, and the other one struck Paxman because he’s not, and the first thing that struck me was, there was the chariot of the first emperor. This is, when? 800… Whatever it is, 800 AD, whenever the empire is founded. That chariot is more technologically sophisticated, with it’s springing and whatever, than anything that is made in Western Europe until the 1800s, until the Regency Period. But China was still making that chariot in the early 20th century, rather than motorcars.

0:21:03.3 DS: In other words, a technological progress had simply frozen. And the other thing that Paxman got excited by, there was a very interesting, exquisite little pen and ink or brush and ink sketch that was labeled, “The Control of Public Opinion.” How do you freeze the society, labeled “The Control of Public Opinion” But it showed you how you control public opinion, it showed intellectuals being buried alive in the pit at the end of a pitchfork. And in comment to that, Paxman said, “This man,” that’s the first emperor, “is a fucking loon, wasn’t he?” Well, he was, but he also creates this staggering, stable society. Ancient Egypt is the same. And it’s often very difficult to tell whether an Egyptian antiquity is real, in other words, 2000 years BC, or whatever, or it’s been forged 1000 or 2000 years later, because the society changes so astonishingly little in that…

0:22:11.4 MT: Right, so we have to…

0:22:14.5 DS: Why? Why, why, why? Freedom is, I would argue… But of course, China is going to test this idea. This astonishing exclusion of the mind is due to two ideas. What had happened is the mind explodes and learns to control nature. How is it done? It’s through an idea of freedom on the one hand, which we’ve seen we’ve thrown away, and the other idea… And this, I think, is at least as important, is an idea of objectivity, that there is such a thing as truth and that it is testable, and that it is outside yourself, and the first thing you have to do is to learn to accept that there is that thing outside yourself, which is unchangeable. And this is what, of course, is meant by the experimental method, by the empiricism that we traditionally attribute to Francis Bacon at the beginning of the 17th century. And that process of experimentation, which has led to… In other words, results can be falsifiable, they can be demonstrated to be untrue. That’s one part of this vast revolution over nature. The other is even more astonishing discovery. Remember, we’re very peculiar creatures. And all, most creatures are pattern-making, birds, nests… What are the thing called? Spider’s webs and whatever. We are unique in the number of different patterns we make.

0:23:52.4 DS: And one of our most peculiar sets of patterns are the patterns of mathematics. And through that process of experimentation in the 17th and 18th century, it was discovered, and nobody quite understands why, maybe there really is a God and that would mean God was a mathematician, that there is a correspondence between this extraordinary, complex set of mental patterns that we call mathematics and this outside world, this absolutely given outside world that we can establish by the processes of experimentation. And again, Bacon has this wonderful phrase about the process of experimentation. He calls it putting nature to the question. Now, that’s slightly lost its entrenched meaning. What it means is, torturing nature. The question is the French for… We were talking about the difference between England and France. In France, the use of torture in criminal law until the Revolution was so common that it was simply referred to as “la question.” And all the examining magistrate needed to do was to note one, two and three in the margin of the sheet. That was the instruction as to the number of wedges that were to be driven to your lower leg, whether you contused it, whether you broke it or whether you shattered it.

0:25:12.4 DS: So, submitting nature to the question, torturing nature through the experiment, which most recent triumph, of course, is the COVID vaccine. But it depends on the acknowledgement of that outward nature, and the difference between man-subjective, man-objective… The objective world outside. Now, we’ve not only thrown away by imitating China on the abolition of freedom, lockdown, quite deliberate, imitating China. Our scientists here, Neil Ferguson, not the real Neil Ferguson, but this awful, mock mathematician at Imperial College who happens to spell his Christian name differently, actually said, “We got the idea from China. We actually saw the Italians borrowing it, and then we realized we could do it.” And it’s monstrous. But the other thing we’ve got from China, we’ve had a cultural revolution. What Woke is, Woke is a version of the cultural revolution, it is.

0:26:15.1 MT: We’ll get to that in a second. We’ll get to that, yeah.

