[This essay originally appeared at Eternity Road on January 4, 2006. Given the chaos of the moment, and the overwhelming significance of the election almost upon us, I felt it appropriate to repost it here.]
Fran here. In pondering the huge list of things I had in mind for this piece, which started life as a modest tangent from Mark Steyn's "It's The Demography, Stupid!" tour de force, I realized that there were issues even deeper than the ones Steyn has addressed. Those issues are prior and superior to all what's-the-problem and what-then-must-we-do inquiries, as important as those other things are. They're the things I most want to talk about, today and every day.
In a way, Steyn's focus is broader than mine, for he concerns himself with the whole of the developed world. My concern is for America. In another way, Steyn's focus is narrower than mine, for he concerns himself with visible threats to our present age. My concern is with the prospects for freedom and justice down the centuries to come.
1. Us And Them.
Political conflict is collective conflict. It obliges us to think in terms of opposed camps, facing one another over a more-or-less clearly defined line of conflict. Our entire approach to politics is founded on this attitude; indeed, it's impossible to talk about political matters in a political framework without it.
But the attitude has certain unexamined assumptions built into it:
- Each camp is essentially unified on those matters that constitute the field of battle.
- Those contentious matters are important enough to regard the other camp as the enemy, whose defeat eclipses all other political considerations.
- Compromise, even if it were possible, would be immoral and therefore unacceptable, or sufficiently less desirable than victory to make battle obligatory.
This makes political conflict sound a lot like war. As long as the assumptions go unchallenged, they compel us to hurl ourselves at the foe, and to accept no final outcome but definitive victory or undeniable defeat. But politics is not war; the shots fired are rhetorical, not metallic; no one dies from the contest itself; and no combatant ever accepts that he has been defeated for good. What does this do to the relations among men who opt for political engagement? In particular, what does it do to relations between a member of Us and a member of Them?
The answer depends critically on the ideological differences between Us and Them:
- Do we differ about about ultimate aims?
- Do we differ about the means to be used to achieve our aims?
- Do we differ about moral constraints?
- Do we differ about priorities?
Each of these gives rise to a different kind of conflict.
2. Meet The New Boss...Same As The Old Boss.
American political malaise at this time is rooted in a pathology of priorities. The Republicans have power; the Democrats want it back. Eleven years ago, the parties exchanged those positions, in the sort of electoral reversal to which a democratic republic is prone. Such reversals had happened before, of course. But I must note, sadly, that as our nation has aged, those reversals have had a steadily diminishing effect on public policy. Yet there are few substantive reasons to prefer one to the other.
At this time, prominent Democrats condemn the Bush Administration at every opportunity...for doing more or less what those Democrats would do in the Administration's place. The public wouldn't permit anything greatly different, given the events of the past five years. The anti-terror campaign might be conducted somewhat differently, but it would be there, and probably about as serious as it is today. There'd be a perceptible difference in the philosophies of the men nominated to the federal bench. The Old Media would be far more supportive of a Democratic administration. We'd be hearing a lot more about how it's all "for the children." But federal spending would be pretty much what it is, the alphabet agencies would behave pretty much as they have, and so on. In terms of day-to-day domestic governance and international dealing, the cone of popular preference that confines Washington's actions would make no greater allowances for Democrats than it does for Republicans.
These are not words of exculpation or praise. Our public officials should be able to do what's right rather than what's politically palatable and expedient. They should be able to tell us the uncomfortable truths we always refuse to hear. They should be able to refuse us when we demand that which is not rightfully ours, or that which would bring the Republic crashing down around our ears. But they are above us only in the power they wield; as men, they are an accurate representation of us -- in particular, of the weaknesses to which we of the year of Our Lord 2006 are prone.
Steyn's essay skewers those weaknesses with irresistible power:
...in the typical election campaign in your advanced industrial democracy, the political platforms of at least one party in the United States and pretty much all parties in the rest of the west are largely about what one would call the secondary impulses of society—government health care, government day care (which Canada’s thinking of introducing), government paternity leave (which Britain’s just introduced). We’ve prioritized the secondary impulse over the primary ones: national defense, family, faith, and, most basic of all, reproductive activity—“Go forth and multiply,” because if you don’t you won’t be able to afford all those secondary-impulse issues, like cradle-to-grave welfare....
