The fault lines and tectonics responsible for the rattling of western civilization can be seen or described as a right-left conflict, a globalist-localist conflict, or a collectivist-individualist conflict. Each of those perspectives has its merits and its uses, and at one point or other I’ve used each of them, but none of them seems to encompass the totality of the division.
Thomas Sowell’s constrained-unconstrained model is almost right on the money—except it’s all about vision, and the divisions between us don’t strike me as entirely intellectual.
It feels deeper than that.
There’s endless talk about the division, the split, the polarization, the tribalism, but not so much about the actual tribes and what divides them.
One tribe wants a safe and stable world in which to pursue their dreams as best they see fit.
The other wants to tear everything to pieces and build a new and better world based on their expert understanding of things.
One tribe is focused on their private concerns: their jobs, their homes, their families, their groceries.
The other is much too altruistic to concern themselves only with their own earthly affairs. They are soaring through the skies, surveying the unfortunate creatures moving about below: we are to them like so many ants toiling ceaselessly in our colony, blind to everything that isn’t right in front of our little ant faces. Appalled by our prosaic movements and moved by our labors and struggles, they dream of all the fantastic things they can do to make our world better. To make us better. To elevate humanity, which they truly love (as long as it keeps its distance).
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call the one tribe Laputans—after the impractical, cloud-dwelling intellectuals in Gulliver’s Travels—and the other the I’ll just call Joes, as in “a regular Joe.” (They’re stupid labels, I’ll admit, but the labels themselves aren’t important and I don’t want to waste time trying to come up with better ones.)
Not all Laputans are leftists, globalists, or collectivists, although most are; on the other hand, almost every leftist, globalist, and collectivist is a Laputan. Similarly, not all Joes are conservatives, localists, or individualists, but just about every rightist, localist, and individualist is a Joe.
In these October days of this annus horribilis 2022 the rift between Laputans and Joes is quite pronounced.
The Laputan policies of the past decade have created a number of concentric crises to which they are now seeking to apply still more Laputan solutions—think of California Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, attempting to help Californians cope with inflation by handing out free money to every citizen of the state.
At the same time, Joes are becoming impatient with the constant parade of crises and just want to get on with their lives as they were living them just 3, 5, or 10 years ago.
Laputans seem genuinely surprised, even shocked (shocked!), by the resistance their actions are engendering among the Joes, but are uninterested in addressing their concerns. Why should they? The Joes lack the breadth of vision to understand things as the Laputans do. They’re coarse and quarrelsome, the Joes: fussy little children who don’t know what’s best for them and need guidance and protection—not least from themselves!
Joes, on the other hand, seem just as surprised to learn just how little the Laputans care about their actual concerns (as opposed to the concerns the Laputans project onto them). Joes are concerned about the here and now. Simple things, most of them tangible. They want to be able to heat their homes, send their kids to school, turn on the lights when it’s dark out, get to and from their jobs and run their errands without bankrupting themselves filling the gas tank. Those are their priorities. Nothing else comes close.
Denmark’s Inger Støjberg, co-founder of the new conservative Danmarksdemokraterne (“The democrats of Denmark”) party, has an interesting opinion piece on this very dynamic in today’s Berlingske.
If you can’t see the salons, it’s beside you’re sitting inside them
Inger Støjberg (Opinion), Berlingske.dk, October 14
First, a little background about Støjberg for non-Danish readers.
She’s been a highly visible and outspoken Danish politician since she was first elected to parliament as a member of Denmark’s center-right party, Venstre, in 2001. She held four ministerial posts between 2009 and 2016 in the governments of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. She was impeached in 2021 for an order she issued as Minister of Immigration that separated young asylum-seeking couples; parliament tossed her out as being “unworthy to serve” that body and she was sentenced to an unconditional 60-days in prison.
All of this was a great controversy in Denmark because many Danes saw the case against Støjberg as an almost exact parellel to the case of Denmark’s leftist Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen of the Social Democrats, whose illegal order to liquidate the Danish mink industry was not receiving the same legal scrutiny.
She established Danmarksdemokraterne in June of this year, and she and her party have established themselves as a significant force in the upcoming election: current projections have them storming onto the scene as Denmark’s fourth largest party, with 10.3% of the vote. They’re actually within striking distance of becoming Denmark’s second largest party.
Here’s how she opens up:
I can’t think of any time in recent Danish history when the elite have moved so far away from what people, like most of us, think about and concern ourselves with.
Where Danish values and common sense have had such a hard time as we see now. And where real everyday problems for real people take up as little space as they do at the moment.
It is a democratic problem that the ordinary everyday perspective is disappearing from Danish politics and being drowned out by one more extreme and outspoken point of view after another. And if we are not careful, there is a risk that our lovely country will be torn in half. It must not happen. And therefore it is time for us to start speaking out loud about the forgotten Denmark.
That’s her version of Laputans and Joes: elites and the forgotten.
She spends a longish paragraph noting that forgotten Denmark has been called many different things by the elites in recent years, none of them flattering.
Many are busy making it look like it’s a battle between country and city. That’s wrong. Because everywhere in the country—even in Copenhagen, Aarhus, and other large cities—you meet Danes who also think that things are going too far. That Denmark is being pulled the wrong way. And that the connecting lines between Christiansborg (the Danish parliament) and the Danes, who are the majority, are getting weaker and weaker.
