Theodore Dalrymple, in a typically brilliant column, “First Slowly, Then Quickly“, traces the corruption of language and values pertaining to the subject of sex; for example:
In a publication aimed at dermatologists, the Dermatology Times, we read in an article devoted to the treatment of the skin in transgender patients the following:
Patients of reproductive potential who are not…abstinent with penis-containing partners, 2 forms of contraception are required.
In other words, women who would like to be men but still have their ovaries and wombs can become pregnant by sexual intercourse with fertile men, the latter now being known as “penis-containing” persons….
At the same time as we are enjoined to think of biological sex as unimportant to the point of nonexistence, and to believe that men who can have babies by penis-containers are men in precisely the same sense that Tarzan was a man….
There are several wider cultural trends discernible in the current agitation over transsexualism, or whatever name one wishes to give it…
The first cultural trend is an increasing reluctance to accept any limitation whatsoever to the satisfaction of one’s desires that are placed by circumstances beyond one’s control, that is to say an exaggerated or exacerbated Prometheanism: You can be anything you want, without limitation, and therefore you do not have to accept anything you were born with as ineluctable….
The second trend is to magical thinking, despite the supposed rationality of our age and its vaunted defeat of superstition. We believe that we can change reality by means of mere verbal incantations…. Thus, if we go on saying long enough that women who take male hormones are men, and outlaw the opposite proposition, such women will become men.
The third trend is the worship of power. The object of deliberate language change is not to improve the state of the world, or even anyone’s state of mind, but the exertion and consolidation of power for its own sake….
The fourth trend is centralization of the marginal; that is to say, a marginal phenomenon such as transsexualism comes to occupy the center of intellectual attention. To employ a different metaphor, the tail wags the dog.
The fifth trend is to the increasing spinelessness or cowardice of much of the intelligentsia, who in this case have proved themselves astonishingly easy to intimidate, a pack of intellectual Neville Chamberlains (but Chamberlain had more excuse, for he had lived through the horror of the First World War, which he did not want to repeat). Nothing has proved too absurd for this intelligentsia to swallow; indeed, the swallowing of absurdity is easier for the intelligentsia than others, for rationalization is their métier. There is no point in being an intellectual if you think only what everyone else thinks.
Which leads to this:
The most important question is, What next?—for there will be a next, because transgressive reform is what gives meaning to life in the absence of any other meaning. My money is on incest, against which there is no rational argument these days, given the availability of birth control and abortion and the moral authority of mutual consent.
Dalrymple’s answer applies only to matters sexual. But his observations have broader implications for the fate of the West. The alarming reluctance among “wokesters” to accept natural limitations, magical thinking, centralization of the marginal, and spinelessness have burrowed into the social and economic fabric of the West. And encourage its subjugation by enemies who scoff at such “woke” delusions as transgenderism, “climate change”, “equity”, and the rest of the left’s “woke” agenda.
In America, these delusions have been accumulating since the onset of the so-called Progressive Era in the 1890s. That naissance (it was nothing like a renaissance) occurred on the (figurative) eve of my maternal grandparents’ marriage. My maternal grandmother was born in 1880 and lived to the age of 96. I was close to her from my early childhood until her death in 1977, when I was 36 years old..
She was a typical American woman of her generation, and of at least one generation to follow. She worked at a menial job until her marriage, bore and raised ten children, never traveled more than 150 miles from her home (until a late-life trip to visit a son in Florida), cooked on a wood-burning stove and lived without indoor plumbing until she was 70, never owned a TV set, and never drove a car. (For more about Grandma and her progeny, see this, this, and this.)
No thanks to the Progressive Era and all that it unleashed, the America of today isn’t my grandmother’s America. Nor is it my mother’s America. Nor is it the America that I grew up in.
What is it? And what happened to make it the way that it is?
