Yesterday’s rather melancholy piece provoked some contention, but there was less of that than there was of dour, semi-resigned agreement. Quite a number of my correspondents wrote to say “I wish you were wrong, but I fear you aren’t,” albeit not in so many words. Nearly all of them asked me not to mention their names here, which is consistent with the current climate of intimidation and fear.
But of course, no phenomenon as portentous and sweeping as the collapse of the greatest civilization in history can be adequately addressed in one brief essay. It takes at least two. And so here we are, grim of aspect, girded of loin, fully prepared to address the questions that are on the mind of the typical Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch:
- “How did this happen?”
- “What comes next?”
No, it won’t be any more fun than yesterday.
Yesterday, I enumerated four sociopolitical influences:
- Moral relativism,
…and styled them “intellectual pathogens.” And yes, I had a disease analogy in mind at the time. The explication has arrived.
The living human body possesses an immune system that responds to the introduction of inimical bacteria and viruses. It’s not perfect, but half a million years of practice has rendered it pretty good. With only modest conscious support from the host – i.e., eat the right things; get enough rest; exercise now and then; avoid cranky neighbors, door-to-door solicitors, and prime-time television – it manages to keep him reasonably healthy and capable for seven or eight decades. It does this by producing antibodies that will locate the invading microbes, close with them, and destroy them.
A similar set of mechanisms is available to the mind, though few conceive of them in such terms. When faced with a disturbing social or political proposition, a healthy mind responds by activating its reasoning center, which then:
- Confronts the proposition’s implications for the alteration of the status quo,
- Marshals the available evidence;
- Uses logic to deduce what would follow from the acceptance of the proposition;
- Measures those consequences against moral-ethical precepts and the existing order of things.
Each step in this amassing of intellectual antibodies must be performed with due respect for the reality principle: What is, is. Objective evidence must be granted its due. The identity and convictions of its discoverer are irrelevant. How we feel about it is irrelevant. Samuel Johnson knocks out Bishop Berkeley in the first round. Full Stop.
The process must also acknowledge human fallibility. Any of us can be wrong. Therefore, no conclusion should be regarded as immune from reconsideration, especially if fresh evidence emerges that calls it into question.
For many years, that process, evoked by education and bolstered by experience, protected Americans from the devastating effects of the pathogens I cited. Only recently in historical terms has it faltered.
Attack pawn chains at their base. — Larry Evans
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. – Henry David Thoreau
The intellectual pathogens have always had their advocates. Early in the Twentieth Century, those persons, aggrieved by how little progress their pet nostrums had made, communed in several centers of evil – the best known is probably the Institute for Social Research / Frankfurt School — and analyzed the defenses of the free nations of the world. Being good strategists, rather than just continuing in their established course but “doing it harder,” they sought a point of attack that would undermine the philosophical structure of Western thought. The one they found was the concept of objective truth.
Sixteen years ago, I wrote:
Truth is an evaluation: a judgment that some proposition corresponds to objective reality sufficiently for men to rely upon it. The weakening of the concept of truth cuts an opening through which baldly counterfactual propositions can be thrust into serious discourse. Smith might say that proposition X is disprovable, or that it contradicts common observations of the world; Jones counters that X suits him fine, for he has dismissed the disprovers as “partisan” and prefers his own observations to those of Smith. Unless the two agree on standards for relevant evidence, pertinent reasoning, and common verification — in other words, standards for what can be accepted as sufficiently true — their argument over X will never end.
An interest group that has “put its back against the wall” as regards its central interest, and is unwilling to concede the battle regardless of the evidence and logic raised against its claims, will obfuscate, attack the motives of its opponents, and attempt to misdirect their attention with irrelevancies. When all of these have failed, its last-ditch defense is to attack the concept of truth. Once that has been undermined, the group can’t be defeated. It can stay on the ideological battlefield indefinitely, preserving the possibility of victory through attrition or fatigue among its opponents.
I distinguish truth, at least rhetorically, from fact. By truth, I mean to address propositions of cause and effect, especially in the social, economic, and political realms. Remember that every statement about cause and effect has preconditions – required context – whose absence or violation nullifies the statement. That makes it possible for an attacker to “change the game” subtly by introducing deviations from the required preconditions without saying openly that he’s doing so. It’s a lot harder to get people to ignore or dismiss the evidence of their senses than it is to get them to entertain a proposition such as “It might not work like that for everyone, everywhere, in every era.”
All the same, to arrive at truth is the objective of sound reasoning. We may not possess many absolute truths, which require no preconditions whatsoever and always operate in exactly the same fashion, but we must do our best to study the evidence, formulate hypotheses, design tests for the cause-and-effect proposition involved, and dispassionately observe and record the results.
Some years ago, a deceitful book, I, Rigoberta Menchu, was published to international accolades. It affected many and was widely praised as a real-life narrative of the life of an Indian peasant in Guatemala. Yet, as anthropologist and Guatemalan expert David Stoll discovered after considerable research, it was mostly a fabrication.