The commanding heights of the culture have behaved disgracefully for the last several decades. But, if it were just a problem with the elites, it wouldn’t be that serious: the mob could rise up and hang ’em from lampposts—a scenario that’s not unlikely in certain Continental countries. But the problem now goes way beyond the ruling establishment. The annexation by government of most of the key responsibilities of life—child-raising, taking care of your elderly parents—has profoundly changed the relationship between the citizen and the state. At some point—I would say socialized health care is a good marker—you cross a line, and it’s very hard then to persuade a citizenry enjoying that much government largesse to cross back.
So why do the parties so furiously rage together?
The answer is unpleasant, but unavoidable. Their difference is a difference over priorities. The Democrats' top priority is power for the Democrats, and the Republicans' top priority is power for the Republicans. This diagnosis applies to just about every public official from either party, at least to some degree. Even President Bush, of whom I've often spoken admiringly, has from time to time conceded the priority of GOP power, for example when he threw his support behind Arlen Specter over the more reliably conservative Pat Toomey.
Ultimately, we are the reason for all of it. We've become demanding, petulant, querulous. We want our freebies and we want them now. Our descent into political venality has persuaded the best of men, the men of unshakable convictions, immaculate morality, and stainless honor, to remain out of the field. Those who've flowed into the vacuum are, to be kind, not the best of men. But they know how to pander to us.
3. iPod Opinions.
The great Mark Twain once had a character say, "You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is." Twain had accurately gauged the priority of individual interest over the common good in the minds of men. Alexander Hamilton put it somewhat less colorfully but no less accurately when he said: "Power over a man's subsistence is power over his will." But subsistence is no longer much of an issue in American society; luxury is.
Many will take issue with the following statement:
Nevertheless, it is true. Unless you're a mountaineer at the top of Mount McKinley, these things are conveniently within your reach. If you lack the price, there are others -- many, many others -- who will purchase them for you, out of the goodness of their hearts. You can be separated from the necessities of life only by ignorance or willful intransigence.
What's that you say? The cuisine at the soup kitchens might not be to your taste? The clothes at the thrift center might be less than stylish? The shelter might be home to persons who snore? Ah, then what you want is not sustenance but your choice of sustenance. You want it your way. My sympathies, though fervent, are limited. Free gifts are given at the discretion of the giver, not the recipient. This is as it must be.
Having said that, I recognize that the demands persist. Millions of voices clamor for "free" this or "universal" that, meaning "I want someone else to pay for it." That's at the heart of calls for "socialized" anything, as conservatives and libertarians are aware. By traditional standards of right and wrong, the willingness to join in such calls indicates a moral deficit. But in an age of moral relativism, how does one refute such calls? Particularly when the relativism is so far reaching that it proclaims resistance to the demands to be the true crime?
Reflect for a moment on how far we've come. Two centuries ago, men who could not pay their obligations were imprisoned for it; today, innumerable agencies, public and private, rush into the gap to support them and theirs in something approaching luxury. The children of welfare families sport designer sneakers, gold chains, and the latest iPods. Their freedom from care doesn't prevent their parents, and their parents' political mouthpieces, from demanding ever more: "affordable" housing titled to them, unlimited free health care, unlimited free broadband Internet access, guaranteed access to college regardless of demonstrated academic merit, and so on...all at someone else's expense.
How could we doubt that the beneficiaries of such largesse would enthusiastically support the system that had pampered them? How could we doubt that they would demand its extension to the uttermost limits of human greed? How could we doubt that they would castigate in the harshest of terms those who opposed their demands?
I'm not talking solely about the objects of public assistance, either. An awful lot of folks live rather luxuriously at public expense while nominally "employed." Mostly they languish in government sinecures, from which they can only be removed by death or an offense so egregious that a century ago they'd have been hanged for it, possibly without the luxury of a trial.
As Robert A. Heinlein put it, the Makers -- we who keep the nation running by actual productive effort -- are being swarmed under by the Takers and the Fakers. These latter groups show no sign that they're learning either gratitude or moderation. Where's the percentage in that, after all? Why change a winning strategy, when strident-if-baseless demands have worked so well so far?
