Our Nation: How Do We Turn This Ship Around?
We live in what some consider revolutionary times where technology, social institutions and the economy are changing so rapidly it seems the world we knew is falling apart — and perhaps it is.
For some, it’s the worst of times. Technology and outsourcing have made good paying jobs a thing of the past for those who lack technical skills. Towns and neighborhoods where people grew up knowing and depending on each other have been replaced by the anonymous metropolis inhabited by mobile elites and people moving from place to place, just to find work. Too often that work translates into two low paying jobs.
Worse yet, the technology that was supposed to unite us has driven us further apart. The clubs, the bowling leagues, and the neighborhood hang out where people built the friendships and social networks that cushion life’s hardships are gone, replaced by email, text messaging and social media. The dissatisfaction produced by these changes shows up in research polls: the majority of Americans feel that their lives are worse than they were in the past.
In revolutionary times, people look to leadership to guide them. They turn to institutions and to those at the top of hierarchies to help them understand their conditions and show them the way. But today’s institutions and elites are failing, or worse yet, corrupt. Universities that once taught the critical reasoning skills to explore life’s challenges and opportunities have become hotbeds of ideology where critical thinking has been replaced by slogans and aggressive ignorance. Public leadership that once set an example of service and rectitude has been replaced by celebrity politicians buying votes with benefits. And what of journalism, the gatekeepers of culture? Walter Lippmann and James Reston have been replaced by television personalities as vapid and ideological as the politicians they report on.
But even when institutions and leadership fail, we have the lessons of history to guide us.
Though making historical comparisons can be tricky, ignoring history dooms us to repeat the errors of the past. This is not the first time that mankind has faced revolutionary times, and two revolutions in particular, our own and that of Russia offer insights into our current challenges and opportunities.
The American Revolution took place during a sea change of ideas and economic circumstances. In many ways, it was a revolution of ideas. Locke, Sidney and Paine established a framework of natural rights, freedom, equality and individual responsibility from which much of the founding documents emerged. The framers and signatories of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were thoughtful and well read. They were familiar with the great ideas, the “first principles” of the Western Tradition that reiterated throughout the centuries the questions of what qualities are necessary for a good life and a good society.
But these were not just theoretical inquiries. From Plato and Aristotle forward, they were grounded in human experience, tested by their authors with examples from history and day to day living. The Founding Fathers were pragmatists. Among their ranks were scientists and physicians, merchants, tradesmen and farmers, people who made their living in the real world testing their ideas and methods on a daily basis. They had great ideas, but they were sought out through inquiry and tested by human experience by practical men, the historical equivalent of the scientific method.
By contrast, the founders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were ideologues. Their Marxist theories were untested and had no empirical basis in history or personal experience. They relied solely on ideas, and from those built a narrative of a utopian fantasy that had never existed or been tested. In their revolution, rather than building a framework of freedom, personal rights and responsibilities, they imposed their ideology ruthlessly and without mercy.
History attests to the results of these experiments. The American Experiment, though flawed, succeeded in creating the richest, freest and most admired nation in human history. Though scarred by slavery and slavery’s legacy of Jim Crow laws, the framework was sound and provided a system for correcting these abuses and helping the nation thrive. The Marxist utopian system, by contrast, saw tens of millions die in collectivization efforts and political concentration camps. Living standards were by far the lowest in the industrial world with shortages in basic goods and long waiting lines when they were available.
But beyond the quantifiable lay the tone of day to day life in these revolutions. The tone of the American experiment was one of comity. Ideas were discussed openly and without rancor. The founding fathers often disagreed on important issues but in their disagreements only sought to come closer to the truths they were seeking.
One sentence of a letter from Jefferson to Madison encapsulates this principle: “On the question, what is the best provision [for aristocracy], you and I differ, but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors.” One sees both personal warmth and a partnership in the mutual enterprise of exchanging ideas to resolve a problem. This sense of comity is seen again in Lincoln’s second inaugural address under the direst circumstance of a civil war where over 600,000 soldiers had lost their lives. Rather than speaking in terms of enemies or revenge, Lincoln closes this short speech: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive t finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
By contrast, the Russian Revolution produced a continual reign of terror. Dissent was brutally suppressed with death or long term incarceration in horrendous “gulags.” Stalin alone was responsible for what is estimated to be at least 10 million deaths, all done in the name of creating a “workers’ paradise” which was never seen and resulted instead in mass poverty and repression.
The twin virtues of critical inquiry and comity in a common enterprise are now under attack. The “fresh faces” of the Democrat left dominate the airwaves with aggressive ignorance and anti-semitism, condemning and demonizing all who disagree with them without responding to the issues. Israel is an illegitimate state because it has declared itself a Jewish state, though it’s perfectly legitimate for Arab states to declare themselves Muslim states. This aggressive ignorance also expresses itself in economic policy. The Ocasio-Cortez “Green New Deal” is not only impossible technologically but would have a completely insignificant impact on global warming and bankrupt the nation in the process. Added to this sophomoric statement of self-indulgence is the insult to hardworking men and women: a guaranteed income for those unwilling to work paid for by those who do work.
The Democrat left which is quickly becoming the party’s mainstream is employing the same tactics used in the Russian Revolution: an unworkable fantasy without any basis in reality imposed on a nation in the name of creating a paradise that cannot be achieved. Like Lenin and Stalin before them, the unstated goal, what they do not admit in public, is that the goal of this is not to create a result, which is, in fact, impossible, but to seize power, and in doing so delegitimize and destroy the opposition. For them, it’s all about power, the kind of power that leads to tyranny.
These are dire circumstances. One of the reasons their stories are often more popular than rational analysis is that stories are easier to process cognitively. They fit together so nicely and give us comfort. Critical analysis and pragmatism are hard. They take work and often don’t give us the results of what we had hoped for but what is actually possible. This is why many of the left’s stories are so popular, whether or not they are related to reality.
Though our current conditions are dire, they are far from hopeless. The same technology that spread these problems now offers the greatest opportunities for their solution. The voices of critical thinking and comity are now emerging in social media and creating a tsunami of a counter-movement. Jordan Peterson and his colleagues in the “intellectual dark web” have created countless videos on important issues, filled with critical thinking and analysis. They dive deep into the issues, often lasting an hour or more. In their conversations, they often disagree but do so with grace and intelligence. Like our Founding Fathers, they make a sincere effort not to win an argument. Are people listening? There have been over a billion downloads, primarily by young men under 35.
Maybe things aren’t falling apart, and what we’re seeing is the beginning of a new movement in American History, one that seeks to recapture what made this country great and adapt those ideas to the new challenges before them. But just as those Minutemen, those farmers and ranchers and tradesmen, picked up their rifles, we must rise to the occasion as well. We must engage with others wherever we can with intelligence, analysis, and comity, raising the level of conversation and finding ways to act, to support the leaders and causes that advance what made this great country of ours great.
Maybe it’s not just falling apart; maybe it’s about people and ideas coming together.
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