Before I try to describe the America of today and explain how it came to be, I must try to describe what it was for most Americans in the first five decades of the twentieth century:
Life, for a significant fraction of the populace — a fraction that dwindled, swelled in the 1930s, and then dwindled sharply — was a fragile thing. It was threatened by disease, malnutrition, injury, lack of adequate shelter, and much else that (as of now) has been “conquered” by economic and scientific progress. (Economic progress occurred in spite of government action — see, for example, this, this, this, and this. Scientific progress has become regress, witness the government-funded plague known as Covid-19 and the wholesale hysteria known as “climate change”.)
Physical labor was central to life and fraught with dangers that were taken in stride.
Family ties were crucial because of the foregoing.
Religious belief was taken for granted and the central tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition guided behavior (with the usual lapses that are endemic to human nature).
The vicissitudes of life and shared religious beliefs made community (but not communism) a real thing (not a faux construct fostered by “social” media).
Social life centered on family, church, and community.
Entertainment was largely home-made and wholesome.
One’s income and wealth were one’s own responsibility.
The super-rich promoted the arts, not thought control.
Immigrants entered the country legally and studied America’s Constitution and history to become citizens. (They weren’t allowed in the back door and released into the general population to burden taxpayers.)
Fairness was striking a deal and sticking to it (not claiming to be “owed” something because of one’s color, creed, or gender-confusion).
Sex was a fact of life, and there were only two sexes.
Homosexuality was an aberration that undercut the social fabric and was accordingly viewed as something to be shunned.
Race and racial differences (cultural, economic, criminal) were facts of life, not a “social construct”.
Crime was punished, quickly and with all due severity.
College was a privilege for the brightest, not a “right” to be thrown at millions who were unfit for it.
Politicians, despite their tendency toward mendacity and venality, were by-and-large to be trusted, as long as their power was circumscribed.
Washington was a far-off place (metaphorically if not geographically) that had little to do with daily life.
What’s wrong with that list? Nothing, as far as I can see. It’s anchored in reality.
How, then, did America come to be run by a cabal of super-rich “oligarchs”, politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and “journalists” who sneer at the list and reject it, in deed if not in word?
It happened one step backward at a time. America’s old culture, along with much of its liberty and (less visibly) its prosperity, was lost step by step through a combination of chicanery (by the left) and compromise (by “centrists” and conservative dupes). The process — the culmination of which is “wokeness” — has a long history and deep roots. Those roots are not in Marxism, socialism, atheism, or any of the other left-wing “isms” (appalling and dangerous they may be). They are, as I explain here, in (classical) liberalism, the supposed bulwark of liberty and prosperity.
An “ism” is only as effective as its adherents. The adherents of (classical) liberalism are especially ineffective in the defense of liberty because they are blinded by their own rhetoric. Take Deirdre McCloskey, for example, whom Arnold Kling quotes approvingly in a piece that I eviscerated recently:
The quality of life you personally lead, dear reader, is better than the lives of your thirty-two great-great-great-great grandparents. I’ll speak for myself. An Irish peasant woman digging pratties in her lazybed in 1805 or a Norwegian farmer of thirty acres of rock soil in Dimmelsvik in 1800 or the American daughter of poor English people in 1795 had brutish and short lives. Many of them could not read. Their horizons were narrow. Their lives were toilsome and bitter….
Richer and more urban people, contrary to what the magazines of opinion sometimes suggest, are less materialistic, less violent, less superficial than poor and rural people. Because people in capitalist countries already possess the material, they are less attached to their possessions than people in poor countries. And because they have more to lose from a society of violence, they resist it.
… The richer, more urban, more bourgeois people… have larger, not smaller, spiritual lives than their ancestors of the pastoral. They have more, not fewer, real friends than their great-great-great-great grandparents in “closed-corporate” villages. They have broader, not narrower, choices of identity than the one imposed on them by the country, custom, language, and religion of their birth. They have deeper, not shallower, contacts with the transcendent of art or science or God, and sometimes even of nature, than the superstitious peasants and haunted hunter-gatherers from whom we all descend.4
That drips with smugness and condescension. And it wildly mischaracterizes the wealthy “elites” who have taken charge in the West. As I will discuss, there is noting spiritual about them.