Were barbarians to batter down America's gates, would they take up arms and fight for her, or would they demand that the Makers do it for them?
Take a good close look at them. Whether they're conscious of it or not, they're the enemies of civilization; indeed, the enemies of Man himself. Then take a good close look in the nearest mirror and assure yourself that you're not one of them. Promise yourself that you'll never become one of them.
They don't examine themselves as you have done. They don't dare. They would see the face of a god upon whose visage they dare not look.
4. Cthulhu's Cadre.
It's true that some of the types mentioned above operate from a cerebral vacuum -- that they lack the capacity to understand what they're doing to the nation at whose teats they nurse. But others understand full well. Theirs is a mentality and morality qualitatively indistinguishable from that of the criminal. They differ only in their unwillingness to soil their own hands with gunpowder or blood.
The criminal, unless he's consciously consumed by the desire to destroy, is moved by avarice. He wants; therefore he takes. Ayn Rand correctly diagnosed this as a short-range mentality. For he who does not produce must perforce consume. Therefore, if observed categorically, their approach to life dooms all men to ultimate starvation, and the end of Man himself.
Tragically, this is the logical conclusion of a certain kind of individualism.
Eternity Road readers know me as a champion of individualism as a philosophy of rights, by which governments are properly constrained. But there are other kinds. There's the individualism that sees only oneself as real; this is called solipsism. There's the individualism that sees others solely as means to one's own ends; this is called sociopathy. And there's the individualism that blends solipsism and sociopathy with the dark pleasures of destruction. This has no name. Perhaps it's too fearsome to be allowed one.
The most memorable fictions of the immortal Howard Phillips Lovecraft were founded on a mythos of "elder gods:" entities of immense power, that knew no moral constraints and delighted in destruction. The most vividly depicted of these was Cthulhu, whose aim was literally to consume all that lives, if possible with the connivance and cooperation of men.
Cthulhu possessed human acolytes who strove to persuade others that true freedom is most manifest in the act of murder: the deliberate consumption of another's life. By that standard, to kill was the highest of all individual actions, the deed most true to the vision of oneself as unique in existence. If Cthulhu had a gospel, it would have been exactly that of the Thuggee:
"And now, my brothers, rise and kill. Kill for the love of killing! Kill for the love of Kali! Kill, kill, KILL!"
To Cthulhu's acolytes, killing was merely the supreme act of consumption. Qualitatively, there is nothing to separate them from those among us who demand that all they desire be provided to them at others' expense.
5. The Armies Of Allah.
There's a dark god in motion in our world other than him of the maw that can never be filled.
Hearken to one of the few questionable snippets of the Steyn essay:
I’m a conservative -- I’m not entirely on board with the Islamist program when it comes to beheading sodomites and so on, but I agree Britney Spears dresses like a slut: I’m with Mullah Omar on that one.
There are two problems with this assertion:
- Britney Spears does not dress like a slut; sluts dress like Britney Spears.
- Mullah Omar would behead Britney Spears. Mark Steyn would merely scold her, and perhaps send her to her room to change.
A common reaction, even among nominally tolerant persons, to "excesses" in individual behavior is to exclaim "there ought to be a law" or "if I were king," et sequelae. Indeed, there are some manifestations of disdain for others' sensibilities that are sufficiently offensive or dangerous that laws curbing them in public places are justifiable, though that slope has always been coated with a thick layer of Vaseline. (Public intoxication nearly always eventuates in harm to someone, if only the street cleaners; public fornication frightens the Buicks.) But the vast majority of "there ought to be a law" ejaculations should be answered by "no, you ought to learn to keep your nose out of others' business." Unfortunately, in this era there are far too many of the former and far too few of the latter.
The most visible representatives of the former camp are the followers of Allah.
Allah stands at the extreme opposite end of the theo-ideological spectrum from Cthulhu. He demands utter submission and absolute obedience in all things; he offers no freedom and punishes the slightest deviation from His decrees with an eternity of torment. Worse, he demands that his followers enforce his decrees in this world as well, with the full and humorless power of a totalitarian State.
Worst, our tendency to think with our wishes instead of our heads leads many to believe that Allah's sort of world is the only alternative to Cthulhu's.
