The Ongoing Cultural Disaster

Q: What accounts for the grotesque state of American politics?  

A: The grotesque state of American culture. 

Politics is, and always has been, downstream from culture. Sure, politics and policy can influence culture, but that influence is largely ephemeral. Cultural attitudes are far more deeply embedded in the polity than, for instance, party affiliation.  Margaret Thatcher had it exactly right when she said “Win the argument, then win the election”. Conservatives and classical liberals ought to think about that because they have spent a good deal of time playing electoral politics only to have the cultural ground shift underneath them. 

Which is something that conservatives and classical liberals ought to be thinking about. 

The cultural ground did not shift overnight and it was not by an accident of nature. The cultural foundation of U.S. society came under relentless attack by radicals who sought to undermine Western liberal institutions. The strategy, articulated by the Marxist Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, was to begin “a long march through the institutions” to achieve control of the commanding heights of the culture.  Once achieved the project of turning America into a socialist paradise would go into full swing. 

Which is where we are now. 

There is not one important facet of American life or civil society that has not come under full scale attack by the cultural left, most of it disingenuous to say the least. Let us look at a few examples.

The bedrock of Western Society is the nuclear family. While our legal doctrines are expressed in terms of individuals, social organization is, and has been, with respect to the nuclear family. And the nuclear family is the transmission agent of culture. It is through the nuclear family that parents—both of them—teach their children what is right and wrong, and why. Parents raise their children in their faith tradition, if they so choose. Children learn about love, loyalty, respect, manners, rights, responsibility and authority.  They begin to learn the skills they will need to flourish and thrive. 

The family is not simply a temporary agglomeration of randomly chosen individuals. The husband and wife choose to form a family unit and vow its permanence. They choose to have children. Not only that, there are very strong biological ties among family members.  As a result, the nuclear family is the primary unit of civil society that stands between individuals and the coercive power of the State. 

For that reason the nuclear family is a primary target of radicals who seek to break individuals to the yoke of the State, which they mean to control.  The first instinct of a totalitarian, (and a Progressive State is a proto-Totalitarian State) is to break the family. Anyone who doubts that the Totalitarian State means to crush the traditional family needs only look to China’s one-child policy. And if you can stand it, read this article about what Communist China’s regime is doing to Uighur Women. See the Uighur article here.

In the West, the assault on the family takes on a different form. One of the earliest manifestations of the subjugation of the family to State power was to deny to people (actually to criminalize) the right to marriage between people of different races. Another was to deny welfare benefits to women when a man was present. Government substituted itself for the traditional male breadwinner. 

Not surprisingly, illegitimacy rates soared. In 1965, 24% of  black infants and 3% of white infants were born out-of-wedlock. Now out-of-wedlock births of black children are around 70%; the white rate is approaching 30%. The extraordinarily high black rate of out-of-wedlock births is an entirely new phenomenon. In 1940, for instance, the black illegitimacy rate was 14%. The reason for this is clear. The welfare state first lowered the cost of producing illegitimate children, and then the social stigma was erased. The result was an explosion of out-of-wedlock births and the destruction of the traditional family structure, especially among low-income groups. (See this article by Walter Williams).

While tactics have changed, the goal of destroying the family remains the same. Anybody who doubts this simply has to look at the Black Lives Matter website. Among other pronouncements there is this:

“We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”

The preferred tactic is to destroy the family unit by redefining it. So we have same-sex “marriage” which somehow became a constitutional right. The transgender movement completes the picture by institutionalizing the idea that there is no such things as biologically determined sex; that sex is just a social construct.  As part of this parental authority is denied. In many states parents do not have the right to prevent their young children, some as young as 12, from getting state financed gender reassignment hormone treatments. 

The coup de grace is a woman’s right to abortion on demand. That serves two goals. First it places married men and women in positions which are legally adverse to each other, each possessing different rights and responsibilities defined by the State. So much for the two became one. Second, it makes sustaining the life of an unborn child contingent on the wishes of the mother for any reason or no reason at all. In so doing it denies the intrinsic worth and dignity of that child. 

Closely related to the attack on the family is the ongoing attack on the first amendment, particularly the free exercise clause. The attack currently takes place under the guise of “reproductive rights” and public health. In the name of stopping the pandemic Democratic Governors across the country have imposed restrictions on religious practice that are far more severe that those imposed on “essential businesses”. Those essential functions include such life and death operations as state liquor stores and lottery sales. 