0:26:18.4 DS: Just so that we put the two ideas very clearly, there’s the idea of freedom, and there is the idea of objectivity, and what I would argue is both of them were astonishingly close to each other, and I think there were reasons for why both have happened together and have come under acute attack, and that immediately undercuts not simply our political progress, but simply our social progress, it threatens utterly, fundamentally the continuance of our mastery of the universe as well, and it was the entire edifice that you were talking about, rather than standing like some magnificent Egyptian temple on these great pillars turns out like Egyptian temples but they’re floating on mud.

0:27:09.8 MT: Well, that was a wonderful opening and I agree with some of that, let me start with the whole business about a requiem to human progress, human progress, the project. And my writings are… I think they are written in terms of gratitude for what came before, an appreciation of where we are, but I’m not pollyannaish in a sense of thinking that this is the best world that we could possibly live in, and also I’m not determinist, I do not believe that there is some higher power that ensures that 100 years from now, even 50 years from now, things will be better than they are today, in other words, I fully accept that the world 50 years from now will be a reflection of decisions made by individual people and whether they continue to embrace what you and I actually agree are the primary drivers or the primary driver behind human progress, which was the flourishing of human freedom, sometime in the second half of the second Millennium, first in Western Europe and then in the European offshoot. So the essence of freedom is absolutely vital. I understand what you mean by objectivity, the understanding that there is a physical objective world out there, but to simplify it for our audience could be to say free speech, in other words, the ability, the ability…

0:28:53.2 DS: No.

0:28:54.2 MT: You disagree, the point… Well the… Let me just explain what I mean, just in case, I’ve said something that may happen to be true, but I misspoke. In a sense, the essence or the fundamental reason why freedom has to be accompanied by free speech is for intellectuals, academics, scientists, inventors, to be able to interact with the physical world and come to the truth. The point being that you need people to be able to say, the sun is in the center of the solar system and the world revolves around it, so it’s the interaction between the objective world and the ability to explore it free of inquisition. That is the key… That’s what I’m… That’s what I’m…

0:29:46.6 DS: Free of dogma.

0:29:47.3 MT: And free of dogma. So that’s what I meant when I said.

0:29:50.0 DS: Yes, but you see I think it is, I still think that freedom of speech in itself doesn’t explain the process, that my argument about objectivity, about a test for truth, and you can come up with all sorts of vague guff about, the truth will actually… And we have this conventional notion that the truth, the truth will win, the overwhelming evidence of human history is that the truth doesn’t win. The easiest thing is to purvey lies. And the whole of… If we want to be polite, we can call them myths, myths of religion, myths of virgin birth, myths of what? Muhammad or someone other… So some multi-armed Indian Goddess supposed to have done. And these are myths, and they can have immense… Let’s also give them credit, they can have immense social utility, they can also do vast damage, they frequently create astonishing beauty, they belong in the realm of poetry, much of the Christian Bible, Judeo-Christian Bible is some of the most staggering poetry and imagery that has ever been created and has produced the most astonishing traditions of beauty, we’ve left beauty by the way, completely out of it, because it’s manifestly clear that if you look at modern art that there’s been no progress in beauty, whatsoever about than that. That’s a completely different. That’s a complete…

0:31:24.8 MT: I can’t disagree with that, yeah.

0:31:26.8 DS: Yeah, that’s a completely different matter. But I think this notion of the putting nature to the inquisition that in other words, merely people debating in itself doesn’t necessarily get you very far, you need… Because that wonderful phrase of TS Eliot, mankind, I’m sorry he was terribly sexist, mankind cannot stand too much reality. It is true. You need something that forced these people to confront it. Dr. Johnson, marvelous Rays when he was dealing with the Gulf of Bishop Berkeley, who denied the existence of material reality, he said kick a stone. You need that test that kick the stone test that sense of The world resist you. And one of the things that I think is frightening, and this is the big, one of the big paradox, ’cause much of what we’re talking about now, is paradox, right? In other words, the progress itself has turned out to be its own undoing.

0:32:34.0 MT: Please explain on that.

0:32:36.1 DS: Because what it seems to me to be, is the idea of reality, we have lost a sense of reality and we’ve lost it for two reasons, the first is the staggering nature of technological progress. When I was a boy, and the standard way in which most middle class men, only middle class men in Europe had motorcars. The way they spent their Sunday afternoon was dressed in filthy overalls and covered in oil, crawling underneath the car which had half broken down the previous week. In other words, everybody sort of understood how a car worked. Now a car is driven by a computer and it even unlocks itself if you raise an eyebrow. Now, this is a world which no ordinary person comprehends at all. The new technology might just as well be a miracle. A handful of people actually understand how it works. Now, this divorce from, as it were cause and… What we’ve done, the old idea, the old idea of objectivity depends very powerfully on cause and effect.

