Jack Niewold's Blog

Viewing Church and Culture Through The Great Tradition

Have You “Leaned In” Today?

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. That makes her smart, right? She’s also the author of a best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg travels the country, often with other smart women, telling even more smart women to throw off the shackles of cultural expectation, to stand up and say “I Am Somebody,” and to get out there and shift some paradigms. If only American women could stop beating themselves up and hiding their natural leadership gifts under a bushel, why, we’d all be better off. Lean In: to yourself, to your talents, to the future.

“Our economic growth depends on having women fully engaged in the workforce,” she writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Our companies perform better with women in management. And our homes are happier when men and women share responsibilities more equally.”

She seems especially sensitive to being called “bossy,” which in her lexicon is the other “B” word. Doggone it, Sandberg seems to say, all you have to do is put your hands on your hips, look sidelong at life and declare with Sandra Day O’Connor’s pillow, “I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas.”

That’s the ticket. The only problem with America is faulty self-esteem. The only solution? “Lean In” to a career, give it your all, shuck the old values of playing nice, and you’ll rise to the top. She’s even confirmed all of this by asking her women audiences to raise their hands if they’ve ever been called “bossy.”  Who could imagine so many women would have borne this silent putdown so patiently for so long, some even jumping up and down while raising both hands!

I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg is a wonderful human being and that she means well. Her injunctions to the women in her world are decidedly softer than the vein-bursting screeds of feminists of the past. But she reminds me of another smart woman, Susan Patton, whose recent book Marry Smart is profiled in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Whereas Sandberg tells women to lean into a career before thinking about marriage and family, Patton says the better advice is to lean in to finding a husband WHILE women are in college. Your whole life will go better if you find the right man soon enough, she concludes.

I’ll let these two have at one another over their contrary views of what it means to “lean in.” For my money, the way America is going to be saved is for some people to begin to lean out.

Charles Murray, he of the scandalous (to liberals) book The Bell Curve, has said that the elite classes, to which Sandberg belongs, have shirked their historic role of modeling successful social roles to the lower classes. These classes have become self-referential and isolated from the middle and lower classes. The elite classes are predominantly liberal and Democratic, educated, and comprise the majority of the urban and suburban technocrats. They are the very kind of people Sheryl Sandberg is, as are most of the women who make up her audiences.

Rich elites have the time, money and social capital to spend their careers “leaning in” to the opportunities and privileges of companies like Facebook. They are the people for whom a bit of self-esteem is the only thing standing between them and their own self-actualization. As Betty Smartt Carter, who reviewed Sandberg’s book, writes: “I see the attraction of Sandberg world: a place where the old gender/work division are nothing but the lingering scent of fields and woods–part of our agricultural heritage. We can ignore those, right? We can all choose to do what we like no matter who we are and what our parents believed fifty years ago.”

Most of the young women in my world have done about all the leaning in they can possibly do. Many are already more ambitious then their husbands, smarter even, and pretty confident of themselves. But they’re facing some awfully formidable obstacles. “Leaning in may be a good thing,” Carter writes, “unless you’re already pulling the wagon toward a cliff.”

The fact is, it is precisely the world created and sustained by the Sandberg-type classes that has become one of the great obstacles looming before much of the young middle class today. The Leaners-In of the superzips have made their concordat with the Obama administration’s class war; they’ve exempted themselves from that war’s assault on the middle class; they’ve thrown their money into the huge pot labeled “The Poor,” but they themselves wouldn’t know a poor person if it were their own nanny. They obsess over their own “authenticity” but haven’t a clue concerning the laws of necessity that govern the twenty-somethings on the other side of Atherton, Evanston and Belmont.

Reviewer Carter writes: “Sandberg’s book is culture-specific to America’s northern and western centers of power. If she lived in my southern hometown, where the calendar is always stuck on 1985, she might have to write a different book: “Lie Down: Women, Work, and the Desperate Need for Sleep After Doing It All By Yourself.”

A New Evil Empire, and a New Cold War

Many of you forty years of age or older will remember the sense of relief that came with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. (Of course, as Peggy Noonan reminded us at the time the Gipper died, it did not fall, it was pushed–by Ronald Reagan). After the Berlin Wall came down, and some months later when the Soviet government fell with hardly a shot fired, a collective sigh of relief was heard among those of us who had gone through the long insecurity that we called the Cold War. 

That forty-five-year, low-grade anxiety where nuclear weapons and ongoing unsettledness characterized a national psychology came to an end so suddenly that we didn’t know how to react. Mostly we just breathed easier and pinched ourselves for a couple of months every morning to make sure it wasn’t a dream. 

