Culture and Anarchy in Seattle

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.


—Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

Last year saw the 150th anniversary of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. In 1869, England stood on the brink of anarchy. The past few years had witnessed English rioting in Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Manchester, and Hyde Park. Fenian terrorists took what advantage they could, striking in London, Manchester, and Chester. The epicenter of these disturbances was the Reform Act of 1867. The politics in the years surrounding its passage heated class antipathies beyond the boiling point. Liberals and Conservatives battled to win the war of public opinion. The “respective extremes” drove the action, demanding fealty from the moderates.

The young radicals who banished the police from six blocks of downtown Seattle would regard Matthew Arnold as an ambassador from a dead civilization. They would be joined in this view of him by the representative men and women of Seattle, luminaries of the political class, education, the media, and the fabulously wealthy tech industry. In this respect, at least, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) or, if we prefer, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), is at peace with its neighbors. If, in some imaginary world, the Seattle intelligentsia were obligated to respond to the sesquicentennial of Culture and Anarchy, an English professor might recall that Arnold attracted the opprobrium of Edward Said in his book Orientalism: “For every idea about ‘our’ art spoken by Arnold… another link in the chain binding ‘us’ together was formed while another outsider was banished.” The statement—representative in its way and manufactured to taste—is not true. For Arnold, the goal of education in science and the arts is “the same for all mankind”: it is the gradual “progress of humanity towards perfection.” Arnold is vulnerable to many criticisms, but racism is not one of them. He was essentially a religious man, whose faith put him at odds with a grave sin that no thinking Christian can abide.

What, then, did Arnold mean by “culture” and “anarchy”? For the Arnold of 1869, culture is “the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief in following them mechanically.” Culture “is the most resolute enemy of anarchy.” It stands by the law through thick and thin because “a State in which law is authoritative and sovereign, a firm and settled course of public order, is requisite if man is to bring to maturity anything precious and lasting now, or to found anything precious and lasting for the future.”

Anarchy, the enemy of culture and progress, stems from “worship of freedom in and for itself, conjoined with a “superstitious faith… in machinery.” Society’s faith in its machinery, in getting things done as opposed to the arduous work of thinking things through, results in a vast loss of human potential. It hurts the people it is meant to help. This faith in machinery is undergirded by what Arnold calls Hebraism, the drive to act on the moral law, which, by its nature, demands obedience. Hebraism is indispensable up to the point when it shuts down the free play of the mind. Its antidote is the sweetness and light of Hellenism, which teaches disinterestedness and seeing things as they really are. Hellenism, the haven of the individual, is indispensable up to the point when it shuts down the moral law. Civilization makes progress by balancing these “great spiritual disciplines.”

…how did unreality succeed to the point where the inevitable bloodshed, rape, and pillaging that has been CHOP, the nightmare prophetic of a world without the rule of law, was mistaken or associated with the promise of love or any kind of light?

How is civilization doing in Seattle? For Arnold, a leading symptom of “social disintegration” is “delusion” about the difference between bathos and the sublime, that is, the difference between ridiculous failure and great heroic work. The worship of machinery leads to a deluded state of mind that is incapable of “right reason” (Arnold’s idea of reason is broadly Aristotelian). This unthinking mind is closed to the critique of its own stock notions, preferring “fetishes,” as Arnold calls them, to the hard, intellectual work of using reason to achieve justice. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is not the only politician in the United States of America who appears to be operating in a trance. Nothing compels her to scrutinize her political reflexes, to “return,” as Arnold would say, upon her own mind, and to rise to the occasion. But her embrace of delusion in an interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN surely does not augur well for the Emerald City:

CUOMO: How long do you think Seattle in those few blocks looks like this?

DURKAN: I don’t know. We could have the Summer of Love.

Mayor Durkan’s “Summer of Love” puts us in mind of Shakespeare, who could paint delusion with the best of them:


Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.

Though Richard II aspires to the sublime, things deteriorate swiftly for him. He plunges into bathos and, outmaneuvered by rebellious subjects, arrives only at the slimmest of self-understandings. Until the day comes when Shakespeare is converted entirely into political machinery by “cutting edge” directors, intelligent people will continue to debate the meaning of Richard’s fall. Things have come a cropper for CHOP as well, though, sadly, we have grounds to ask whether the calamity has made a lasting impression on anyone but its victims. It is a question to bring out the tragedian in us: how did unreality succeed to the point where the inevitable bloodshed, rape, and pillaging that has been CHOP, the nightmare prophetic of a world without the rule of law, was mistaken or associated with the promise of love or any kind of light?

The utopian premise of American culture existed from the start. It is in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. It was celebrated by Whitman, championed and later mourned by Douglass. It was ridiculed by Poe, rejected by Hawthorne, interrogated by T. S. Eliot, and castigated by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is an idea with deep roots in American religious experience, and it keeps returning. Among its pre-CHOP manifestations we can include, for example, not only the Great Awakening of Jonathan Edwards in New England, but the Californian counterculture of the hippies who, in their final act of consequence, gave birth to the tech culture in Palo Alto and other locales. For a brief time in our history, it was a short step from the Whole Earth Catalog to Wired. “Power to the people” wasn’t only John Lennon’s mantra, it was Steve Jobs’ as well. In this hippie-techie-say-you-want-a-revolution respect, at least, Seattle, the home of Jimi Hendrix, is a spiritual place. The citizens of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone are woke.

Mayor Durkan must have been responding, on some level, to this utopian current. It is a form of idealism that the tech culture, the beautiful people of Seattle, has pushed with great success. It has fueled our blind faith in machinery, both as the solution to our social ills, and as the means to our freedoms. Arnold used the phrase “Doing As One Likes” to suggest the dark, anarchic side of our commitment to freedom, but it is a phrase that unironically captures the ethos of the tech industry, which is wedded, as were Arnold’s freedom-loving Victorians, to the moral law, to certain moral imperatives that need to be fulfilled before one can do as one likes. The tech industry is a colossally powerful enforcer of the moral law. It represents an updated and revised Hebraism, fervently committed to its rigid morality, convinced of its rectitude, not self-examining, not an instrument of sweetness and light. In the new dispensation, as in Arnold’s time, we use our machinery to solve our moral problems, so that we can be free. The result now as then is anarchy.

Arnold was a committed educator, a school inspector for thirty years, and, for a decade, Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He preached that education was “the road to culture.” He believed in the young. They had the requisite powers of sympathy and imagination. They were not yet hemmed in by habits and machinery. We also believe in the young. I am afraid, though, that I can hear the cosmic tragedian rehearsing the players: the professors, the teachers, the administrators, the well-meaning tech magnates for whom skepticism about the technological imperative amounts to blinkered apostasy. They want to bring excellence into the classroom. But they do not share Arnold’s understanding that excellence “dwells among high and steep rocks.”

In Seattle as elsewhere, the humanities professors teach politics by other means. The Superintendent of Schools is partnering with Comcast, distributing Chromebooks, and marching in the streets. Someone might want to pull back from all the activity and start thinking—thinking in the spirit of Socrates, to whom Arnold turns at the end of Culture and Anarchy:

Socrates has drunk his hemlock and is dead; but in his own breast does not every man carry about with him a possible Socrates, in that power of a disinterested play of consciousness upon his stock notions and habits, of which this wise and admirable man gave all through his lifetime the great example, and which was the secret of his incomparable influence?

The effort at serious thought will not be anarchic, but, in Seattle, it will be isolating. And yet, the spiritual potential remains, not so much among the politicians and the hooligans, but here and there among the activists and dreamers who deserve much better leadership. And much better educations.