0:33:49.0 DS: Dr. Johnson, you kick a stone, action, “Ow!” cause and effect. What we have done is virtually to remove the notion of causation. You press the button of the… You press a button and what do you do? Or you don’t even press a button now, you glance or you do that on your iPhone, the lights come on in your house, the central heating turns itself up, the air conditioning cuts the side and you sort of know what’s going on but you actually don’t. And the most devastating area of this is the idea of virtual reality, of what we are doing now, the fact that we can be talking to each other across 4,000 miles, as it were simultaneously that we can maintain a conversation that we have… You asked me where I was, the illusion of our shared space and whatever, which equally of course, you could be replaced by a bot, and I will be very still the wiser, except occasionally wonder why it was being cleverer than usual, you know. [laughter]

0:35:02.4 MT: Okay, but why is that bad? Why is the fact that I don’t know how to fix a car, but I can spend my time doing something else like talking to you, why is that a bad thing?

0:35:12.0 DS: Well, no, what the… All it does as I said, it means that people live and believe in miracles. Modern technology is nearer to a miracle, a religious miracle than it is to an old fashioned motorcar. And the belief in miracles is catastrophic.

0:35:36.3 MT: I agree.

0:35:37.6 DS: If you believe in miracles, you believe you will do anything. You will do anything that God tells you to. And the other great problem is this world of virtual reality that we are creating, the virtual friend, the virtual unfriending, all of this, it’s catastrophic consequences. Again, one of the things we don’t do enough, we don’t teach people the great classics, the great text thought, and we mentioned some of the figures. We’ve talked about Plato, we’ve talked about Aristotle. We’ve talked about the Founding Fathers, the greatest… Some of the greatest essays on politics ever written are the Federalist Papers. They were astonishing achievements of the human spirit. Well, one of the great… And often, the ideas themselves are put with a brilliant compression. One of the most brilliant pieces of compression is Plato in “The Republic,” when he talks about the image of the cave, and he describes… When he describes people who were not as it were, fully adult. He talks of them as not grasping reality, this phrase again, the same phrase as Elliot, and he uses this wonderful soliloquy, this wonderful model, in which… What he’s really doing with obviously the very limited technological capacity of ancient Greece, he’s talking about a modern cinema.

0:37:06.2 DS: He says, “Imagine people held inside a darkened cave and they’ve never seen the outside world, and so they got no idea, and they’re not allowed to look at each other, all they can do is to look at the screen, and on the screen that are projected the images of puppets which are enlarged with a flame behind them.” Well, this is a description of what we are doing now. It’s a description of the cinema, it’s a description of the social media, and it is virtual reality, it’s the destruction of everything that’s really real. It breaks down that relationship of causation and cause and effect, it leaves the world open to Neo-religion, Neo-miracles, Neo-persecution, Neo-martyrdom.

0:38:00.3 DS: And it seems to me that what technology is doing in other words, so this is the last big, also the last big Starkey idea as some more may come up, it’s taking this back bizarre into the Middle Ages. What is really striking about the patterns of modern culture is how very similar they are to the Middle Ages, far from being progressive. Again, if you look at something like Steve Pinker, you’ll be very familiar with it, since Steve argues, very interestingly, isn’t it wonderful how much we progressed as humanity, even into the last century people are executed by public torture? People would never do that now, this is absolutely shocking, and then five minutes later, he was almost subject to cancellation, which is the modern equivalent of burning alive. I know, I’ve been through it, and this seems to me to illustrate that we are at least as wicked as we ever were, given half the chance, and given the Neo-religious element.