The years of wondering if this would be the day when a major city was vaporized, or if this would be the year when the dark scenes of the 1984 movie “Red Dawn” would actually come to pass, had hardened us to a kind of stoicism. The Carter years were especially bad, while the Reagan and Bush “41″ years were a little better. Still, we had memories of bomb drills, of hiding under our school desks, of survival measures and back-yard fallout shelters.  

When the Cold War ended, historian Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “End of History,” the dawn of an age when free markets and universal democracy would make such a dangerous world impossible ever again. Fukuyama was spectacularly wrong, as is obvious now that we’ve experienced a couple of decades of Islamic terror, North Korean irrationality, and the unfriendly ascendance of powers like China, Russia and Iran.  

Today the Cold War has returned. This time, however, not because of any of those external threats. The Cold War is now an internal, civil war. The New Cold War is being waged by a President and a political party that wishes to destroy the America of one half of its population. It uses not nuclear threat and terrorism, but the undermining of the rule of law, the intimidation of groups and individuals by state agencies such as the EPA, the NLRB, and the IRS, the inconceivable expense and complexity of the Affordable Care Act, the mobilizing of the poor and rich against the middle class, and the cheapening of the national narrative by those who respect neither our historical customs nor our founding documents. 

Millions of us now feel in our bones the same sense of disorder that troubled our childhoods and younger adult years. We now have the same concern for our children and grandchildren that colored the 1960s and 1970s, when we began our careers and families. We witness the hostility of an administration that cares little for the values of thrift, personal piety and self-reliance that we grew up with. We patiently endure a popular culture that wags its sanctimonious finger in our faces and calls us racists, bigots and homophobes, while it smears the virtues and decencies of a civilization it has never claimed as its own. 

We lived through the tormented years of the despotisms of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro. The face of tyranny now looks different, with its perfect teeth and flawless stage presence, but the feeling in our bones is familiar to us.  

As civil people, we are reluctant to draw the conclusion from this, but until we do so we cannot know what we are up against. We know we are at war once again, and that this war will take reserves of determination and perseverance that may be new to us. We know that life will not return to normal until the New Evil Empire is resisted, and, like the old Evil Empire, collapses of its own internal contradictions. Then, and only then, will we once again breathe freely.  

The 1950s and The Treason of the Intellectuals

The history of the decline of American middle-class civilization in the 20th Century remains to be written. From the 1920s to the present, a continuous thread weaves its way through this story. It’s a story that features what one writer has called “the treason of the intellectuals.” It’s a complex tale of what happens when a culture is abandoned by those who were meant to guide it, and who in the end come to hate it. 

But let’s start with your grandmother, or perhaps your mother, if you are my age. 

Many of you will remember the efflorescence of “higher culture” that characterized America in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was a middle-class phenomenon. Let’s refresh our memories. Those of you too young to have been there can go along for the ride. 

America in the 1950s was an exciting place, not at all like the popular caricatures.  A rising prosperity following WWII led to more leisure and more disposable income, and Americans decided to do some self-improvement. 

Remember the Readers Digest classical music LPs that lined our living room shelves, along with Readers Digest condensed versions of high quality books? Remember The Great Books series that covered every age from Plato to Joseph Conrad?  Remember the proliferation of encyclopedias and coffee table books? Remember the inexpensive prints of the great Renaissance painters that began showing up on our parlor walls along with Norman Rockwell?  

Remember the crossover music that played on our radio stations in those days, making Wagner and Rachmaninoff favorites of our sisters and mothers, even as the latter  learned to play Percy Grainger and Brahms on the piano? Remember the suave Liberace and the mischievous Victor Borge? 

Remember the Wurlitzer and Hammond electric organs that took center stage in thousands of American homes in those years? Stay-at-home moms were overnight transformed into the gowned and sequined stage performers of their newly perfervid imaginations.  

Sure, there was a popular culture with its Elvis and Buddy Holly, but the same people who listened to Billy Halley and the Comets also followed the arc of Van Cliburn, who enjoyed international status in the 50s. TV shows by the score used as their theme music Tchaikovsky, Reznecek, Rimsky-Korsakov and others. Melodies of Chopin were set to popular lyrics. Charles van Doren, despite later problems, became a cultural hero for his knowledge of Shakespeare and western philosophy on the TV show “Twenty-One.” Bennett Cerf, an accomplished litterateur, was a regular feature on “What’s My Line?” 

