The way we think now

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity  [William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming“]

Statue of George Washington in Portland, Oregon

During my lifetime, I’ve seen the crumbling of elite institutions that once exercised moral authority.

Mainstream churches no longer preach the Christian creed.  Elite universities no longer commit to disinterested scholarship.  Elite newspapers no longer try to present the facts accurately and objectively.

They are being taken over by cultural radicals.  Despite or maybe because of their compromises, mainstream churches and newspapers are rapidly losing public support, and elite universities survive mainly because they are gatekeepers for the top professional and managerial jobs.

The cultural radicals have created their own set of taboos about race and gender, which, in certain sectors of society, you defy at your peril.   You can lose your job for expressing approval of ideas and values that have existed for centuries or maybe millennia.  It is widely considered unacceptable to say that “all lives matter” or that there is a biological difference between men and women.

I’m not surprised or shocked that there are who think this way, which they have every right to do.  I am surprised and shocked that there has been so little pushback against them from the nation’s supposed intellectual and moral leaders.

While there is a revolution in cultural and moral values, the structure of wealth and power stands unchanged.  The CIA, NSA and FBI, the Pentagon and the armaments industry, the Wall Street speculators, Silicon Valley monopolists—all these entities are more powerful than ever.

The power that rests on moral authority has been eclipsed.  The power that rests on money and brute force shines as brightly as ever.

The nation’s elite – the ruling class, the Establishment, call them what you will –  lack moral conviction and moral confidence.  What happened?

Lost Certainties

Someone said that 19th century America was held together by belief in three things – Protestantism, patriotism and progress.

I think this is so.  The old-time USA was much more violent than the USA today, prone to riots, strikes, insurrections and vigilante justice, even apart from the Civil War.  But there was a consensus that lay beneath all this.

Protestants believed that God ruled the world, that salvation came through Jesus, and that God’s justice.  Patriots believed that the USA was the embodiment of democracy and freedom.  Progressives believed that each generation would be better off, materially, than the ones who came before.

I myself, born in 1936, was taught to believe in all three.

This consensus was not necessarily a commitment to the status quo.  People who shared these beliefs brought about the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women and the regulation of monopoly capitalism.

The problem was that these ideas did not stand up to close intellectual scrutiny.  Once people started to question them, they could not go back to believing in the old way..

Biblical scholarship made it hard to believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  Once you studied the topic, your choices were to reject scholarship, reject Christianity or believe in the Christian story in a vague way as an allegory or myth.

Historical scholarship made it hard to believe that the USA is the embodiment of freedom and democracy.  Once you studied the topic, your choices were to reject scholarship, reject patriotism or believe in American ideals as seldom-realized aspirational goals.

There are lots of reasons why it has become hard to believe in progress, which was possibly more foundational than the other two.

Life has been getting worse for the majority of Americans. This is largely because of bad economic policy, but even if this changes, life will still be hard because of climate-related catastrophes, exhaustion of natural resources and new pandemics in the coming bad years.  So progress, too, has become an aspirational goal, not a reality.

When I received my university education in the 1950s, I was not taught, as students fifty years before were taught, to belief in timeless truths handed down by previous generations.  Instead I was encourage to participate in a never-ending quest for truth.

Democracy was no long the defense of natural rights that were ordained by God or metaphysical structures.  Democracy was respect for procedures that allowed people to live together in peace while believing different things

Instead of timeless truths, I was taught to believe in rules of procedure that allowed everyone to pursue their own good and their own idea of truth in their own way.  Philosophical truth was not like religious truth, eternal principles that supposedly were good for all time.  Philosophical truth was like scientific truth, always tentative, incomplete and subject to continuous correction.

I was taught that everybody, no matter who, has the right to peaceably express their opinion, the right to equal protection under the law and the right to due process of law.  My test of character was to respect the rights of people I despised.

I believed these things, and I believe in them still.   But many people today find this to be thin soup.  They find no spiritual nourishment in these principles.  To them, it is like asking people to fight and die in defense of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Liberals claimed to decide things based on objective criteria that are fair to everyone.  But people outside the liberal  consensus question whether this is even possible.  Every supposedly impartial judgment rests on unprovable and often hidden assumptions.

For example, one favorite liberal meme is, “If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one.”  That’s fair and just to everyone, right?   But no liberal says, “If you don’t believe in guns, don’t own one.”

