Of culture wars and Mongol hordes; Of immigrants and kings

After us, the people of our race will wear garments of gold; they will eat sweet, greasy food, ride splendid coursers, and hold in their arms the loveliest of women, and they will forget that they owe these things to us.
-Genghis Khan

1.

In Chinese history, there have been several periods when parts or the whole of the country were conquered by outside invaders. There is a common pattern with these invasions. A group of steppe nomads gets their act together, mounts a coordinated attack, succeeds in toppling the ruling dynasty, and installs themselves as emperors. They then start getting used to the soft court life, assimilate, and within a few generations they were as decadent as the guys they replaced.

In the mid-1600s, the Manchus took their turn as the steppe nomad conquerors du jour, and after decades of fighting they were successful in consolidating their power over China. But they had read their history, and known about the decadence that afflicted their predecessors. And they decided that they were not going to be taken in by the same tricks. So, during their rule, they maintained a separate Manchu language, even as they used Chinese to administer the bureaucracy. They designated a set of minor capitals that the Emperor would travel between regularly, an echo of their nomadic past. They even tried to maintain the Manchu homeland in Northeast China as a culturally distinct region, and rotated many of their noble men through it to inculcate them with manly virtues.

And they started getting used to the soft court life, assimilated, and within a few generations they were as decadent as the guys they replaced.

2.

I see a similar pattern playing out in the Asian-American community. The first generation is lean and hungry. They study and work with incredible discipline, sacrifice for family and respect their elders, and live fairly clean lives (except for the significant minority that smoke like chimneys.)

When it comes time to have kids, they try to pass on the same values. And this works to an extent. After much parental prodding, the second-generation children do tend to study harder at school and work their way into high-discipline, high-end careers like medicine and law and engineering. But while they do the same object-level behavior, they don’t quite have the same fire in the belly. Not having gone through the experience of undergoing privation and immigrating to a new country, most can’t quite articulate why it’s so important to study hard or respect elders or any of the rest.

And so when it comes to raising their own kids, these second-generation folks find it hard to justify being as strict with them as their own parents were. Without a deeply internalized understanding of the logic that drove their own parents’ behavior, it’s hard to have the confidence to raise your children in a way that’s deeply out of step with modern American culture. And so the third-generation goes, as they say, banana.

3.

In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of the New Atheists, and religiosity in the US has dropped sharply across the board. One of the knee-jerk arguments that ends up being brought up against this movement is that without religion, people will have no reason to behave morally. And the New Atheists have a good rejoinder to this: look at the data! Atheists don’t in fact murder or steal or even defect in the Prisoners Dilemma at significantly higher rates than in general population. Now certainly part of this is due to the fact that atheists – at least the kind that read The God Delusion – are also wealthier and better educated than the general population, but it’s hard to make a claim that their atheism has made them measurably worse people.

But what this argument ignores is that these atheists, and the wider secularizing society as a whole, were nevertheless raised with the values of a Christian society. And despite their de-conversion, they still mostly behave according to these tenets, valuing honesty and courage and humility and chivalry. Sometimes these values are dressed up in new names - instead of saying chivalry they might say "being an ally." But once you know where to look, the underlying values are unmistakable.

But like the second-generation Asian immigrants, even while they're enacting all the object-level virtues, they can’t quite articulate why they should care about them. And we’re beginning to see the effects of this lack of confidence. An earlier wave of new age religiosity in the 60s led to the rise of a sort of wishy-washy cultural relativism. Today, we also see the emergence of novel forms of sacredness such as the social justice subculture, as moral entrepreneurs realize that there does in fact exist a values vacuum to be filled.

If these examples show anything, it’s that values preservation is an extremely hard problem. The problem of preserving difficult virtues once their most obvious justifications are gone is one that nobody’s really figured out how to solve. And so, we may complain about the silliness that this generation of atheists is involved in today, but what should really worry us is what happens once they start having children.