Today, few people can name the conductor of a major orchestra, but in those days we were all familiar with the names of Stokowski, Toscanini, even the young Leonard Bernstein. The vast majority of today’s technologically savvy generations probably don’t know the name of a single living diva, but we all knew  the names of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. We had all heard the lucent Mario Lanza sing, and Andre Previn play the piano. 

America in the 1950s was the pinnacle of a maturing society. Historian George Marsden considers that decade to have been the apogee of what he calls “The American Enlightenment.’  Two generations in the making, the 1950s were a brief period of brilliance when  “an informal Protestant establishment” dominated culture,  providing a broadly tolerant secularism that easily coexisted with nonconformity of many kinds. Those who did not care for the young Billy Graham could change the channel to the serene Fulton Sheen. 

Political writer Michael Barone dubbed the period “The Midcentury Moment.” For roughly fifty years, Barone writes, America had shared a single, graduated popular culture. High and low were mixed, and held effortlessly in the same mind. By 1955, the millions who tuned in to “I Love Lucy” every week were the same ones who took their kids to the museums and concerts on weekends. This singular culture brought into working class living rooms high-tone TV like “Kraft Television Theater” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” as well as the slapstick of Sid Caesar and Milton Berle. Nearly 10% of all Americans tuned into the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday. 

America in the 1950s was a more cosmopolitan society than it had ever been, or would ever be again. Servicemen who had been to Italy and Polynesia would never be the same when they returned home. French and Italian love songs, along with Hispanic salsa, filled the airwaves. Air conditioned cars with tubeless tires made road travel more comfortable, while buses became “Scenicruisers.”  Sleek new trains crossed and re-crossed the continent. Stylish aircraft based on World War Two bombers made air travel fast and comfortable, even if it was more expensive than most Americans could afford. Who of my generation can forget Ike’s beautiful Lockheed Constellation, or the Boeing Stratocruiser of the movie The High and the Mighty

The slacker was also born in the 1950s with the appearance of James Dean. Indeed, the idea of the teenager was an invention of the times. High school rebels with duck tails and low-riding Levis were everywhere, long before Fonzi tickled our nostalgia. Though the era is known for the senate hearings of Joe McCarthy, I worked in a factory with a man who was known for his atheism and communist sympathies. He was odd, but he was not ostracized. As for social responsibility, Hollywood was constantly reminding us of our scientific hubris with an endless string of horror movies. In the early fifties we already knew we were polluting the world, at least with radiation.  

Still, there were problems, and a host of social pathologies persisted. Anybody interested in a “yes.. but” approach to 1950s’ America will find plenty to justify it. Much of the new Turtle Wax was applied thinly. But there is no denying that the country was developing a more inclusive public philosophy. According to Barone, the two political parties were far more ideologically inclusive than they are today. Compromise was the modus vivendi of Washington, DC. The gentrification of the culture, which I’ve already described in part, was shepherding great swaths of the population in the direction of an American belle époque

And all of this took place when America’s median income was about $5000 per year. Most middle class families lived on about $400 a month, and mom worked, if at all, only part-time.

 

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There was one group of people unhappy with the democratization of Western Civilization: the intellectual aristocracy, particularly those who considered themselves progressives. This new class, alienated by choice, considered itself the master of the plantation that insured that America hummed along. These individuals detested the suburbs, where this new taste for the arts and humanities was making itself felt. They perfected the institutional sneer that came to be associated with Levittown, “civil religion,” the “booboisie.” 

Nobody expressed this better than Dwight MacDonald, in his essay “Masscult and Midcult,” in which he assailed “the enemy outside the walls, the swamp,” by which he meant the new rising middle-class culture. The intellectual priesthood talked of the rise of the  “middlebrow,” the man (or woman) with a patina of culture and learning but in fact still largely uncouth.  

Books like The Hidden Persuaders, The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit appeared, authored by those intent on deprecating the superficiality and philistinism of American middle class life. Richard Hofstader wrote a best seller, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, aimed at the despised middle class. 

This new literary genre of social critique picked up where Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, H. L. Mencken and Aldous Huxley left off before the Depression and WWII. The intellectual mandarins of the post-war decade decided to throw back the barbarians. In their minds, the middle class was getting uppity. 

Whereas in earlier times an intelligentsia had consisted of a small, scattered group of alienated individuals, such as the nihilists in the work of Dostoyevsky or Zola, in the 1950s a much larger group of educated writers and personalities emerged who were fundamentally at war with American and western values. The “professional” intellectual of later years was coming into his own, centered in New York and full of unappeasable indignation. This was the era of Edward Shils, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag and C. Wright Mills. The patron philosopher of this new class was Herbert Marcuse. 