This dichotomy seldom becomes conscious in the minds of those who hew to it. The typical there-ought-to-be-a-law type simply assumes that law and (temporal) punishment are just and effective ways of promoting what he likes and curbing what he dislikes. Though the impulse has been banished from Christian churches, it was once found there. In its most extreme manifestation, it produced the Calvinist "Christian police state" of seventeenth-century Switzerland, in which religious dictates and secular law were unified. And obviously, the mindset is still virulently alive in the Islamic world.
Life under a regime of such rigidity is joyless; it's hardly worth living at all. Even Islam's public figures have admitted this. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said on more than one occasion that "There is no room for play in Islam. Islam is deadly serious...about everything." The lesson, unfortunately, tends to be lost on those inclined to enforce their preferences upon others at gunpoint.
6. The Last Battle.
It's possible that you, Gentle Reader, have been asking yourself, "What on Earth does all this drivel have to do with Steyn's points about cultural confidence and demographic decline?" I grant that you'd have some reason. Bear with me.
Classical conceptions of the culmination of history -- these are usually called eschatologies -- involve an outright battle between the forces of good and those of evil, with the loser cast down forever and the winner taking title to all that exists. The Christian eschatology is called Armageddon. The Norse called their eschatology Ragnarok. The Germans call theirs Gotterdammerung. The Hindus call theirs the death of Brahma. In their most important particulars, they're very similar. The most important one is this: the good side is clearly good, and the bad side is clearly bad.
None of these is a good fit to a struggle for the world between Cthulhu and Allah. Whichever were to win, the rest of us would lose. The world would either be destroyed, or would be locked into the most confining totalitarianism imaginable. If these are the sides that will duke it out on the Last Day, there'll be no one a good man could root for.
The most popular ideologies in the world today are the Western ideology of moral and cultural relativism -- Cthulhu's -- and the Eastern ideology of utter submission to a totalitarian god -- Allah's. The former delights in the self-destruction of the world by the incitement of the worst impulses of Man. The latter demands Man's increase, but under conditions so confining and unpleasant that death would be preferable. At present, the former has access to more temporal tools, but the speed at which the latter is multiplying suggests that it won't be long before its numbers allow it to swarm over all barricades erected against it. But in any case, if the West should continue its descent into moral and cultural relativism, it will disarm itself precisely as Islam rises to strike it dead.
7. The Search For An Alternative.
Cthulhu and Allah are not real; they are fantasies. They're the icons of evil best suited to the purposes of this essay. They serve the same function Darth Vader serves in the Star Wars movies: they transform the antagonist from an ideology to a person, they give the hero someone specific to battle, and they give the audience someone specific to fear and hate.
Reflect on that mechanism for a moment. So much of contemporary politics is oriented toward hating some iconic figure on "the other side!" So little energy goes into addressing the explanations for political difference! Can't we see here the schematic for political misdirection? If we're busy reviling some artificial devil-figure, like Winston Smith during the Two Minutes' Hate in 1984, how much time or energy will we have left for serious thought about the supposedly serious differences between the major parties? How likely is it that we'll give sober consideration to any of the contentions of "the other side?" How easily will we be marshaled into supporting men whose only attraction of any sort is that "they're our sons-a-bitches" rather than "theirs" -- ?
How likely is it that we'll fail to see the blade of our true enemies swinging for our heads?
The ideologies I've associated with Cthulhu and Allah are neither effective defenses against any threat nor practical approaches to living well; they're guides to self-immolation. Yet their devotees press us from all sides. Where are we to find protection from either or both?
The question is non-trivial. The unthinking reaction to relativism is rigidity, which leads straight to Allah's camp. The unthinking reaction to totalitarianism is anarchy, which leads to the maw of Cthulhu. Clearly, we must find a middle way.
Fortunately, there is a middle way. It doesn't involve compulsory breeding. It doesn't involve compulsory worship. It doesn't involve collectivization of any sort, whether in the name of political correctness or State-enforced virtue. It rejects demonization of the advocates of "the other side" as counterproductive.
We followed that way for about a century and a half. It derives, as Steyn put it, from "eighteenth-century British subjects who took English ideas a little further than the mother country was willing to go."