The restrictions that Governors have placed on religious practice have been pretty consistently swatted down by various courts. But keep in mind that Senate Democrats, led by Sheldon Whitehead, have threatened to pack the Supreme Court. Which leads us to the next attack on the free exercise clause. The Obama Administration (that would be the Obama-Biden Administration) attempted to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to supply insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients for their employees, a clear violation of their first amendment rights. That too was swatted down by the Court in a 7 -2 ruling. 

But this is not going away. There are now cases in the courts where government is trying to force Catholic hospitals to engage in practices that are directly contrary to their religious beliefs. One case seeks to force a Catholic hospital to perform a hysterectomy on a “transgender woman”. It is a clear violation of Catholic teaching to harm or remove a healthy organ unless if it is medically necessary.  

Why the attack on religious belief and especially, religious practice? It is because in the United States legal system and (pre-progressive) tradition, unalienable rights are natural rights endowed by the Creator. Those rights are a fundamentally at odds with progressive ideology, which asserts an all encompassing State sovereignty.  Religious institutions, the family, and individuals must be broken to the yoke of the State. And to accomplish that, the free institutions of civil society must be crushed by the State. 

What is to be Done?

We face a serious, perhaps existential, problem. But the solution is not simply to win an election. It is to persuade. The prerequisite for doing that is to wrest control of the schools from the propagandists who run them today. That will require taking two steps. First: Bust the teacher’s unions. There is no reason why they should hold a monopoly over the education of American kids. Especially given the appalling results they have produced, most particularly in big city schools which are essentially propaganda mills.

Second, American kids should be getting a first rate education; that can be accomplished by financing charter schools for primary and secondary education, and using vouchers. Another way to do it would be to provide education credits through the tax system. They key to reform is to bust the monopoly that the unions have and in so doing  provide parents with choice. In a word, fund the students, not the schools. 

This is a long term project that will require a lot of time and effort. It will require fighting the bureaucracy and launching lawsuits. It will require organizing. It will require winning local school board elections, avoiding the small stuff and keeping an eye on the big picture.  There is already a lot of good work being done here by conservative and libertarian think tanks. It is work that is absolutely essential to reclaim the schools, our Western liberal culture and our freedom. 

JFB

The Great Awokening

America has had several waves of Awakening in its history, characterized by intense religious enthusiasm and social activism. These waves stemmed from American Protestantism, often accompanied by a profound sense of conviction and redemption. They tended to be evangelistic, with an increase in evangelistic church membership and the formation of new denominations. The Awakenings were led by charismatic preachers who imbued in followers a profound sense of personal guilt and a need for redemption through Christ. 

The original Awakening in the early 1700s was mostly an elite affair. The Second Awakening “The Great Awakening” took place in the late 1700s and lasted until the around 1850. It spread beyond New England elites and made its way to the Midwest. It also was a time when Black attendance at mainline white Protestant churches declined precipitously. At the same time dozens of free Black churches were formed and served Blacks who were abandoning white mainline churches. There is a case to be made that this resulted from white discrimination against Blacks, but it is not a settled matter. In any event, as many scholars have noted, there is no place in America that is more segregated than church on Sunday.   

It should be noted that the Great Awakening coincided with progressive reforms including abolitionism, temperance and women’s rights. Note that social reformers and the Awakened often came from the same ranks.

The Third Awakening was also a profoundly Christian affair.   It was characterized by missionary work, the Social Gospel and was instrumental in fostering revivals in American cities. Out of the Third Awakening came the YMCA, Christian and Sanitary Commissions that provided medical relief to Union Armies, and Freedmen’s Societies that provided educational services to freedmen in the South after the Civil War.  

Fast forward to 2020. We are in yet another Great Awakening, known as the #Resistance. After all, why do you suppose that the #Resistance refers to itself as “woke”? 

This one however is different from the others in that it is anti-religious.

The #Resistance has all the earmarks of an Awakening. Its adherents are profound believers in the cause (however poorly defined). It has charismatic leaders. It is a mass movement. It is not cerebral; it is dominated by feelings, emotion and a profound sense of alienation, resentment and guilt. The movement (like all movements) is remarkably intolerant of people who don’t toe the party line. They are the Other; they are “deniers”. Skeptics  are canceled over the least variation from orthodoxy. Ritualized confessions of guilt are increasingly common.