0:39:06.1 DS: And Woke is a Neo-religion, it’s a cultural revolution exactly like the monstrousness of Mao Tse-tung’s China. So in other words, we’ve got two viruses from China… We’ve three viruses. We’ve got the Wuhan virus with flu, we’ve got Chinese flu, we’ve got the destruction of freedom in the name of security, and we finally got the destruction of the whole of this enlightenment, scientific revolution, world of cause and effect of objectivity in the name of this new religion of feeling social justice. The moment, I would say, you put an adjective in front of justice, you destroy it. There is justice and justice is justice. The moment you call it social justice, you’ve turned it into a monstrous perversion.

0:39:54.6 MT: Yes, I think that was Hayek’s observation that the word social is meant to proceed the word it’s meant to negate.

0:40:04.8 DS: That is absolutely right.

0:40:06.0 MT: Have you, by the way, have you met him?

0:40:08.8 DS: I didn’t meet Hayek. No, no, Hayek was really out of it long before I got involved in all this kind of thing. I knew his disciples, and there was profound impact on circles in which I moved in from time to time even in LSE, my academic post was at the London School of Economics, and there, there were extraordinary… It was, in many ways, a rather wonderful place because there were two completely set of traditions. There are those who are the inheritors of the Webbs of Bernard Shaw, the standard Fabian socialist tradition there, which of course is very much this managed society that we are talking about and they had no belief in freedom whatsoever. And indeed the Webbs adored Soviet Communism, there is the famous two volume… I actually have the… I shouldn’t have it, but it somehow finished up on my shelves. I have the first of the presentation set from the Webbs to LSE volume in which it’s a famous second edition.

0:41:17.3 DS: The first edition had Soviet Communism, a new civilization question mark, and then when they went back and should have seen the purges and the gulags and all the rest, they eliminated the question mark. And what is so interesting about that, talking again about religion and all of this, is that they actually specifically describe the nomenclature of the Communist Party as being like the Jesuits. They see it as a religious force and they see it as a new, as it were, purified. So there was that tradition, but there was also the wildly different tradition at LSE which was a Hayekian tradition, there was a tradition of serious monetarism, the… And it’s no accident whatever that the Economics department of LSE supplied at least a succession of major officials of the Bank of England and so on. And there was also in the government department, a direct inheritance from Hayek, so it was a remarkable…

0:42:25.2 MT: I’m going to take a few minutes to push back against some of the things that you have said. I was trying to keep notes and I’ll do it in the most loving way I’m capable of doing. One of the most obvious ways that one could say, Starkey you’re wrong, is that you are potentially exhibiting what every generation exhibits, which is to say we were proceeded by heroes, but we are in the midst and followed by…

0:43:00.4 DS: Dwarves. Except you’re not allowed to say that anymore.

0:43:04.2 MT: That’s why I stopped, I didn’t know what the…

0:43:06.3 DS: Vertically challenged persons, get this right. Vertically challenged persons.

0:43:10.4 MT: And that every generation sees itself as standing on the cusp of history, but the Romans felt like that. Cato the Elder kept on talking about the effeminacy of his contemporaries and how Rome was threatened by the lack of morals and martial virtue, and this was hundreds of years before Rome reached its peak, so I think that there is the issue that we need to discuss about whether this is really something different or whether we are simply exhibiting a typical human impulse, which again, is a declinist perspective. Thomas Babington Macaulay famously said, why should we predict nothing but destruction ahead of us with nothing but improvement behind us, so that’s one topic that we need to look at.

0:44:03.4 MT: Secondly, I would say, it goes without saying that what they tried to do to Pinker and what they did do to you was absolutely vile and horrific, and it is also true in my mind that it’s very different from burning somebody on the cross. In other words, if the best that the new religious fanatics can do is to cancel somebody as opposed to actually burn them alive, that in itself is a certain degree of progress, a progress that we see in other areas. Men in Western societies no longer slap their wives left and right, we no longer torture people, by and large. There were some rumors about tortures in the early 2000s as a result of 9-11, but we no longer require torture in prisons, things like that. We no longer expose children on the hillside…