McCloskey, who is an economist of some note, should know better than to make what amounts to interpersonal utility comparisons. She writes as if she were able to evaluate the “utility” of the dead and weigh it against the “utility” of the living. No such evaluation is possible, even for the living. The dead are beyond reach, of course, but they certainly weren’t able to weigh their circumstances against the unpredictable circumstances of their descendants and find themselves wanting — materially or spiritually — relative to those as-yet-unborn descendants.
All that McCloskey has told is is that she (formerly he) views his/her way of life as superior to that of the unwashed masses, living and dead. Further, holding that view — which is typical of liberals classical and modern (i.e., statists) — he/she obviously believes that the superior way of life should be adopted by the unwashed — for their own good, of course. (If this isn’t to be accomplished by force, as statists would prefer, then by education and example. This would include, but not be limited to, choosing a new sexual identity if one is deluded enough to believe that he/she was “assigned” the wrong one at birth.)
It is hard to tell McCloskey’s attitude from that of a member of the “woke” elite, though he/she undoubtedly deny being such a person. I am willing to bet, however, that most of McCloskey’s ilk (if not he/she him/herself) voted enthusiastically for “moderate” Joe Biden because rude, crude Donald Trump offended their tender sensibilities (and threatened their statist agenda). And they did so knowing that Biden, despite his self-proclaimed “moderation”, was and is allied with leftists whose statist ambitions for the United States are an affront to every tenet of classical liberalism, not the least of which is freedom of speech. Shallowness, thy name is (classical) liberalism (when it is not never-Trump “conservativism”.)
What is a “wokester”, then? A “wokester” is someone with an anti-American agenda has become impatient with such trifles as freedom of speech and due process of law for those who oppose that agenda. Here is Bari Weiss on the subject:
Let me offer the briefest overview of the core beliefs of the Woke Revolution, which are abundantly clear to anyone willing to look past the hashtags and the jargon.
It begins by stipulating that the forces of justice and progress are in a war against backwardness and tyranny. And in a war, the normal rules of the game must be suspended. Indeed, this ideology would argue that those rules are not just obstacles to justice, but tools of oppression. They are the master’s tools. And the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
So the tools themselves are not just replaced but repudiated. And in so doing, persuasion—the purpose of argument—is replaced with public shaming. Moral complexity is replaced with moral certainty. Facts are replaced with feelings.
Ideas are replaced with identity. Forgiveness is replaced with punishment. Debate is replaced with de-platforming. Diversity is replaced with homogeneity of thought. Inclusion, with exclusion.
In this ideology, speech is violence. But violence, when carried out by the right people in pursuit of a just cause, is not violence at all. In this ideology, bullying is wrong, unless you are bullying the right people, in which case it’s very, very good. In this ideology, education is not about teaching people how to think, it’s about reeducating them in what to think. In this ideology, the need to feel safe trumps the need to speak truthfully.
In this ideology, if you do not tweet the right tweet or share the right slogan, your whole life can be ruined. Just ask Tiffany Riley, a Vermont school principal who was fired—fired—because she said she supports black lives but not the organization Black Lives Matter.
In this ideology, the past cannot be understood on its own terms, but must be judged through the morals and mores of the present. It is why statues of Grant and Washington are being torn down. And it is why William Peris, a UCLA lecturer and an Air Force veteran, was investigated for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” out loud in class.
In this ideology, intentions don’t matter. That is why Emmanuel Cafferty, a Hispanic utility worker at San Diego Gas and Electric, was fired for making what someone said he thought was a white-supremacist hand gesture—when in fact he was cracking his knuckles out of his car window.
In this ideology, the equality of opportunity is replaced with equality of outcome as a measure of fairness. If everyone doesn’t finish the race at the same time, the course must have been defective. Thus, the argument to get rid of the SAT. Or the admissions tests for public schools like Stuyvesant in New York or Lowell in San Francisco.
In this ideology, you are guilty for the sins of your fathers. In other words: You are not you. You are only a mere avatar of your race or your religion or your class. That is why third-graders in Cupertino, California, were asked to rate themselves in terms of their power and privilege. In third grade.
