“In the attics of the students, in the garrets of Bohemia, and the deserted offices of doctors without patients and lawyers without clients there are [the revolutionaries] in bud.” — Hippolyte Taine, writing about France in the 1860s
“We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.” — Patrick Henry to the Virginia convention, March 23, 1775
How do you turn “the smartest people in the world” into the dumbest? Simple: you turn the sophisticated sources of information on which they depend — elite media, academia, and schools — into sources of misinformation.
And how do you persuade people who should know better to embrace bad ideas and silly concepts? Equally simple.
You make those ideas fashionable.
One of the girls in my son’s sixth-grade class told him he would look better if he wore blue jeans. After he explained to me that this is what the other kids in his class are wearing, I took him shopping and bought him a couple pairs. He wore jeans the next day at school, and a kid said: “Hey, look, Daniel is wearing blue jeans!” And they applauded.
But why, he asked me afterward, does it matter so much what someone wears? After all, that’s just a superficial outer appearance. I was proud of him for asking that question — which showed that he valued character over image — but explained that these things are important because they send social signals. Most people really don’t know how to evaluate someone in terms of their character and values. They lack the time or ability to do so. Thus, they look at symbols like clothes, haircuts, and the kind of car someone drives, or their credentials, like college degrees, in order to judge others.
Once I was in the elevator of a fashionable Manhattan high rise holding take-out coffee for myself and my wife. I was informally dressed and wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap. One woman in the elevator turned to another and said: “I didn’t know Starbucks delivers!”
Indeed, fashion may be the greatest enemy of survival for America today. Holding a certain set of ideas has been defined as making one seem sophisticated, successful, and admirable. Other ideas are deemed horrible, indicating that the person is a hick, rube, bumpkin, yahoo, racist. In short, the kind of person who hates others because they are different and clings to guns and religion.
One of the great successes of leftism (pretending to be liberalism) in North America and Europe today is that it has made itself so fashionable, so identified with sophistication, intellectual quality, and what used to be called the upper class. Not the old upper class of country clubs and yachts (though Senator John Kerry has a whopper of a boat), but the upper class of merit, the truly good who hate racism and are saving the Earth.
Funny how many of these people are quite wealthy themselves. The message: my money and success is justified by my holding proper attitudes. Al Gore may have a big house and a big carbon footprint, but that’s okay because he talks about how these things are evil.
The true class warfare going on is not that of the one percent reactionary, greedy rich versus the ninety-nine percent of everyone else, but rather a section of the elite that benefits from big government — in supposed alliance with those receiving government payments, plus various groups given special privileges — against everyone else. Per Taine’s words about nineteenth century France, the revolutionaries are no longer “doctors without patients and lawyers without clients,” but rather those who would be without patients, clients, or employment if not for the government’s patronage.
Part of the trick to conceal that reality has been to make one’s good intentions the test, rather than the results of one’s behavior or policies. The outcome may be disastrous to the economy, the poor, the medical care system, and those living in countries victimized by one’s wrong-headed foreign policy, but that’s not important if you meant well. Yet the abandonment of pragmatism — measuring things by what works rather than by ideological standards or intentions — is the start of the abandonment of successful democratic life.
Another element is the left’s transformation into the party of the snobs, the instrument for the elite’s contempt for the people.
At a diplomatic party in Washington, I was in line for the free food behind a well-coiffed, well-dressed woman. We got into a discussion of textbooks, and I asked if she knew which state was the largest purchaser of them.
“California?” she said.
“Ah, many people think that, but the answer is actually Texas.”
Seconds before it happened I knew what was about to unfold. She sneered in a particularly nasty way and said — honest, word-for-word — in the most snobbish possible tone of voice: “Oh, those people don’t think like us.”
The fashionable hatred is not to look down on other races or nations or homosexuals as inferiors who should be despised. Such thought crime is rare in the West today. It has been replaced by hatred of the truly religious, the non-big city, the non-leftist people who don’t think the right things.
Roughly 50 percent of Americans so view the other 50 percent today. Much of the media, entertainment industry, publishing, schools, and politicians see most of their fellow citizens as inferior.
Despite the pose of the heroic intellectual speaking truth to power, many or even most of those whose good fortune rests on paper credentials or election rather than on actual, provable achievement are either cowards or opportunists. They will not do anything truly courageous when it comes to breaking with the fashionable consensus. When once brave intellectuals defied tyrants who shouted “off with their heads!,” now they dare not say anything that might lead to “off with their grants!” “Off with their reputation!” “Off with their invitations to nice parties!” They fear less the country going to hell than being identified as one of those unwashed, ignorant, backwoods fools who actually think the Constitution should be respected, free speech is a basic right, and unlimited debt is bad.
I am not joking. These are people who can ridicule the masses as an ignorant mob and weep over the poor and downtrodden at the same time. With full good conscience that they are simultaneously superior and compassionate, they look down on those from most American states, small businesspeople, and the hardworking masses as their inferiors. In Marxist terms, they have put the yuppie upper-middle class in place of the proletariat. We are looking at an establishment-approved program of snobbishness as virtue.
But that’s precisely why the current leftism works so effectively. They can romanticize distant peasants — or terrorists — while jeering at anyone who shops at Walmart. They can have a high living standard, feel virtuous, and be viciously arrogant all at the same time with no guilt whatsoever.
It’s a wonderful life.
To agree with anything said on talk radio, for instance, is equivalent to wearing two different colored socks, slurping your drink, or using the wrong fork. And the mass media, many schools, and the entertainment industry — all of which still seem to shape the worldview of roughly one-half of Americans — have worked overtime to intensify that image and to close all the options. Making things like patriotism, religion, love of family, and other such things look like fuddy-duddy nonsense has been their most remarkable treatment.
The framework of what is acceptable has not only been moved remarkably far and fast, but most people aren’t even aware of what has happened. Both liberals and conservatives, each for their own reason, insist that things have always been this way. But that’s not at all true.
When I went to a liberal public school in the 1960s, we said the Pledge of Allegiance and the Twenty-Third Psalm every morning without anyone among the overwhelmingly liberal Democratic parents being horrified.
In 1973, women won the ability to have an abortion legally. This was called “choice.” Today it is being taken for granted that contraception should be a “free” right paid for by the public and provided by all institutions whether or not that violates their religious beliefs. This could be called “no choice.” Has there ever been a debate about this startling transformation?
Historically, liberals were people who said that it was okay for governments to run a deficit as long as it wasn’t too big and the money spent was used for productive purposes creating more wealth. Now liberalism supposedly advocates unlimited spending for any purpose even if it can be shown that the money creates no good result.
None of these — and many other — points are even honestly discussed in the universities and mass media. They are simply taken for granted as truths, and the historical background erased. What is most discouraging is not so much that there are an unlimited number of leftists posing as liberals, but that there are so few people devoted to professional ethics — to following the truth wherever it leads — among the very professions entrusted with that responsibility.
Somebody else is going to have to save America, because the academics, journalists, Washington insiders, and various “experts” aren’t going to do it. They don’t fear being wrong, damaging the society, or failing in their duty so much as being called the equivalent of nerds and peasants.