0:45:02.5 DS: Come on, come on, come on, this really won’t do. Look at the pre-trial treatment of somebody who is not an admirable human being, but of Ghislaine Maxwell. That is a scandal and a disgrace and a blot on the face of American justice. It’s monstrous that somebody who’s never been tried and condemned is treated like that and subject to that degree of psychological torture and public humiliation. I’m sorry, I really do disagree radically on this. The motives of those who tried to do to Pinker and did to me is exactly the same as the mob that burned. And of course, I’m fortunate and Pinker is fortunate, we’re financially secure. People’s livelihoods are destroyed, those who are foolish enough to live in the social media are subject to the most hideous forms of social pressure and moral abuse. I see very little evidence that relations within marriage have much improved, apart from the fact now that women are rather better at beating up men than they used to be. Through, of course, the role with warrior wives read in Cho-sa. And again sorry, to go back to the whole business of declinism, I am in no sense a declinist, I’m sure as I illustrated what I was saying there. And what is new about Woke, it is telling you what it is, it is explicitly an attack on the enlightenment.

0:46:34.3 MT: Okay.

0:46:34.6 DS: It is explicitly attack.

0:46:36.7 MT: Okay.

0:46:37.2 DS: I am not imagining this. I believe you know. I’m very… We’re talking about history, I believe in historical evidence, and I believe in listening very seriously, when people tell me why they are doing something. And the proponents of Woke and Black Lives Matter and whatever, tell me very clearly what they are doing. They tell me that Western civilization is a monstrous pervasion, that the source of all the world’s ills comes from being White. That the notion that there is a thing called objective truth is a peculiar pervasion of this White Western civilization and must be destroyed. I do them the credit to believing them, and I think that they probably in their own bizarre twilight minds, think they’re even doing good, but it correspond precisely to earlier movements of destruction. In many ways, I would argue that it corresponds to the burning of the library of Alexandria, or… We’re talking about Rome, the introduction of a kind of social virus, which destroys a society. I think what we are on is why I found the whole notion of COVID and what’s going on now so interesting. We’re talking about the Roman Empire. The Roman empire, it’s a subject to probably the greatest piece of psycho history ever written which is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

0:48:14.1 MT: I have read it and I enjoyed it very much, an amazing book.

0:48:17.9 DS: And what does he see as the essential reason for the fall of Rome, Christianity, a new system, a fort that destroys the values of the old. The old Roman values, the ones we are talking about, Cato the Elder, with the aggressive militarism, the furious assertion of moral, political, intellectual military force, has suddenly destroyed by what Nietzsche correctly, in my view, describes as a religion for slaves. That’s Christianity. Christianity is the source of so much of what’s gone wrong, in particular is elevation of the idea of the victim, suddenly in the New World of Woke, the important thing is not to be in control, it’s not to be somebody capable of controlling your emotions, it’s not somebody who’s important of being successful, it is a victim, and the order of priority in Woke is the order of victimhood. There was a magnificent joke in the old world of Irish politics about the Irish being the most depressed people ever, the competition to be the most victimized, called MOPE, the world of MOPE. What Woke is about is about MOPE. It is victimhood. Well, of course, the ultimate victim is a God who dies in agony upon a cross, and the ideas that you know that becomes the model what you’re supposed to do, why Nietzsche calls it the religion of slaves.

0:50:00.8 DS: And of course, once Christianity, once Rome absorbed, and it only absorbed it very, very partially, but that if you like, destroys the society, and I think that we are going through something very, very similar at the moment. And so I think again, it is perfectly clear that the Chinese understand this, what we’re dealing with now isn’t the world of Mao Tse-tung, it’s the world of leaders of China, who studied at American and British universities, are distinguished intellectually, have spent time in our society and understand its profound weakness, and I think, how it’s destroying itself and are taking calculated measures to bring about that destruction, and until we begin to realize this is what is happening, that… Again, that astonishing efflorescence of the West is of course… And that’s what it is, Western Europe, they were used to the paper at Cambridge, they just bluntly call it the expansion of Western Europe because the history of the world, the History of it, or an idea of the world history is simply the British Empire, the American empire, and globalization.

0:51:24.8 DS: That’s what it is. But it was precisely because there were no rivals, because we had that effortless technological superiority that, which begins… It begins actually with the conquest of Latin America and, whatever it is, a couple of hundred Spanish troops and the entire might of the Incas and the Aztecs collapsing before them or the British in India in the 18th century, where these vast armies of tens, hundreds of thousands collapse before two or three thousand European troops, but suddenly we have an alternative, China is a country that embodies… It is the deliberate antithesis, it is.