She expands a little on that theme before continuing:
I know that it has occurred to many that I have sometimes talked about the fine salons in Copenhagen. And I have read again and again—also in Berlingske—that the salons do not exist at all. In post after post by people who have been in university for so many years that they should probably be able to understand a metaphor. I’ve even made a habit of making a little list.
Before we get to the people on her little list, and the things they’ve said, let me explain a little about the whole salon thing. As she acknowledges, Støjberg frequently refers (for example) to the kinds of things one only talks about in the fine salons of Denmark. It’s very clear on such occasions that she’s not speaking literally: salons were, after all, mostly a nineteenth century phenomenon. She only means to say, in her own way, this is stuff only Laputans actually talk about, and it does seem to require an almost invincible thick-headedness not to understand her meaning—either that or willful hostility, which is almost certainly the more likely explanation.
On a recent break from her trips to Davos and appearances at the Elle Awards, (Ida Auken) felt called from her home in Frederiksberg to label it pure populism to state that there is a difference in living conditions and perspectives depending on where you live and have your weekday.
Adam Holm, former longtime DR 2 host and debate editor at Politiken, can’t spot the salons either. But he was able to report in this newspaper, on the other hand, that an international magazine that I had never heard of—The Monocle—has highlighted Copenhagen, so everyone must be able to understand that there can’t be anything to this kind of talk.
Also editor, commentator, lecturer, former theater reviewer and long-time writer Georg Metz cannot see the salons either, because if they existed, he surely would have been invited.
Maybe Salonists is better than Laputans?
That’s all just the wind-up to her pitch:
Think that so many gifted people will not or cannot see that the life they live is fundamentally different from that lived by the vast majority. And that they focus on something completely different. Most people cannot make a living writing articles, reviewing theater performances, or giving lectures. And I’ve never heard anyone in the real world say anything about The Monocle.
So let me say it so everyone can understand: If you can’t see the salons, it’s because you’re sitting inside them yourself.
Next comes the inevitable “to be sure” passage:
I don’t have anything against the fact that there are people who love fine culture and who mingle with the upper crust at home. But I do mind if it turns into condescension towards all the Danes who don’t feel that way. And where one disregards their most pressing concerns:
Can we keep living here when everything is going up? Can my daughter walk safely on the street? Will I lose my job? Can we get everyday life together? And what kind of country are we leaving for our grandchildren?
That’s straight up Joe versus the Laputans talk, there. It cuts right to the heart of our civilizational divide.
That’s why the media and politicians have been more concerned with what Greta Thunberg thinks than they have been interested in the families who need a car to get their everyday life together.
That is why there has been an outcry and a great uproar when government workplaces have been moved out to the countryside, while there has been total silence when they have been moved into Copenhagen.
And that is why there are endless articles about transgender people and proposals that very young children should be able to change gender, while many families with children do not have access to something as basic as a family doctor close to home.
I think that Danish democracy will suffer in the long run if in the end there is no one who dares to say what most Danes think. Who dare to stand by the fact that everything should not be about climate change and transgender people. That there must also be room for everyday problems in politics and what we can do to give a helping hand to those who need it.
Of course the whole thing is a campaign piece: her final paragraph is basically a call for support at the polls for her party.
I find her outspoken, forthright style appealing and agree with many of the things she says, here and elsewhere, but the purpose of this post isn’t to endorse her or her party (which I won’t be voting for anyway).
The purpose of this post is to illustrate to non-Danish readers that this divide we see all over the west is no stranger to Denmark—that the Joes of the west are finding their voice, and their strength, all over the continent.
And that’s precisely why the Laputans are terrified.
That’s why a “Joe” like Italy’s Gioria Meloni has to be slurred as a fascist.
It’s why the conservative governments of Poland and Hungary have to be slapped around by the Laputans of Brussels.
It explains the January 6 committee in the United States, it explains Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s obscene slurs against last winter’s trucker convoy, it explains the increasing aggression, intolerance, and even ruthlessness of the Laputans in power across the western hemisphere.
The Laputans don’t want to hear from us, we simple stupid Joes: that we disagree with them on anything at all is beyond their comprehension. It’s a provocation! They only want what’s best for us, after all, and they’re the experts, so any pushback from us is clearly inappropriate. It can only be attributed to the worst of motives—it’s dangerous, even criminal!
That’s not a sustainable position among the leaders of self-governing republics, and I hope the November elections in America and Denmark make that point emphatically.
I thought I was done, but I want to take a moment to emphasize that last bit because it’s not something Støjberg says explicitly—even though it strikes me as the very core of her argument.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a little cultural polarization. It’s a perfectly normal state of affairs in self-governing republics and always has been: the ancient Greek assemblies were not, after all, hotbeds of unanimity. And every society, even those founded on the most egalitarian principles, has its upper crust.
The reason the divide between the Salonists and forgotten Danes has become such a pressing issue isn’t because the two groups differ in their outlook, but because the Salonists are unwilling to consider alternative points of view. It’s not that they think they have better ideas, it’s that they think they have the right ideas.
On the climate, on the pandemic, on Ukraine, on race—even on biology: there’s no room for negotiation on any of it because the questions have been settled. To question the urgency of the issues, much less the accuracy of their premises, is to spread lies and disinformation.
That certitude makes compromise impossible. After all, if you know you’re right, and you know I’m wrong, what room is there for negotiation?
And if you’re unwilling to compromise, and you’ve got all the power, where does that leave me?
And where does it leave us both if it turns out you were wrong?