There were those who resisted this toxic tide, who understood that a legitimate intelligentsia were motivated by corrective animus rather than a desire to violate, destroy and pillage. One thinks of Will Herberg, Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann had noted that the new intelligentsia was collectivist, and that collectivism is always profoundly irreligious. “It is no accident that the only open challenge to the totalitarian state has come from men of deep religious faith,” wrote Lippmann.  

But the times they were a’changin’. The intellectuals’ will to power was irresistible, and a full-fledged, secular counterattack along class lines set in. This movement was camouflaged as a political movement, but it was really a class struggle. The Vietnam War was a mere cudgel with which to batter middle-class America, and its usefulness disappeared with the ending of the draft. Any other cause that could be associated with  Mills’ ‘Power Elite” would have served equally well. 

The aristocracy put its foot down against any notion that the middle class should advance any further into the sacred groves of the intelligentsia. This is the back story of Norman Mailer, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Angela Davis, Jerry Rubin and a host of others who came later, such as Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Eric Holder. It is the subplot of movies such as Elmer Gantry, The Graduate, If, The Strawberry Statement, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, the anti-Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s, and the even later American Beauty.  

The rubes who had flocked to the siren call of high culture had to be beaten back, and nothing would serve as well as ridicule. The Bunkers, Archie and Edith, were cast as stereotypical lower middle-class ignoramuses, soon to be put in their place by a multitude of transgressive sitcoms with their casts of ethnic, cultural and sexual superiors. 

The “American Enlightenment” that peaked in the 1950s was not yet self-confident, and was effectively smashed by the counterculture of the 1960s. We have not seen its like since. The spirit of rebellion, superiority and perpetual antagonism spread and  hardened throughout the decade and was mainstreamed in the 1970s, as David Frum has shown in his book How We Got Here: The Seventies, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life.  Frum chronicles the Saturnalia of the ’70s, a shift from faith, classical music and Great Books to pop-psych, religious cults, narcissism, guilt and disco. In short, Frum writes, the American personality was transformed during the 1970s into the postmodern, hedonistic, ironic type so familiar to us today.

 

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But one has to separate the history from the mythology. As the philosopher Nietzsche wrote, ‘those who choose to cast out their own demons must be careful not to enter into the swine themselves.’  The scriptures likewise warn against those who sweep out one devil only to make the home more fit for seven others more evil than the first. 

Indeed, the civilization of 1950s’ America was Mycenaean in its magnificence compared with the Iron Age that followed after the mid-1960s. Only one who has lived through these decades can understand what has been forfeited. The 1950s have been parodied for so long as the Land of Ozzie and Harriet that its true character has been lost to a narcissistic age suckled on illusion, chronological arrogance and self-congratulation. A brief Carolingian Renaissance declined into a new Dark Age of well-armed but illiterate barbarians. 

Why did this happen?  

Much of the answer to that involves the intellectuals. Never before in history had a broadly-based social class of cultural overseers abandoned the very civilization that birthed them, relinquishing their role as conscience of the society in order to become its saboteurs. Without a constructive program to offer, and centered on unending protest of the actual, the intellectuals had little to offer other than unrealistic utopianism and ossified socialism. Many of them did not bother with this side of things, and satisfied themselves with mere destruction of the past. 

Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist and political scientist, had warned back in the 1940s that a capitalist economy will create a class of intellectuals who come to oppose and eventually destroy the free market of ideas and enterprise even as they depend on it for their wealth and prestige. 

More recently, the history of the continued war of the intellectuals on American traditions and institutions is the theme of Fred Siegel’s The Revolt Against the Masses. Siegel shows that the roots of modern liberalism are in class snobbery and contempt for the middle class, rather than in high principle. Siegel quotes Randolph Bourne, a writer for the New Republic in the 1950s, to illustrate the emerging mentality of the new class of intellectuals; Bourne laments “the downward undertow of our [American] civilization with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook, the absence of mind and sincere feeling which we see in our slovenly towns, our vapid moving pictures, our popular novels, and in the vacuous faces of crowds on the city street.” 

One might have expected as much from the keening fundamentalists of the right, but few were prepared when the learned classes themselves became the iconoclasts and vandals. 