8. The New Olympus.
Combat is never a agreeable prospect. Even ideological combat, conducted entirely with words and ideas, has an unpleasant edge. For a good man to take up arms in the conflict that rages today will require as much courage as it ever did. Our enemies, though many of their number strive to wear a friendly face, are implacable.
Europe is probably lost. Russia is probably lost. Japan may be lost. Steyn's fertility rate figures are compelling indicators of a deep disease, and one does not resuscitate a dying culture by exhorting it to breed for the sake of its nonexistent progeny. But that approach would wag the dog by its tail in any case. The low levels of fertility that characterize the developed world, including the United States, are not a primary but a resultant. Large families characterize a milieu where physical labor is the principal source of wealth -- where one needs eight or ten children to work the family farm. As capitalism and technology advance, labor ceases to be the dominant factor in economic gain. Children slowly cease to be a source of labor and a form of retirement security, and become more of a luxury good. Low birth rates mostly indicate that a people has become rich enough not to exploit its children's labor. In America's case, due to our outstanding productivity, that's easily tolerable. In other lands, hagridden by much more developed, much more rapacious welfare states, it foretells the triumph of the Takers over the Makers, and the demise of both.
We cannot save the future by appealing to the future good. We can only mobilize the present for its own priorities. The adjustment of American priorities away from secondary impulses toward matters of immediate survival and the defense of the ideals that sustain American civilization is the problem to be solved.
But how may we do this, when the atomization of society appears all but complete? Riches, whether earned or merely received, cause the typical man to turn his attentions inward. His impulse is to leave others to their own troubles, and to see even the darkness creeping toward him and his own as someone else's responsibility to dispel. He resists the notion that there are some causes to whose defense his own contribution is indispensable.
The influence historically most effective at raising a man fron his knees -- or his back -- is a vision of himself as a model of courage in a noble cause: a hero.
Heroes stand foursquare for justice. They don't linger over their comforts when the alarums sound. They don't quail before opposition, however formidable it looks. And they don't accept any outcome but victory.
Self-respecting, other-respecting individualism -- American individualism -- is a hero's creed. The American individualist takes on himself the responsibility for his own well-being. He swears to raise his hand against no other man, save only in defense of himself and his own. And he pledges himself to the defense of those ideals against all enemies, foreign or domestic. They who uphold such a regime are the highest and best representatives of our kind; others emulate them as automatically as flowers turn their faces toward the Sun.
For nearly two centuries, America was seen as Olympus come to Earth: the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. For a century it was a nation of heroes, envied by all the other peoples of the world, upon which they automatically called in their darkest hours. That's an image of ourselves that should rouse all but the terminally comatose from their torpor.
The present generation of Americans may be only half-salvageable. Cravenness is dispelled only under unforeseen trial. Miseducation is harder to overcome than ignorance. The forces that call for surrender to the intolerable, that march under the banner of relativism and accommodation, are mighty. From their perches in academe and the media, they've done gruesome damage to the history and self-regard of our nation. But that's no reason to despair. It's certainly no reason not to raise our own banners and march.
We must put away venality and rediscover our just pride.
We must proclaim a gospel of responsible individual liberty, and hold strictly to it.
We must demand absolute fidelity to promises from our public officials.
We must purge our laws, our language, and our thoughts of much nonsense that entangles them.
We must cease to grant any respect to the demands of the Fakers and Takers; they must be recognized once more as parasites and objects of charity.
We must learn to discriminate between the unconscious and the conscious followers of Cthulhu and Allah. The former must be either enlightened or neutralized; the latter must be defeated by any means expedient. In no case may they be accommodated.
These are the weapons with which we can defeat Cthulhu, Allah, and the seemingly irresistible tides of demography, and reclaim our heroism.
There will be costs. We will sometimes be compelled to do terrible things. We will sometimes have to harden our hearts in unprecedented ways. Who could deny that a rigidly enforced quarantine of the Islamic world would exclude from our company many who deserve better? Who could deny that confronting and contradicting the apostles of relativism will occasion some nasty scenes? Who could deny that the disassembly of the welfare state and its replacement with an ethic of private, voluntary community will cause rough times for some who objectively deserve better? No ideological transition has ever been free of casualties or pain. Shall we insist that, until we find a way that keeps us safe and sated, and brings us all we desire at no cost, we will refuse to move at all?