In this system, we are all placed neatly on a spectrum of “privileged” to “oppressed.” We are ranked somewhere on this spectrum in different categories: race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. Then we are given an overall score, based on the sum of these rankings. Having privilege means that your character and your ideas are tainted. This is why, one high-schooler in New York tells me, students in his school are told, “If you are white and male, you are second in line to speak.” This is considered a normal and necessary redistribution of power.
Racism has been redefined. It is no longer about discrimination based on the color of someone’s skin. Racism is any system that allows for disparate outcomes between racial groups. If disparity is present, as the high priest of this ideology, Ibram X. Kendi, has explained, racism is present. According to this totalizing new view, we are all either racist or anti-racist. To be a Good Person and not a Bad Person, you must be an “anti-racist.” There is no neutrality. There is no such thing as “not racist.”
Most important: In this revolution, skeptics of any part of this radical ideology are recast as heretics. Those who do not abide by every single aspect of its creed are tarnished as bigots, subjected to boycotts and their work to political litmus tests. The Enlightenment, as the critic Edward Rothstein has put it, has been replaced by the exorcism.
What we call “cancel culture” is really the justice system of this revolution. And the goal of the cancellations is not merely to punish the person being cancelled. The goal is to send a message to everyone else: Step out of line and you are next.
It has worked. A recent CATO study found that 62 percent of Americans are afraid to voice their true views. Nearly a quarter of American academics endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences.
It has worked because it is the culmination of a decades of indoctrination in public schools and universities — indoctrination that derides and denies the America that I described earlier. It has worked because wealthy “elites” in positions of power — academic power, corporate power, media power, and governmental power — are among the indoctrinated are able to make it work. And if they are not indoctrinated, they are willing and able to make it work for their own enrichment and power.
Why would they do that? For the perquisites of being in power and being allied with the all-powerful state. Here, for example, is Theodore Dalyrmple, writing about Britain (though he could just as well be writing about America or another other rich Western nation):
Britain has pioneered and is now a world leader in a phenomenon that might be called legalized corruption or corruption without breaking the law. This allows private looting of funds raised by taxation and government borrowing on an unprecedented scale. Combined with the moral and intellectual corruption of such services as the police, who indulge in para-police activities such as eliminating hatred from the human breast while ignoring burglaries, arson, and assault, value for money has become a concept without meaning or application….
The state, said Bastiat, is the means by which everybody seeks to live at everyone else’s expense. (You need not believe that this is the only function of the state to see the truth, or strong element of truth, in Bastiat’s dictum.) But in the past what most people wanted from the state was a secure living and a decent pension rather than a pharaonic scale of living. In Britain, at least, Mrs. Thatcher opened the Pandora’s box of bureaucratic ambition, and out flew all those soi-disant chief executives, directors of operations, deputy directors of business development, etc., and now they will never return where they belong.
Seen in this light, the recent shindig or orgy [“climate change” conference] in Glasgow becomes rather more intelligible. There were 400 private jets said to have landed, like a swarm of bees (or is it vultures?) at Glasgow airport, for this event. It would be instructive to know how many of the owners of those jets owed their wealth in large part to favors done them by governments. Not all, probably, but many. We do not live in a liberal order, at least not liberal in the classical economic sense, but in a corporatist one, or one rather like the apartheid regime in South Africa, with its socialism and positive discrimination for one race. No doubt corporatism is to some extent inevitable because of the complexity of modern technology, which we cannot, or do not wish to, do without, but at least let us get our terminology right.
Michael Rectenwald goes beyond venality into dystopia:
According to Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the 4-IR [fourth Industrial Revolution] follows the first, second, and third Industrial Revolutions—the mechanical, electrical, and digital, respectively. The 4-IR builds on the digital revolution, but Schwab sees the 4-IR as an exponential takeoff and convergence of existing and emerging fields, including Big Data; artificial intelligence; machine learning; quantum computing; and genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. The consequence is the merging of the physical, digital, and biological worlds. The blurring of these categories ultimately challenges the very ontologies by which we understand ourselves and the world, including “what it means to be human.”5….