The left is now safely in charge of American culture. But rather than ushering in the Age of Aquarius, the intellectual aristocracy has dumbed down life in this country to the point that art, literature, poetry and even classical music are but appendages of liberal causes and identity politics. Many of the features of Bourne’s middlebrow culture are eerily familiar to us today, but in a new form. Today, a widespread culture of moral relativism, intellectual intolerance, class arrogance, and historical agnosticism coexist with the splendors of technology and the blessings of physical health. 

But not everybody is enchanted by the secular empire around us “We see all sights from pole to pole, / And glance, and nod, and bustle by; / And never once possess our soul / Before we die.”      

Five Words and the Coming of “Blackwhite”

I’ve written often about the subversion of everyday language in the name of progressive causes. Progressives, for those who are unclear, are those people and institutions that purport to speak in behalf of the putatively oppressed, whether women, minorities, the poor, homosexuals, etc. For a less nuanced view, we might call them liberal Democrats. When progressives take common terms and turn them to their own use, their meanings are inverted, or, indeed, perverted. Once these terms–which in our older lexicon were always good, stout substantives–begin to be used in new ways, they eventually become normalized according to their new usage. 

Capturing and altering language is a critical step in consolidating the power to control others. Our language is already being corrupted. We all see it happening, even if we don’t know exactly what it means. Let’s look at five words that illustrate how this is happening. 

The word “diversity,” for instance, has changed from comprising a range of types to preference of a particular type that excludes other types as illegitimate. This has most often involved racial minorities. It is now widely recognized that “diversity” is a word that denotes, and a method that enforces, a specific political orthodoxy rather than allowing differences of opinion. 

“Tolerance” as a common term has come to indicate mandatory non-judgmentalism, whereas before it connoted one’s willingness to entertain opinions and behaviors with which one openly disagrees, or even finds repellant. Mandated “tolerance” is a cudgel often used to silence traditional Christians. 

“Inclusiveness,” once a term that spoke of voluntarily accommodating views that were not normative to the person or entity extending the inclusion, now means laying aside one’s very right to exclude, an abdication effected through social sanction or legal compulsion. “Inclusive” has thus become, ironically, an exclusionary term, often used to describe only progressive ideas and sentiments. 

University faculties regularly think of themselves as “inclusive” when a department of 60 liberal professors has admitted three members who are self-identified conservatives. 

The term “social justice” has come to mean the imposition of elite expectations on unwilling subjects for the benefit of other, favored groups, rather than the volitional and discretional conduct of public policy by consensual, even-handed, humane standards. Social justice is the effort to take the fruits of one man’s labor and give it to someone else who did not work for it. Thus “social justice” is the essence of injustice, not distinct in kind (but only in degree) from earlier forms of slavery. 

“Bullying” is another instance of twisting of language to suit progressive ends. We all know bullying is boys behaving badly, right? Well, not so fast. Among many of those now drumming the word into our collective awareness, bullying covers a much broader range of activities, including language, facial expressions, and gestures. The word has further specificity in that it is coming to refer to such behavior directed not towards others in general but towards homosexuals. 

The word “bullying” has taken its place with “diversity,” “tolerance,” “inclusiveness,” and “social justice” as a code word encrypted with a specific political meaning. This encoded meaning is the one preferred by the elites that serve the racial, homosexual, class and gender industries. 

It is important to note that it is not only the new usage of old words that is critical, but the frequency of usage of the words. Thus, you will now hear almost daily someone speaking as an authority on the subject of bullying. This continuous repetition of old, nearly-forgotten moral words is the first tip-off that some kind of change is happening. This seems currently to be taking place with the word “dignity.” Keep an eye on that one. 

Radicals know that when an old word is increasingly used in a new way, the new definition will soon become the primary definition. At first, old and new definitions of a single term are mingled. But a mental process sets in. A subtle psychological shift takes place as people repeatedly hear a word they thought they were familiar with, but which is now being used in contexts and in ways they had not thought of. The human psyche comes to equate the more recent with the more relevant. And soon the new meaning usurps the place of the old. We have seen this at work with such words as “gay,” “straight,” “gender,” and “sex.” 

This turning of words on their heads is a tactic of all totalitarian regimes. In his novel “1984,” George Orwell called the perversion of common terms blackwhite. “Like so many Newspeak words,” Orwell writes, “blackwhite has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.” 

Christians have the responsibility to preserve the old meanings of words. It is important that believers not join secular bandwagons draped in the comfortable moral terms of our own tradition, if those terms are in the process of being perverted. To be a Christian is to develop the powers of discernment to know what is happening around oneself.   