The revolutionaries of our Founding Era knew what they believed. Their passion for it inspired them to reject British rule, though it might cost "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." They set out on a course never before taken in human history. Despite several missteps, they preserved their ideals intact. They never doubted that they were worth fighting for.
A man who knows what he's fighting for, and is wholeheartedly proud of himself and it, will do what he must to preserve it. There is no other path, unless one surrenders to Cthulhu or Allah.
I've proclaimed the necessity of an ideological revolution. The essentials to any revolution, including an ideological one, are education, communications, and weaponry.
Education is obvious. Our young are being miseducated as we speak. We must snatch their minds back from those who would infuse them with the relativistic, nonjudgmental creed and introduce them to the principles of the Founding. Equally as urgent, we must induce them to acquire strength and skill, the only sound foundation for pride. A man who can catch and cook his own dinner is unlikely to bow before any other man, nor will he accede to self-immolation at the behest of any god.
Communications is equally obvious. Americans who see the necessities outlined here must be able to find one another, pool information, exchange ideas, and offer mutual support. When we are isolated, we're easy targets: easy to silence and safe to ignore. When we know we're not alone, that there are others willing and able to support us, we have the strength of ten.
Weaponry is fundamental, yet its full impact is almost always overlooked. It's been said that the Second Amendment is the sole guarantor of the First, and truly. But what's less apparent is that an armed and confident man is a model for other men. He draws admiration for much the same reason as does an articulate, educated man: he can do things others can't. Therefore, be armed, and be conspicuously armed. Shoot often. Make it a family activity. Invite your friends and neighbors to join you, and to bring their children, too. When the opportunity arises, add to the simple pleasures of sport shooting a measure of history: stories of the great men of arms, whose valor brought them honor, and their nations victory.
American birth rates are at replacement rates, true. If our numbers are not to increase, our strength and our confidence will have to suffice. But if history is any guide, they will.
10. Concluding Thoughts.
To one who cherishes freedom and hopes for the destruction of its enemies, Steyn's case that those enemies are outbreeding us appears ominous:
Since the President unveiled the so-called Bush Doctrine -- the plan to promote liberty throughout the Arab world -- innumerable “progressives” have routinely asserted that there’s no evidence Muslims want liberty and, indeed, Islam is incompatible with democracy. If that’s true, it’s a problem not for the Middle East today but for Europe the day after tomorrow. According to a poll taken in 2004, over 60 percent of British Muslims want to live under sharia -- in the United Kingdom. If a population “at odds with the modern world” is the fastest-breeding group on the planet -- if there are more Muslim nations, more fundamentalist Muslims within those nations, more and more Muslims within non-Muslim nations, and more and more Muslims represented in more and more transnational institutions -- how safe a bet is the survival of the “modern world”?
...but this is a double-edged blade. The Islamic world is characterized by deficiencies so severe that on its own it could never approach the stature of the Western world. Intellectually, it's on the edge of retardation; thanks to the constraints of Islam, it knows almost no innovation of any sort. Muslims compelled to live with one another, deprived of infusions of Western capital and ideas, always turn on one another as the Palestinians have done. This is natural among persons who abjure reason and promote a pseudo-religion of totalitarianism in its place.
Imagine the world's 1.2 billion Muslims under conditions of strict geographic quarantine, compelled to make it on their own or not make it at all. Is it possible to imagine that without the opportunity to steal our aircraft and our weapons to use against us, that they would be any kind of threat?
As for the promulgators of relativism and American self-abasement: these are even less to be feared. Were they not granted unearned support by public institutions and foundations with more money than sense, and unearned respect for ideas they cannot defend in open debate, they would shrivel to nothing. Do they denounce you as a dangerous reactionary? Laugh. Do they raise campaigns of calumny against you as an enemy of the common weal? Trust your neighbors to know you better than that. There's nothing less potent than the derision of those in whom nothing wholesome resides.
To the dark gods who seek to drag us to their altars, whether to be chained there lifelong or to be sacrificed upon them, let us oppose the God of Light, Who set us free in time and gave us our power of reason, our sense for right and wrong, and our urge to community. Let us think as He would have us think: clearly, soberly, and without fear.
Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man. -- Bertrand Russell