0:52:14.1 MT: Let me try to see where we agree and disagree after the second round. I agree with you about the importance of the enlightenment objectivity in the rise of the West. I also agree with you that right now, we are experiencing a bit of a retreat from the enlightenment, we are questioning the objective… We are experiencing a retreat from…

0:52:41.2 DS: The education of an entire generation is being perverted. There is also, as I said, this astonishing, devastating alliance between a sophisticated technology and the rot of the mind.

0:52:58.6 MT: Right. So we are experiencing a retreat from the enlightenment, which is problematic. Obviously, part of postmodernism is trying to undermine the concept of objectivity, that sort of thing, I get that. With regard to technology… And it worries me, I mean, part of the reason why I thought we would have this conversation, a part of the reason why I’m writing more about the dangers to human progress is precisely because I think it is rooted in the enlightenment values and objective truth. It drives me crazy when I hear people on TV say things like “My truth.” I completely reject that. There is either truth or falsehood and all that jazz, and we are in agreement. On technology, let me posit to you, and this goes again to how a conservatively minded person may… Just about every technology I can think of has been seen as a major threat and a major problem when it emerged.

0:54:01.9 MT: My question is, what makes you think that Twitter and Facebook and things like that are going to be around in, let’s say, 20 years time? Is it possible that some of us, like myself, will realize, or people like myself, will realize that actually Twitter and Facebook are detrimental to your wellbeing and will leave? I left Facebook and I never had a Twitter account, maybe other people will do that too. It takes time for people to get accustomed to new technology and figure out whether it’s actually a net contributor to their wellbeing or not. Who knows, maybe we are just living through a particularly unsettling period, but that too will come to an end once we know how to interact with this virtual world.

0:54:47.2 DS: It will be lovely if… That may be true. The last thing I would ever do is to pretend to be a prophet, there is nothing sillier than a historian…

0:54:58.9 MT: Yeah, I’ve learned that in my own life.

0:55:00.7 DS: There’s nothing sillier than a historian pretending to be a prophet. As you said, history is purely retrospective. You cannot know the result until it’s happened. Again, TS Elliot, the wonderful phrase, only in retrospection selection can we say that was the day. Or the famous one in Hegel, the owl of Minerva flying at dusk, it happens once it’s over. So of course, I can’t prophesize. All I can say is that signs at the moment are peculiarly bad. I never got very excited about television and so on, because it didn’t seem to me… Television is a box sitting out there and it’s in a living room, it was usually watched communally and so on, and it was a quaint form of social experience. My first experience of television, being the very first time I’d seen it, was actually the Coronation of 1953. I’d never seen it before. That was an extraordinary collective experience, and television in many ways I think, was the antithesis of what we’re talking about. Television was a very… Certainly in Britain, very few television channels, everybody watched the same things, it was a collective experience. What’s going on now is a form of, the social media, are a form of acute atomization.

0:56:22.6 DS: And it’s no accident that the Chinese love it, because of course, what we’ve always had in China is a profoundly atomistic society, which in turn lends itself to ease a dictatorship. And as Burke constantly points out, it is the creation, and even the Founding Fathers well understood, it’s the creation of the small platoons, the median groups of association, of friendship, of family, of trade, of industry, of locality, that act as the barriers of tyranny. It’s why, again, talking about the ancient Greeks, the ancient Greeks saw a very close connection between democracy and dictatorship, because the mass fragmentation of a society lends very easily, as you see with the French Revolution on the one hand, and Napoleon on the other, or the British Revolution and Cromwell. There are very, very peculiar and very peculiarly alarming features of the current wave of technology. And in that same article, sorry, in that same edition of the British Spectator, I am not a shareholder of British Spectator, there’s another very impressive article by Lionel Shriver who is a…

0:57:44.4 MT: I like her very much, yes.