 

The Fall of the Humanities and the Rise of the Theorists

“Hang up philosophy! / Unless philosophy can make a Juliet,” says Romeo.

UCLA recently gutted its English department, replacing required courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton with au courant courses on gender, race, class and other trippy subjects that ease the attainment of graduate degrees without requiring much knowledge of actual literary content. This has been the regrettable direction of the humanities for a generation, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute writes: 

“The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.” 

The political and cultural Left knows that a critical part of undermining existing traditions is to erase the memory of our forebears, especially those memories ensconced in works of literature, history and music. Rather than simply outlawing the study or enjoyment of, say, Charlotte or Emily Bronte, why not instead place Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in a theoretical matrix where those masterpieces can be dismissed as nothing more than cries of feminine or other minority oppression? 

Do you think I exaggerate? When I was in my doctoral program I had to read and critique reams of such sophomoric material, often written for journals whose readership was confined to the local MFA program.  

“And when night / Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons / Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine,” writes Milton in Paradise Lost. The Evil One wants to make The Present the auditor and judge of The Past. And so our academics, as true sons of Rehoboam, wish to subject The Great Tradition of our civilization’s literature to theories now in fashion. They know that when classic literature is read in its unmediated splendor, it judges us and relativizes our present obsessions, and threatens the sterile pieties of contemporary liberalism. 

Wisdom, temperance, and moderation, Aristotle’s Good, True and Beautiful–in other words, the fruits of the humanities–are no longer the pearl of great price of the typical secular university. It is no wonder that fewer and fewer students are choosing majors in the humanities. It seems that English departments, in seeking to extinguish the light of the past, are also extinguishing themselves. 

Of such cultural fools the philosopher Nietzsche wrote: “Not a few of those who meant to cast out their own demons went thereby into the swine themselves.”

 

 

 

 

Mr. Obama’s Philosopher

In 2010, Barack Obama famously said that his favorite philosopher was Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who lived between 1892 and 1971. As with so much that Mr. Obama says that at first sounds profound, closer scrutiny reveals fundamental confusion. If Obama’s favorite philosopher was Niebuhr, he’s never really read Niebuhr, or, if he has, he hasn’t understood him. 

Niebuhr was a man of the left, the old left. Obama is a progressive, marinated in the new left, which Peggy Noonan calls liberalism without blood. Niebuhr was a realist. Obama is an idealist. Niebuhr stressed the sinfulness of the human character, Obama the perfectibility of the same. Niebuhr disdained all attempts to build political utopias, while Obama seems to think nothing is beyond his own enchanted endowments. 

Niebuhr was not an orthodox Christian, and denied the supernatural in his theology. Yet he deeply impacted several generations of political and religious thinkers with what one writer calls the “Niebuhrian temper:” skepticism towards the perennial dreams of those who think they can change the world through good intentions, combined with a recognition that the chief end of government is not to improve human nature, but to channel the irrationality of mankind into the common good. Adam Smith would agree. 

Perhaps the theologian who most closely echoes Niebuhr without sacrificing the centrality of the supernatural was C. S. Lewis. On the 22nd of this month, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death. Here are Lewis’ words concerning utopians. This would include Mr. Obama. 

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end because they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

The Authoritarian Within

Perhaps the most frustrating feature about liberals is that they don’t even know they are liberal. Their way of seeing the world is simply to view it as What Is. They know nothing else. Those who think and believe differently are, in their eyes, aberrations, clueless as to the true nature of things. 

This year is the 50th anniversary of a number of important events. We’ve mentioned the civil rights March on Washington, DC, by Martin Luther King, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. A little later this year we will remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

1963 also marks the commemoration of something I’ll bet most of you have never heard of. I refer to the Yale experiments on the tendency of humans to obey authority when they are expected to, even when it violates their consciences. These experiments were the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram. When subjects were told to inflict pain on other subjects in situations of stress and expectation, they did so, often without hesitation. 

Young Yale students who in most situations identified with progressive, tolerant modes of behavior, and who understood themselves to be humane and undogmatic in their social views, turned authoritarian when the situation demanded it. “Teachers” paired off with “learners;” the former gave the latter electrical shocks when answers to problems were wrong. The “teachers” were drawn from student volunteers. More than two-thirds of these gave what were intended to be the highest level of shocks, ominously marked “XXX.” 

The whole thing was a setup, and nobody really got hurt, and some of the participating “teachers” experienced remorse. But the study did reveal a disturbing trait about human interaction: in situations where one group is given authority over another and is expected to enforce the compliance of the other, things can get ugly in a hurry. 