The book’s defenders were many among the glitterati. They leaped on Stoll en masse, impugning his personal motives and proclaiming his research fraudulent. Yet they never refuted Stoll’s central assertion: that the majority of the incidents related in the book had not occurred. When challenged to do so, they retreated to a position that should be familiar to contemporary readers: “The facts may have been wrong, but the narrative was right.”
Facts are important barriers to the intellectual pathogens. “It might not work like that for everyone, everywhere, in every era” is best met by “Perhaps not, but it did work like that in every case in recorded history.” The pathogen advocate sometimes replies, “Well, there may be unrecorded instances in which it didn’t,” to which the rebuttal should be “Until you can present verifiable evidence, we’ll stick with what we know.” However, not many people are willing to riposte that way today. It sounds as if you’re challenging the other guy’s honesty…which you are.
The availability of verifiable facts makes reasoning possible. Thus, the pathogen advocates must somehow cast doubt on the facts or render them inadmissible. They strive to do this at every turn.
No assault on verifiable facts and reliable, if context-dependent, truths could capture everyone, of course. The strategists of the Left knew this. They selected their targets on the basis of their innocence and susceptibility: American youth. This folded nicely into Antonio Gramsci’s advocacy of a “long march through the institutions.” But not every institution would be attacked simultaneously. The big prizes, the engines of cultural formation, had to come first:
If these could be colonized, they would provide a beachhead from which assaults on the rationality of American youth could be launched. And of course, that has proved to be the case.
Educators and journalists were the first to be corrupted: in part through appeals to their vanity, and in part through the distortion of what they were taught. It didn’t take long before a quite substantial fraction of each occupation had been convinced that “we decide what constitutes important information and real knowledge.” Who was there to contradict them? Other members of their trades? Most were too courteous, or too averse to confrontation. Ad hominem counterblasts would serve to deal with the rest.
The arts and entertainment came next. If the young could be persuaded that there’s something wrong with artistic standards – e.g., that representational art is outdated; that rhyme and meter in poetry are disposable conventions; that music need not conform to structural rules or please the ear – they could be made to listen to critics and reviewers rather than to their own esthetic sensibilities. The coarsening of the art and entertainment worlds paid off spectacularly in the coarsening of young Americans themselves, especially after America’s public schools were integrated. The consequences continue to blossom to this day.
The vector sum of the influences mentioned above was a thoroughgoing destruction of the reality principle. The facts of history were “whatevered;” established truths about human nature and society became “your truth / our truth.” The maturing influence of education and cultural familiarization was replaced, incredibly, by the self-esteem movement. It ceased to matter whether little Johnny knew about the principles behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Indeed, it ceased to matter whether he could read them. Could he sing or play a scale? Could he appreciate the great painters and sculptors of the Renaissance and what made them great? Of course not. So what? Did he feel good about himself? Nothing else mattered.
In retrospect, we were blind to far too many evil trends. We’re reaping the consequences today:
- The misunderstanding of principles;
- The rejection of prudence and temperance;
- The unwillingness to delay personal gratification;
- The belief that human will can override natural laws;
- The unwillingness to consider incentives and their effects;
- The inability to discriminate between right and wrong, or better and worse;
- The elevation of trendy “gurus” over persons of demonstrable wisdom and accomplishments.
It’s not obvious that each of these things opened an avenue for the introduction of the aforementioned pathogens. Yet all of them have contributed. Consider how the dismissal of natural laws makes atheism and moral relativism more plausible. Consider how insistence on the immediate gratification of desires dovetails with the socialist premise. And consider how important confusion about right and wrong, why they matter, and how to tell them apart play into solipsism.
These corruptions have not captured the entire country. However, they are pronounced among young Americans – and tragically, when challenged on any of the above, those misled, miseducated, malformed young folks mainly look to their corrupters for guidance. The assumptions insinuated into them are too deeply rooted to elicit serious contemplation of where the went wrong…even among those who concede that yes, they have gone wrong and things have gotten very, very bad.
Many of us who’ve been uninvolved in any of the above must nevertheless accept a dollop of culpability. For example, we in the realms of technology did not think things through. We were frequently too entranced by our own gee-whizzery to think seriously about the consequences of what we were unleashing upon the world. We paid too little attention to how the corrupters would exploit our developments. They used much of what we produced to destroy our children’s ability to think and discriminate.
You thought television was a bad influence? Think about what Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have done to America’s youth, and shudder.
I expect that there will be many cries of dismay over this piece. Some will see reflections of their own misdeeds and defaults, and will recoil from the implications. Others will argue that they had no power to countervail what was being done, even to their own children. And yes, we’re all limited beings, and we all have to earn a living. Well, you can’t please everyone. At any rate, I gave up trying before I turned forty.
Yes, there will be a third essay. It will cover still more consequences of what I’ve been delineating. Some of them might be pleasant, so stay tuned.