[I]f existing 4-IR developments are any indication of the future, then Schwab’s enthusiasm is misplaced, and the 4-IR is misrepresented. These developments already include internet algorithms that feed users prescribed news and advertisements and downrank or exclude banned content; algorithms that censor social media content and consign “dangerous” individuals and organizations to digital gulags; apps that track and trace covid suspects and report violators to the police; robot police with QR code scanners to identify and round up dissenters; and smart cities where everyone is a digital entity to be monitored, surveilled, and recorded, while data on their every move is collected, collated, stored, and attached to a digital identity and social credit score….
Many positive developments may come from the 4-IR, but unless it is taken out of the hands of the corporate-socialist technocrats, it will constitute a virtual prison.
Under the Great Reset governance model, states and favored corporations form “public-private partnerships” in control of governance. The configuration yields a corporate-state hybrid largely unaccountable to the constituents of national governments….
In Google Archipelago, I argued that leftist authoritarianism is the political ideology and modus operandi of what I call Big Digital, and that Big Digital is the leading edge of an emerging world system. Big Digital is the communications, ideological, and technological arm of an emerging corporate socialism. The Great Reset is the name that has since been given to the project of establishing this world system.
Just as Klaus Schwab and the WEF hoped, the covid crisis has accelerated the development of the Great Reset’s corporate-socialist statism. Developments advancing the Great Reset agenda include the Federal Reserve’s unrestrained printing of money, the subsequent inflation, the increasing taxation on everything imaginable, the increased dependence on the state, the supply chain crisis, the restrictions and job losses due to vaccine mandates, and the prospect of personal carbon allowances.10 Altogether, these and other such policies constitute a coordinated attack on the majority. Ironically, they also represent the “fairness” aspect of the Great Reset—if we properly understand fairness to mean leveling the economic status of the “average American” with those in less “privileged” regions. And this is one of the functions of woke ideology11—to make the majority in developed countries feel unworthy of their “privileged” lifestyles and consumption patterns, which the elite are in the process of resetting to a reduced and static new normal.
Over the past twenty-one months, the response to the covid-19 scourge has consolidated the monopolistic corporations’ grip on the economy on top, while advancing “actually-existing socialism” below. In partnership with Big Tech, Big Pharma, the legacy media, national and international health agencies, and compliant populations, hitherto “democratic” Western states are increasingly being transformed into totalitarian regimes modeled after China, seemingly overnight. I need not provide a litany of the tyranny and abuses. You can read about them on alternative news sites—until you can no longer read about them even there.12
The Great Reset, then, is not merely a conspiracy theory; it is an open, avowed, and planned project, and it is well underway.
As Rahm Emanuel infamously said, never let a serious crisis go to waste. In other words, exploit it to the hilt in order to increase the power and scope of government.
Therein lies the story of the dissolution of America (and the West). Trust in government, whether sincere or cynical, has displaced personal responsibility, which was — with other aspects of virtue — the mainspring of the American character. The mainspring wore down under the pressure of Progressivism, the crisis that was the Great Depression, the growth of government spawned by that crisis, the false sense of security generated by the welfare state, and — paradoxically — just enough prosperity (for which proponents of the welfare state falsely claim credit) to make Americans (figuratively and too often literally) fat, dumb, and happy.
Economic security — or the illusion of it — is an enemy of liberty. And the failure of liberty eventually brings about the failure of economic security because “Big Brother” destroys the initiative (springing from personal responsibility) that makes possible true prosperity, which the printing of money cannot sustain.
“Big Brother” not only destroys personal responsibility, he also destroys the communal esprit that is animated by mutual trust, respect, and beneficial cooperation. In other words “Big Brother” destroys the essence of liberty. And, to that end, “Big Brother” has become the manservant of “wokeness”.
Other related posts:
Social Norms and Liberty
Facets of Liberty
1963: The Year Zero
Election 2020: Liberty Is at Stake
Thinking about Thinking and Other Things — Beliefs, Herds, and Oppression
Centrism:The Path to Dystopia