Over the years, the Milgram studies have been widely criticized and condemned, mainly for their methodology. But Milgram’s conclusions have been a problem for many researchers as well. That’s because those conclusions fly in the face of the progressive self-image that has come to dominate public culture. 

Milgram was simply ascribing to putatively civilized contexts the same lessons that Hannah Arendt was drawing from her studies on the trial of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann: That those put into positions of political and social control will do as they are told much more readily than they will follow their own professed moral beliefs, even if it results in cruelty.  

Such experiments would be impossible to conduct in our sensitive times. That’s a pity, because it means we may never come to know ourselves as deeply as we might. 

Christians and conservatives instinctively know all of this to be true, of course, because ours is a worldview that allows for the ambivalence and conflict that lies at the base of human nature. We know ourselves, and the endless inner warfare that characterizes our lives, and we’ve taken what measures we can to allow and compensate for that. 

Our cultural adversaries, however, have a completely different understanding of evil in the world. We see evil as intrinsic, running through every human heart; for them evil is extrinsic, separating them from others. 

As our societal worldview slides ever closer and closer towards liberal orthodoxy, we can expect those in control of social norms to act similarly to those students in Milgram’s laboratory. Dissent will carry a price. When we Christians, conservatives and traditionalists fail to hold the proper attitudes, say concerning homosexual marriage, we are likely to be ostracized, prosecuted and disenfranchised. 

This will sound far-fetched to many of my readers, I know. But you have to remember that none of those students walked into Milgram’s laboratory intending to hurt anyone. But when faced with the situation and the expectations singular to it, it just came natural. They were so liberal, you see.  

Who Was Right, Orwell or Huxley?

Neil Postman, in his prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse In The Age of Show Business (1985) compares two views of a dystopian future: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) Though we lump these two works into a single category along with other such books, there are profound differences between Huxley’s and Orwell’s  visions.

Orwell wrote about a society ruled by fear and repression; Huxley wrote about one benumbed by entertainment and trivia. In one, books are banned; in the other, banning is not needed because nobody bothers to read anyway.

Both societies lead, in their own way, to the death of the soul. And though there are plenty of instances of repression and intimidation in contemporary western society, especially in the form of politically correct expectations, it is through the media’s trivialization of our daily lives that our civilization is most imperriled. In our choices of popular music, TV, movies, and cultural obsessions, we are becoming, nearly literally, the very zombies that are currently so fascinating to our young, and not-so-young.

I am often appalled by the uncritical manner in which even Christian people today support and patronize the movies, music and intellectual fashions of the time. Popular preaching is filled with allusions to pop culture. I have sometimes been guilty of this myself. One rarely hears the admonition of the New Testament writers to separate ourselves from this perverse generation, to renounce its forms of entertainment and instead assume the now-nearly-lost disciplines of the spiritual life.

We are a generation of gnostic Christians, believing that what we do through our somatic and mental habits has little to do with our “real” Christianity. Faith is, for multitudes of believers of every variety, an out-of-body experience. It’s all a matter of relationship now, rather than with old “religious” practices. It’s all about liberty these days; we’re beyond the sterile legalism of our forefathers.

You’ve heard all the variations on the cliché: “I love Jesus. Christianity I’m not so sure about.”

But until we get back to an understanding of biblical faith that unites mind and body, inner development and outer practices, personal piety and social savvy, we will remain a spent force, a sociological blip with little historical significance.

What would happen if our young turned off their electronic devices for a few hours every day and read old, classic books instead? What would happen if they decided that prayer is more important than “hanging out” with people just like themselves, people who only reinforce their prejudices and apathies? What would happen if they took the time and money they spend on their Netflix subscriptions and used these irreplaceable resources to support their local churches and mission societies?

Just a few thoughts. But then I’m old school. I still believe in solid things, like Christianity, civilization, routine Bible reading, solitude, sacrifice, and pure and undefiled religion. And I still believe that laziness and the urge to be titillated are far more dangerous to the soul than an army of atheists and skeptics.

 Huxley had it right, after all: We’re amusing ourselves to death.

Always Moving, But Going Nowhere

Last week cultural historian Henry Allen published a short piece in the Wall Street Journal. Allen has written books on the 20th Century, and says that in previous periods of history there would be no question what period you represented if you were plopped down in any subsequent period. For instance, if you were from the Twenties, you would instantly be recognized as a historical type in the Fifties, or the Eighties. Your historical “home” would be known most likely within ten, but certainly within twenty, years. This sort of identification, Allen writes, has disappeared for the past two decades. A typical person from 1993 now  looks almost exactly like someone from 2013.

