It (progressivism) is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby. GK Chesterton
Chesterton also said he who believes in nothing will believe in anything. We live in an age when the reverse is also true. The United States since the end of World War II has become the richest and most powerful large country in the history of the world. Its system of free enterprise, respect for private property, and individual liberty has been the foundation on which its prosperity and international prestige has rested.
As its temporal success grew, its moral strength, which had been the foundation on which the country rested, slowly dissipated. The flaws in the nation’s past were used as a bludgeon against its traditions and institutions. Past perfection was claimed to be the minimum standard for an acceptable history. Anything less had to be erased. These assaults on good judgement and the imperfections common to everyone are different from what they seem on surface examination. Many of those who mouth the clichés of the new enlightenment are ignorant of what they are supporting. They are perpetual followers, without a compass, going where style and fashion dictate.
Thus, there are two problems in need of solution. What do the vast majority of those dancing to a crazy tune think they’re doing? And what do the composers of the tunes intend?
Followers often do not know where they are going or why they might wish to travel. Thus, patently deranged ideas, if presented by a source one sees as authoritative or attractive or by a seller of nostrums or by someone superficially worthy of imitation, can cause those with a disposition to action independent of analysis to zealously advance causes they don’t understand. The results vary with the epoch. If the leaders go in a happy direction the unthoughtful many may find their condition bettered. If unrepresentative power is the motor of a dictatorial few, mischief or worse may be the reward of success. Today we are in a particularly fertile patch of foolishness. Those easily persuaded to dance a mad tune need no further examination. They are always in abundance.
It is the second group that needs examination. They’re the ones who decide. Consider two examples from American history that show the effect a convinced few can have on an easily swayed multitude. The first is what proved to be a successful separation from a distant rule and then the establishment of a new government which was effective far beyond the conception of those who brought it to life. The second attempt at a separation, but on behalf of an ignoble history, was a vainglorious failure. Of course, I refer to the American Revolution and the American Civil War.
The American Revolution is the subject of countless volumes describing its causes, course, and influence. To attempt to summarize any part of it might be a life’s work. It is the inexorable nature of colonies to separate from the mother country. If the American Revolution had not occurred independence from Great Britain would have happened anyway, though a bit later. In fact, the US and Canada might have emerged as one country. What to do with the French speakers would still be a problem.
The Revolution, its inception, course, and aftermath was directed by a small handful of brilliant and artful men whose interests and preferences animated their actions – hence the Founding Fathers. I suspect had not their interests seriously been affected by the actions of the British crown, they may have found a way to settle their differences without recourse to violence.
Consider The Declaration of Independence. Once past the first two soaring passages, that make the document immortal, there is a long list of grievances – some real, most either exaggerated or invented. Jefferson and his fellow conspirators were able to convince the bulk of their fellow colonists that armed overthrow of the government, in place for more than a century and a half, was preferable to a negotiated settlement. Taxation without representation may have been onerous, but taxation with representation was likely to be equally distasteful to the elite that led the way to independence.
This elite consisted mostly of the best, the brightest, and most unusually the wisest. After a successful armed conflict followed by a brief period of indecision they constructed the best blueprint for governance yet devised. The vast majority of early Americans, and the generations which followed them, likely without understanding the grounds for divorce, enjoyed the product of good governance combined with the best piece of land on the planet. Good governance is obviously a relative term. Anything human is touched with tragedy and folly. Nevertheless, for the century following World War I the US was the richest and best place to live in an increasingly complex and fractured world.
The Civil War was fought over a single issue – slavery. Lincoln said the war was fought to preserve the Union, but it would not have been sundered absent slavery. It was the only issue of the many disputed by the North and South that could not settled by negotiation. Only 10% of southerners owned slaves, yet the Confederate army fought like Spartans for a cause that really did not affect most of them. They did so because those at the top of a plantation system led them to war and disaster. The cause of the war was different from what the rank and file Confederate soldier thought it was. Southerners were willing to die in the hundreds of thousands for something they believed in but didn’t understand.
Life is more complicated than the many following the few for better or worse. People sometimes do realize they are being steered in a direction that may not coincide with interests. Menken’s boobus americanus is an exaggeration only intermittently applicable. Having seen how people may be manipulated into supporting actions that further their long term interests as in the American Revolution or result in their destruction and marginalization as was the course and sequel to the Civil War, consider the state of America in the first part of the 21st century.
We live in the era of the full flowering of a century of determined effort to undermine the entire social and governmental order of the United States. The currency of ideas that would previously have been considered too absurd for serious consideration has a simple, if not immediately obvious, explanation. Almost all who take these ideas seriously do not understand what’s behind them.
The extreme positions on abortion, gender fluidity, censorship, cancel culture, curtailment of speech, open borders, crime without punishment, everlasting systemic racism – all have an underlying purpose that is rational if pernicious and which is not understood by most of those who support these positions.
Start with abortion. Admittedly a complex issue; but what thoughtful person would approve of the killing of a baby one minute before its birth? Yet there are many who see nothing wrong with such a policy. All the “woke” ideas permeating society, seemingly embraced by a sizable fraction of the population and opposed by the rest have a purpose that goes beyond surface insanity.
The foundational belief of those few who are fully cognizant of the purpose of these extreme or lunatic changes in the fabric of the country is that the Constitution and the liberal republic it birthed are outmoded and should be replaced. The attempt to remake the country began more than 100 years ago. The progressives of Woodrow Wilson’s era had some extreme views that with the passage of time were replaced by other extreme views. At the movement’s core is the core belief that experts rather than the people should control the levers of power and opinion. The current lunacy is a burr under the saddle to agitate the populace such that they will consent to society’s makeover.
The process began with far left wing political movements that initially achieved no purchase. Much more successful was the absorption of the academy. The modern university and college is a maelstrom of conformity and persiflage where everything is 180° distant from whatever is stated. Hence conformity is termed diversity and tolerance is condemnation. Higher education secure, the next target was K-12. This is the arena of a fierce conflict now underway, the outcome of which is uncertain. The federal bureaucracy has been captured. State and local governments have been partially seized depending on geography.
The media have largely surrendered to the foundational assault begun a century ago. There are, however, holdouts that can still press against the new order. Much of the public is awakening from 100 years of solitude and is just beginning to realize the transformation being forced on them. Whether their belated attention to fundamental change can reverse this change is problematic.
Modern communication in all its forms has yielded opposite results. On the one hand, the internet giants have emerged as bastions of a “truth” they seek to impose on all they touch. Yet the internet’s decentralized nature has allowed portions of opposition to ooze into the public consciousness. How all this turmoil will play out is not easy to predict. A successful revolution, no matter how structured, against a successful form of governance is unheard of. This is why the current cultural, social,and political strife in the US is so jarring. Large segments of the population are being manipulated into overturning their own wellbeing. In this regard they are like residents of the South who fought to the death to perpetuate institutions that did not support their best interests. Better late than never may not be enough.