0:57:47.0 DS: Talking about virtual currency and saying that we’re in this extraordinary world in which our financial management is, again, savoring of pure fantasy. The trillions and trillions and trillions that are being thrown on an already rapidly expanding economy in America, or indeed in my own country, and in which governments seem to be adopting with quantitative easing, something like a cyber currency, they are cyber currencies. They’re fiat currencies and the record of all fiat currencies without anchor is a very frightening one. So all sorts of phenomena seem to meet and coincide, but the thing that’s worrying, and again, it’s the argument of Rome, it is that we’ve got this series of internal problems in which our very technological strengths may be turning against us, which is equivalent of Christianity. Let’s just say the equivalent of the internal bias combined with the equivalent of the barbarian at the gates, that’s China. Except that what is terrifying about China is that we’ve given China the best of our technology. The insanity of the West’s policy, and particularly America, in farming out its sophisticated, technologically… The fact Apple manufactures in China, which means the Chinese can simply hand-pick everything.

0:59:28.9 MT: Well, the question whether the Chinese, who are very good at duplicating and mimicking Western technology, can also produce their own at a step higher in an atmosphere of no free speech and in an atmosphere of no free inquiry, that’s something that the future will show, but I want to circle back…

0:59:48.6 DS: You see, I think, you’ve put your finger on it. I desperately hope we’re right. You and I are right. That that will mean that they can’t do it, but you see, they are not fools. These are not Mao Tse-tung. Mao Tse-tung was a poet, he was a Hitler. Hitlers and all, they’re all artists. They want to remake society in the same way you would a clay pot or a temple. The modern leaders of China are not. They’re brilliant engineers, they know how things work, and what I suspect is going on in China, in the same way it is in some aspects of Chinese commerce, things like Alibaba wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been within the interstice, within this corset of absolute control, huge areas of commercial freedom, and I think that what the Chinese may be learning to do is to give, as it were, sufficient space within areas of technology that people are allowed to be creative, and again, why is the Chinese elite sending its brightest people to the West?

1:01:01.7 DS: And so they’ve… What would be the most terrifying thing, will be unmanaged freedom, that is, in other words, we’re not really talking, and I’m not talking about, I’m not talking about Orwell’s nightmare vision, I’m not talking about a boot put on the face of mankind forever, I’m talking about something much more frightening. For the first time, we have the… Well, first time probably since the Flavian emperors, we have the prospect of intelligent dictatorship.

1:01:39.2 MT: Jonah Goldberg likes to says that, when dictatorship comes to America, it will not be wearing a jack boot but a smiley face. Just very interesting. So one thing which is very interesting, I never heard you being so in love with freedom in any of our previous encounters, and that pleases me very much because that’s where we certainly meet on that subject. Now, you started at the beginning of this podcast by saying that what you wanted to talk about was human progress in terms of politics, social society, and then human progress. So I think I disagree with you, in large part, on human progress or rather humanity’s progress, I think that we are actually on average gentler than our ancestors, even when we do terrible things like cancel perfectly legitimate opinions and perfectly legitimate scholars, at least, thank God we don’t put them in dungeons and make them starve to death. Secondly, we talked about social aspect of human freedom, human progress.

1:02:55.4 DS: That’s merely a technological detail.

1:02:56.2 MT: Technological detail.

1:03:01.5 DS: It’s merely a…

1:03:01.7 MT: Oh, well, don’t say it’s a…

1:03:01.9 DS: But really in the grand scheme of things, it is a mere technological detail.

1:03:07.2 MT: The second thing was, we talked about society and how it is being pulled apart by social media, Wokeism, very important. I think it’s driving a tremendous wedge between the races, certainly in this country, which has a much more checkered racial history than Great Britain, and it is a potential threat in the future, especially since Wokeism is now being introduced into schools in the United States and the…

1:03:38.7 DS: And in commerce, and into…

1:03:38.7 MT: And in Congress. And to that is attached this new idea of equity, which is basically a proportional representation when it comes to… In successful social and economy fields, which has its own problems and with which I obviously fundamentally disagree with, but I want to end… And that should… And that is where we have accomplished something, we have identified problems which are threatening human freedom, and for that, I’m grateful. I want to finish by talking about democracy or politics, which is the last aspect you identified, that you wanted to talk about in our conversation about human progress, and what is happening to our democracies and to the political system. What do you think… One thing I keep thinking about is that when it comes to technology, and when it comes to information and so on, there are so many ways in which I think that we could progress, there is almost infinite number of ways in which we can create materially a better world, but when it comes to politics, we are really still stuck on that general Aristotelian model of tyranny at one end and anarchy on the other.

