What has gone wrong? On the collapse of public life

Why the insanity, the belief that will, word, and image make the world? Recent events—not just recent months but the past several years—confirm that our rulers have lost touch with reality.

November 2, 2020 James Kalb ColumnsEcclesia et CivitasFeatures 11Print

(Image: Giancarlo Corti/Unsplash.com)

Why is public life collapsing?

Why the falsehoods? The slanders? The contempt and hatred for fellow citizens? The open sympathy for political violence? The indifference to truth, even among those who claim to be its advocates and custodians?

And why the insanity, the belief that will, word, and image make the world? Recent events—not just recent months but the past several years—confirm that our rulers have lost touch with reality. What else can explain their sudden insistence that a man becomes a woman by saying so?

I should give more examples, but some of what I call “lunacy” you may call “obvious truth”—and conversely. It’s harder than you might think to settle the matter today. Thought and belief have social aspects, and when the people around us go insane it’s hard to remain untouched.

There are a variety of reasons public life has ended where it has.

People today don’t have personal experience of the situations that affect them. The complex and distant processes through which modern social and economic life is carried on are out of sight and all but unknowable. The result is that the world has become an inkblot people can interpret any way imaginable.

Nor is it easy to find out anything. Electronic media and the Internet weaken human connections and disintegrate everything into a kaleidoscope of images, film clips, and sound bites that can be assembled into anything at all. Who can tell what assemblage corresponds to reality?

And it does not help to ask others. The ease of connection means that there is a network—a virtual society—within which acceptance of any belief imaginable is the norm. If you think the world is flat or run by shapeshifting alien lizards you can live in a virtual world in which that’s taken for granted. And what solid reality around you will tell you your friends and virtual neighbors are wrong?

To make matters worse, prosperity and electronics give us every possible aid to dissipation, from online shopping to alcohol and marijuana to social media, cat videos, and pornography. And a degraded ideal of freedom tells us to go for it.

People don’t even have a coherent point of view from which to understand their surroundings. In a high-tech globalized world, place, history, religion, nationality, particular culture, and stable identity dissolve. Even something as basic as whether people are male or female becomes uncertain. The result is that they don’t know who they are and have no stable point of view from which to sort things out.

That’s bad but people think it’s good. Today’s moral ideals are based on an idealized version of human society as an industrial process, in which the human components and raw material may be graded in various ways, through certified competencies for example, but are not allowed to differ systematically in any way not useful to the system. Men and women, Italians and Japanese, Christians, Buddhists, and secularists must all be interchangeable, with any remaining differences treated as purely optional private hobbies.

Some try to create identities for themselves but that can’t possibly work. If a man claims he’s a woman and everyone has to believe him what does “woman” mean? How can he stand firm on his “femininity” when he invented it and could change it tomorrow? And what difference can it make when “gender discrimination”—distinguishing men from women—is considered monstrous?

The result is that people become fragile and confused, and those who run institutions try to accommodate their increasingly unstable clientele by turning their institutions into bubbles in which indulging fantasies is compulsory.

These institutions include news organizations, learned societies, and institutions of higher learning. Under such circumstances, who can believe what the supposed experts associated with such enterprises tell us? They’ve thrown in their lot with insanity and support it whatever the intellectual cost. But when insanity becomes a basic principle it spreads into everything. So why rely on them for anything?

Alexander Pope said “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” But expertise is infinitely specialized, so by definition it’s “a little learning.” Mass higher education trains people out of common sense without providing the wisdom that eventually comes from experience, responsibility, and acquisition of a broader and deeper tradition. Principles are needed for integrating fragments of expertise into a mosaic of knowledge. For lack of anything better, those principles have become institutional interest, career advancement, and various psychological quirks.

The outcome is that today social, psychological, and institutional factors, along with pop culture, propaganda, and the will of the strongest, determine what is accepted as real. Worse, many try to give focus and direction to an unstable and unsatisfactory structure of thought through hatred backed by a system of lies. We see that with Antifa, BLM, and the other radical movements that have rapidly become mainstream.

These movements suppress history, religion, tradition, and the very idea of human nature as oppressive. Man has made himself divine, and believes each of us can remake himself and his world as anything he chooses. The accepted goal of politics and morality is therefore a state of affairs in which everyone can do, be, and get whatever he happens to want.

But people want different things, so viewed from that perspective they are always imposing on each other and getting in each other’s way. That situation puts opposition and enmity at the heart of social relations. Injustice and oppression become the basic categories for understanding politics, and our fellow citizens become either fellow victims or oppressors.

That’s not going to end well. People won’t get what they’ve been promised, because the promises are based on an invented reality. They won’t be happy about it, and will look for scapegoats. Since their view of the world is ill-founded, nothing will work the way they think it should, and they’ll adopt fantastic mythologies and blame everything on conspiracies and demonic forces.

The problem is made worse by advances in the arts of persuasion. Those who own the Internet can try to bring order into thought and society by crushing tendencies they view as antisocial. But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The collapse of socialism has led to an alliance of oligarchs and bureaucrats in a unified system of government and propaganda in which the people who run things just listen to each other. Who will keep the billionaires who own the Internet sane, let alone concerned for truth and the public good? And who can tell them that their version of what counts as true is wrong?

Nobody, now that “truth” has become a construction, social media and TV talking heads have become the public square, and there is no accepted common good or way to discuss such a thing. The principle that determines public truth and who gets his way when impulses conflict has therefore become the interest of our rulers. How could it be otherwise, when they own the means of communication and coercion, they can hire the best propagandists, and people with energy and talent have no concept of who they are outside their careers?

For legitimacy our rulers necessarily claim to be on the side of the victims rather than oppressors. The result is woke capital, woke universities, woke government, woke everything, who tell the mob to target not the people who run things—themselves—but their antithesis, the deplorable bitter clingers who (they say) are ruining everything.

And that includes Catholics. We stand for a world ordered by something other than billionaires and bureaucrats, and that has become intolerable. We are tempted to avoid trouble by compromise, but that won’t help since the demands increase without limit and the system demands victims in any case. So we should prepare for a very bumpy ride.

And that means embracing those things in our tradition that best lay the ground for a different sort of world—love of God and neighbor, love of the Church, love of family and country, love of the Good, Beautiful, and True, recognition of the authority of tradition, dogma, and reality. Since that is what we should be doing anyway, why should we complain about the times? They make our duty clear, and that is the greatest possible service they could perform for us.

About James Kalb 108 ArticlesJames Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013

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I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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