Opponents of the new “cancel culture” and drives for de-platforming appeal to the older liberalism, which says that, as much as possible, you allow everyone to have their say and then make a rational judgment as to who is right.  But there is a younger generation that has been taught that objective, rational judgment is (1) impossible and (2) a smokescreen for hidden agendas.

If you can’t believe in eternal, unquestioned truths, and you can’t believe in fair procedures for judging truth, what is left? You judge things on the basis of emotion and of purity of motive.

People today make claims on the basis of their feelings.  Some say they feel love for black people.  They feel angry at the sight of Confederate statues.  They feel threatened by people speaking up in support Donald Trump.

People are judged and claims are made based on emotions.  If you love black people, you will support Black Lives Matter.  If you don’t support Black Lives Matter, then you don’t feel that black lives matter..

If you feel angry at the sight of Confederate statues, you have a right to tear them down.  If you object to this, your motive must be racist.  If you feel threatened by Trump supporters, you have a right to silence them.  If you object, you are a racist Trump supporter.

There are versions of this on the other side of the political aisle.  If you don’t like wearing masks, your feeling is evidence that mask-wearing is futile.  Anybody who approves of mask has a hidden agenda to impose totalitarian rule on America.

And of course there is a lot of repression that doesn’t have anything to deal with subjective emotion.  Julian Assange is not being imprisoned and tormented because he hurt anyone’s feelings.  It is because he threatened powerful interests.  But this is a topic for a different post.

The Strange New Awakening.

Which brings me to the deeply strange Black Lives Matter protests insurrection.

They are an example of emotivism.  They originate from videos taken of police abusing poor people and black people.  The videos speak for themselves.  No argument is necessary.  No normal person could watch the video of the life being squeezed out of George Floyd and not feel outraged.

This has given rise to what may be the largest protest movement in American history, certainly the largest within my adult memory.  It is a protest on behalf of black people and led by black people, but a majority of participants are white.  The protests have spread all over the world.

The protest began with the important and justified, but narrow, goal of ending racism in American policing, which I of course support.  It moved on to calling for defunding of police departments and using the money to reform society so that policing would no longer be necessary, which I think is a worthy goal.

From there we got to rejection of all of American tradition and history as a story of colonialism, racism and imperialism, and a demand to start anew.  This is something highly unusual in history—people taking to the streets to protest against their own historical existence.  It reflects a profound demoralization.

I don’t know how many of the protesters actually are statue-topplers.  In any mass movement, there are differences and cross-currents, but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that honoring the memories of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln is a contested opinion.

I think this feeling is as much a religious feeling as a political feeling.  Or rather a desire for something to satisfy the need for belonging, the sense of justice and the longing for meaning.

It is no good for me to lament that the new generation does not believe in the things I believed in or, more accurately, I was content to have other people believe in.  If those beliefs are dead, my complaining will not bring them back.

I have long thought there is a moral vacuum in American society that someday would be filled one way or another, possibly by a religious revival like the Great Awakenings of the early 18th and 19th centuries.

I think the popularity of Jordan Peterson reflects a desire for a missing moral meaning and purpose in life.  I doubt that the new movement can be an adequate substitute for religion, but who knows?  This may be just the beginning of the story.

We are at a turning point in history.  Something is dying, and something, I know not what, is being born.


Year Zero by Matt Taibbi.

The birth of the culture wars by Frank Furedi for Spiked.

The identitarians are winning the culture wars by Frank Furedi for Spiked.

The Real Problem at Yale Is Not Free Speech by Natalia Dashan for Palladium Magazine.

The American Press Is Destroying Itself by Matt Taibbi.

Revolutionary Zealots of Cancel Culture by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Why won’t liberals defend liberalism? by Peter Franklin for Unherd.

Kneeling in the Church of Social Justice by John McWhorter for Reason.

The Great Awokening and the Second American Revolution by Eric Kaufmann for Quillette.

UUs in the Pews, Please Help! by the Rev. Richard Trudeau for Truly Open Minds and Hearts.

On ‘white fragility’ by Matt Taibbi.

ending the charade by Fredrik deBoer.

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4 Responses to “The way we think now”

  1. David Damico Says:

    The last line of your post is very true, the US is changing, in a way none of us can accurately predict.

    Since I know you, fairly well, I can see your point of view in rationality, however, I also believe you are hindered by this as much as you say liberals are all about feeling. It’s tough to see things from outside of our own nature but in levying the charges against liberals as all decisions being made by feelings alone, is simply not true.