1:04:58.1 DS: Doesn’t it occur to you there’s a…

1:05:00.7 MT: So talk to me about that.

1:05:02.8 DS: There’s a reason for this, it’s called humanity, and you seem to see this as something to which there could be a sort of technological fix, it’s not, it’s the brute stuff of being human. And you see, I would argue something else, you said, you made the point about me and freedom, one of the reasons I haven’t necessarily talked about freedom very much, of course my historical expertise, which was a deliberate reaction against the atmosphere of my own time, when I was a young man in the 1960s. I’m a specialist in the history of monarchies and aristocracies and freedom for one, freedom for a few. But what is really striking is, it seems to me we are now learning an absolutely fundamental lesson, which I’ve been trying to preach for a very long period of time, democracy, unless it’s of that extraordinary thorough going form which was briefly practicable in the context of the quasi-agrarian societies of America around about 1800 but vanishes in the vast process of industrialization and urbanization. We are learning that democracy is essentially purely formal, the way we are ruled, is by course, we elect monarchs. And if you actually look at how America is governed, America is governed by that choice, a knife-edge choice with both Trump and with Biden.

1:06:44.1 DS: And you then elect a monarch for a period of time and remember elective monarchies are very common. The Roman empire in many ways was elective when it wasn’t a military coup, yours is an elective monarchy, we oddly enough have an elective monarchy in Britain, because of course we’ve got two monarchs, we’ve got the Queen, poor thing, and we’ve got the Prime Minister who, just as in Japan with the Mikado and the Shogun, you have these two centers of power, one traditionalist and the other actually executive, but they’re both monarchies, they’re course with the whole process of the role of women, the list of favorites of factions and so on. I think that the bigger our societies get, the more complicated they get, the more we medievalize, if you look at the prevalence of public irrationalism, the belief in UFOs, the belief in, well, many forms of environmentalism, the extraordinary importance of astrology, the fact that public literature is largely rubbish like Harry Potter, we’ve re-medievalized.

1:08:11.6 DS: If you compare the contents of a newspaper now, with an even a mass circulation newspaper of the 1920s and ’30s, you’re struck by astonishing collapse of literacy by the fact that what would have been a relatively small section on Showbiz is now virtually the entire paper. The fact that politics is merely that wonderful remark about politics being Showbiz, regular people never has the truth of it being more manifest than now. And I think this idea of re-medievalization is one that I am more and more convinced of. Woke is a perverted religion, and with the collapse of serious political affiliation and the increase in the commercialization of politics, all of these sorts of things.

1:09:09.7 MT: Well, so is extremist environmentalism, the religious impulse in the human mind and a desire to be part of something greater and find meaning in some sort of a heroic pursuit, or…

1:09:29.8 DS: Or the worship of rather silly young people like Greta Thunberg, you know, child saints or ancient Sages like [1:09:40.2] ____ If only this column will go up his ass, I will be very pleased. Just absurd, but they’re medieval.

1:09:53.6 MT: That’s the retreat, that’s the retreat from the enlightenment, it’s a great danger, I mean.

1:09:58.3 DS: You see, what I mean, in the area after area that you look at. This is a kind of re-clouding it’s as though a cloud has suddenly come across a bright sky and that’s where we are not, shadow.

1:10:19.7 MT: Well, David, I can’t say that’s the most optimistic or positive ending to a podcast I ever had. However, I have decided some weeks ago that the problems that are facing human progress, the future of human progress that the retreat from the enlightenment is real enough for me to start having conversations with great scholars such as yourself who have identified these problems, understand them, help me think through them and also inform our audience. So, perhaps we can agree on the following; human progress is real. We have accomplished tremendous amount in the last 500 years, if you want, certainly since the enlightenment in the 18th century. But there is no guarantee that things will work out and the fundamental need in our society right now is to understand and be able to talk about objective reality in an atmosphere of freedom, if we lose that, we are finished.

1:11:28.0 DS: We are lost.

1:11:30.6 MT: Thank you very much, David.

1:11:32.3 DS: And thank you for giving me the freedom to speak.

1:11:35.9 MT: My pleasure.

Marian L. Tupy is a senior fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and editor of HumanProgress.org.

David Starkey is a well-known English historian, author, and T.V. personality.


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