Most importantly it is a movement that tries to fill a hole in the search for meaning that is lost in the soul of secularized man. It is a cry for help. 

The irony is that the secularization of society began with a quest for pluralism and equal justice, associated with the 1960s. It quickly turned into an attack on the basic institutions of a free society, including the traditional family, the rule of law, property rights and most importantly, religion. 

Why the attack on religion? It is the most important facet of the Gramscian long march through the institutions because religious authority stands above State authority. (That is why in the U.S. a priest can not be legally compelled to break the seal of confession.)

Religion ultimately succeeds by persuasion rather than by force (a principle honored in the breech). And it holds a privileged position in the U.S. legal system. Religious belief enjoys the protection of the free exercise clause of the First amendment. The U.S. Declaration is crystal clear that we have natural rights that are unalienable, endowed by the Creator. Rights are pre-political; they do not come from government, and government has no authority to take them away. Every individual is a unique being possessing intrinsic worth and dignity. That doctrine is a dagger pointed at the heart of collectivism. 

Woke citizens (as opposed to their leaders) are searching for justice and dignity in a world without the Creator and without Redemption. They want to, need to, create a world without sin. It is a fool’s errand; it requires the perfectibility of man, which is to say it requires the creation of  a “New Man.”  In turn that requires a great man, an extraordinary man, for whom the rules, which are mere social conventions, don’t apply. There are no rules; just the will to power. 

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the attorney Petrovich Porfiry refers to an academic article written by the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov when he was a student.

Porfiry provides a summation of the article:

“In his article all men are divided into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’. Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary.”

Rodion Raskolnikov replies by adding nuance:

“[An]…extraordinary man has the right…that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep…certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea {sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity}.”

In making his argument Raskolnikov makes the case for the nihilism that would shortly engulf the 20th century. The brutal ideologies of that century, communism and fascism, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people at the hands of Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Fidel, Ho Chi Minh. Atheists all. Long after the facts were clear they were still supported by Walter Duranty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Earnest Hemingway and Theodore Dreiser among others. 

When man’s yearning for meaning and dignity is divorced from faith in the Creator, the ultimate law-giver, what is left is nihilism. There is no truth; only “my truth”. There is no justice; only “my justice”. Decency is simply a matter of convenience. Who is to say that one system or action is superior to another? There are no facts, only interpretations. Which implies that all questions are then reducible to power and decided by the exercise of that power. And all power comes, according to Mao, from the barrel of a gun. 

We have gone down this road before, many, many times. The result is always the same, and it isn’t pretty. It would be nice to avoid another go around.  But that would require that liberals defend liberalism, and it doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon. 

JFB

Art and Culture

Politics is downstream from culture in that politics is shaped by culture. Famous writers like George Orwell (1984), Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon) and Mario Vargas Llosa (The War of the End of the World) have ruminated on this and warned of the dangers of fanaticism, ideology and detachment from reality.

Unfortunately, lots of artists, and certainly many important ones, have had long term love love affairs with various forms of collectivism. Unbeknownst to the public at large, these artists and writers have had a powerful influence on shaping the culture in which we now live. They include everyone from pop stars to serious philosophers. These would include a wide variety of players ranging from the unserious (e.g., James Cameron, Madonna, Sean Penn, Woody Guthrie) to serious writers and thinkers (e.g, Jean-Paul Sartre, Isaac Brodsky, John Steinbeck).

As a result, art has too often simply become a propaganda tool that totalitarians are only too happy to use. Large works of sculpture celebrating “Socialist Realism” are still featured in Tiananmen Square, for instance. Interestingly enough, one art form that has not been seriously compromised (yet anyway) is the art of the stand-up comic.

Dictators (and for that matter social justice warriors, AKA totalitarians in waiting) are fearful of comedy for the obvious reason that their power is diminished when they are the subject of jokes and are easily made to look like fools. Not to put too fine point in it, there are not a lot of easy laughs emanating from North Korea or Cuba. That said it is worth considering that people like Jerry Seinfeld have indicated they are not interested in doing shows on “woke” campuses.

With that in mind, it is worth watching th short video clip by John Stossel below.

John Stossel TV

JFB