    Your overall message seems to be the US is falling apart. I see it as growing pains or the next step to maturity.

    Since you and I are several generations apart, with myself being younger, but not young, I can safely say both of us are subject to our “default programming” as taught to us in our youth. For instance, I do not like cursing. Yet, it has become part of every day usage for my teenage students. How do I teach them the world has not caught up to their youthful standards?

    I think you’re trapped as much as I am in *our* standards. Because you’re older, your standards are different than mine. When someone begins complaining how things are not the way they used to be, regardless of logic, it’s obvious they are now comfortable in their ways. No disrespect meant.


  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    Yeah, well, never get between an ideologue and their ideology.

    The establishment will do a rope-a-dope, pay lip service, and absorb the protesters by doing whatever doesn’t too badly interfere with the status quo.

    The civil rights protests of the 60s actually stretched from the mid-50s to the mid-70s. The counter culture was huge because that was the peak population of the baby boomers. I’m not sure how much lasting impact it had. After all, in 1980 we ended up electing Reagan. And Newt Gingrich brought us the biggest shift in the Congress of the century.

    At least we got rid of the draft. The environmental movement and gay rights got toe holds to build from. Despite what we keep hearing, major civil rights improvements happened. But here we are with the most reactionary president of the last hundred years. What did it all mean? The best I can hope for is that these protests institute some major reforms in police practices before people get bored.

    I have decided that I am a dinosaur. I’m going to let the world do what it will and pretty much keep my head down, hoping to avoid any incoming comets. My opinions are not welcome. I think “The Who” have the right idea.


  3. justsomeguy Says:

    In the US, it seems that every institution has been hopelessly corrupted by money. This has been obvious for at least 20-40 years. Media/journalism, religion, healthcare, government. Post WW-II, the US has adopted the corporate (& amoral) value system whereby profits are more important than any other value. The entire populace has been indoctrinated into that corporate value system. By TV (and subsequently social media). In short, technology (starting with radio & movies & the concomitant rise of the PR industry), then Television, then internet, cells phones & social media) has created a culture of greed, fear, ignorance, & narcissism.
    Historically, there has been a ruling class (Kings, Aristocrats, Dictators, Pharaohs, etc), a small supporting class of hangers-on & professionals (shopkeepers, Doctors, religious leaders), and masses of serfs/slaves. “Democracy” of the past 250 years or so is in decline, and we are returning to that historic (human nature based ?) norm. Technology is also moving all humans toward neofeudalism.
    Manufactured consent (media/social media/AI based datamining & persuasion techniques), surveillance (both physical & virtual), and authoritarianism. It is unclear to me whether the ruling oligarchs/corporations will be loyal only to themselves, or will retain some identification with nation-states. The corporate entities will have no loyalty, but some foolish CEO’s may (until those 2 loyalties inevitably come into conflict). Capitalism’s amorality has become global.
    At the same time, our species faces several potentially catastrophic situations. Climate crisis, runaway AI, “unforeseen” impacts of biotech, bioweapons, nanotech, and nanoweapons, pandemics, collapse of debt-based capitalism, and several more.
    Our technology grows far more quickly than our “wisdom”.
    Perhaps Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) was correct in thinking that humanity will have a near die-off century, but then make the needed systemic changes. Technology, and problems that require global co-operation, may yet create a “global identity”. But I have seen no sign that our species is capable of outgrowing our innate flaws.


    • justsomeguy Says:

      More to your, to my mind incorrect, concern about cancel culture, I should add that “oligarchic suppression of left-populist economics leads inevitably to right-populism”. As we see around the globe. In the US, the Democratic party (late 1980’s DLC) ditched economic populism in order to court funding by the wealthy. Regardless of whether that was the correct decision from a pragmatic perspective, it was immoral; the result has been that Democrats have focused solely on “social issues”. Both parties support & promote corporate profits, the wealthy, and “the stock market”. Republicans seemingly only care about the .01% (and of course fear & hate), Democrats the top 10% (and identity politics). The “lack of moral authority” that you despair of, is based on the corporate value system (profits are the ONLY value, love & empathy have no value), we are indoctrinated into, and the lack of any meaningful political movement to oppose it.
      It makes no sense to focus on so called “cancel culture” when it is merely a symptom of frustration among those striving for economic & social justice – both of which are stymied by our political & economic system.
      Well, gee – that’s FAR too much time spouting my beliefs. No disrespect intended. Have a great day.


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