Allen’s point is that something has happened, he’s not sure what. But it has left him feeling uneasy. Some kind of natural progress seems to have ground to a halt.

Several letters to the editor of the WSJ followed where writers attempted to define a cause for this. They largely focused on the presence of a global cultural stasis that is closely tied to a now-hegemonic secular progressivism. It’s often said that around 1992 America took a holiday from history with the Clinton administration. America, and much of the West, closed in on itself and became self-absorbed. Once existential threats such as the Soviet Union were gone from the world stage, everybody went to the beach and didn’t come back.

That might be the case, but I think there’s something else at work, Whether it’s cause or effect, I’m not sure. Let’s call it correlation. It’s the decline of the middle class. In 1970, the middle class accounted for over 60% of adults, while today it accounts for just 50%. A strong, growing middle class is the bellwether of a prospering society, and we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. Those making between $40K and $120K define the middle class today, and there are fewer and fewer people in that category. This means that numbers at both ends of the bell curve, the poor and the rich, are growing.

Two-tiered societies, rich and poor, are typical of regressive, authoritarian societies. Socialism tends toward this with its leveling of classes, while communism positively supercharges the process. On the other hand, a vibrant, expanding middle class is a bulwark against authoritarianism and the poverty that typically follows.

Many large American cities, by the way, are now two-tiered, with wealthy elites and upper-middle class unions at one end, and inner-city poor on the other, with relatively few in the middle. Charles Murray, in his book “Coming Apart,” chronicles the story of America’s new class divide. Ironically, it is cities where you will find liberals who pontificate on the evils of “Two Americas.”

They seem unaware that their values and political preferences lie at the center of this social transformation.   

As President Obama and Democrats move the country further and further to the left, one of the casualties will be the middle class, a class which historically is identified with self-sufficiency and personal liberty. We as a culture should be celebrating the small businessmen and women who provide most of the jobs and wealth in our country, but instead we are punishing them through high taxation and regulation such as Obamacare. No wonder many of them are sliding into a lower social bracket.

It is the young, those between twenty-four and thirty-nine, who are paying the highest price for the progressive policies that are despoiling their future. That they continue to vote Democrat is one of the disconnects of our time.  

So if, as Henry Allen writes, we are all looking more and more alike and seeming not to be going anywhere, it’s because that’s exactly what is happening. Even as the country gorges itself on the bread and circuses of the technological age and sways to a popular culture of rebellion, most of us are becoming poorer and plainer, and we don’t even know it.         

A Day in Ashdown Forest

It is said that only a third of Americans supported the Revolution in 1776. Another third opposed it, and yet another third was indifferent. Those indifferent masses are the enduring historical nightmare of all who care about the future of the nation. They are those who care little about first order affairs; their days are spent, as is the case with multitudes of youth, in hedonistic pursuits: the latest tunes, fashion, entertainment and self-absorbed pastimes of many sorts.

Older such pococurantes become obsessed with hobbies, golf or tennis, pornography, travel or sports, and other secondary and tertiary matters more in line with affluence and leisure. Innumerable churches promote this head-in-the-sand posture towards history by purveying an inner-directed, happy-clappy religion with no public dimension. 

The late, and great, Vaclav Havel spoke of “the attractions of mass indifference and the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.” He considered undisciplined passion one of the greatest dangers to civilization, but indifference to be an even greater danger.

It is not a bomb-throwing anarchist who endangers democracy so much as it is the lotus eater. We often think that youthful nonchalance and irony derive from postmodern sabotage of our schools, when we might rather trace much of it back to Winnie-the-Pooh: “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.”  

Tyrannies always depend on the vast mushy middle to remain complacent and pliable. Compliance can, after all, be bought by welfare handouts, by rewards for not working, and by the demagoguery that appeals to the populist urge to blame others for one’s own problems. Those in the mushy middle are easily swayed by images of cool, by prefab gestures of compassion, and gauzy public pieties such as diversity and multiculturalism. Their votes are guaranteed by more food stamps, by a few more months of unemployment compensation, or by a late-in-the-game, well-produced TV commercial. Millions of people go to the polls and decide on the basis of hair style, skin color, high-sounding platitudes, the last TV ad they saw, or the alleged sins of this or that candidate. 

How ironic it is that most elections come down to winning the momentary and fickle allegiance of great numbers of people who ultimately care little for either the freedom or tyranny their casual votes ensure.

 

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