12-2 polis2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

12.2 (Spring 2012)


the polis vs. progress


courtesy of artrenewal.org


When the Wheels Come Off the Wagon: Contemporary America’s Inevitable Descent into “Progress”

John R. Harris


It is the destiny of every seed to rot, but some turn into trees.  I was shocked and delighted to discover that the old coffee grounds and tea leaves of our household, if sealed in sandwich wrap and placed under sunlight, provide the perfect medium for nurturing apple seeds to germination.  Yet the unpromising period before the first tinge of green appears, be warned, is a frightful outbreak of rioting mold; and if you should remove the wrap after the incubator sits a couple of weeks on the window sill, the chemical released into the air is unmistakably the same as smothers the most densely populated regions of a barnyard.

The human animal, though endowed by his Creator with free will, has nevertheless a proclivity to certain such metamorphic sequences—and many of them, alas, seem to produce only foul odor and mold in their terminal stage, with no green sprout in sight.  Medical minds tell us that our bodies, even in their healthiest state, harbor harmful bacteria and a smattering of cancer cells.  These we repel under normal conditions; under a bit of stress, however, our defenses may flag and a major war for health or survival may ensue.  So with the spirit: our hearts—even the purest of them—are mottled with the taint of our corrupt nature.  If not placed under inordinate pressure, we usually abide by the rules of common decency and humanity.  Let one or two existential variables change ever so slightly, however, and we begin a descent into the abyss.

The most alarming thing about this universal penchant, indeed, is that the changing variables themselves often seem to result from fully natural tendencies: they don’t require the stimulus of some thunderclap or wholly arbitrary Darwinian mutation.  Take Moore’s Law: though never having heard of it until last fall, I have been aware for years and years (who of my age hasn’t?) that technological innovation always accelerates.(1)  What Mr. Moore didn’t understand that Ortega y Gasset and I know well is that the median creativity, emotional maturity, and moral responsibility of a given society decelerate in direct proportion to this ascending curve.  The machine does our work quicker, it does our heavy lifting easier, and it never makes efficiency suffer by yawning or blinking; hence we rely more upon it after a little use and proceed to get lazier, flabbier, and less competent than ever; hence we need a new machine to pick up the slack in our rising levels of ineptitude; hence, thanks to better machines, that level continues to rise.  As Ortega y Gasset noted (and this was almost a century ago), we end up—the rank and file of us—with scarcely enough sense to invent the wheel, yet we believe ourselves to be the brightest hominids ever to walk the planet because our pigmy achievements sit atop such giant shoulders.

High-tech guru Bill Joy opined in the early years of the new millennium that our doom is now sealed.  We shall become so much stupider and less able than our computers that robots must eventually judge us redundant, and phase us out.  The more optimistic Ray Kurzweil insists, rather, that our biological system will fuse with nanobot technology.  Either way, the essential species terminates.(2)  Oh, happy day!

Recoil now to a fundamental level, and consider what happens to human beings as they pursue happiness.  What does that mean, in the context of human beings?  More than anything, they (we) appear to desire security.  Once settlements arise, markets emerge, and states with civil laws and police forces stabilize, security can only be defined in two ways: possessing enough money to create buffer zones around oneself or reducing one’s needs sufficiently that one needs very little of the material environment.  Bourgeois society inevitably prefers the former option (hence the strange admixture of admiration, dread, and loathing with which it greeted Diogenes, Socrates, and Jesus).  People compete fiercely to make the greatest financial profit: those who advance the farthest often embrace the most cutthroat tactics.  As these elite few look down from their lofty, self-engineered fortress of wealth and power in later life, they are often overcome by boredom.  Like Alexander on the coast of India, they have no more lands to conquer, and they weep.

In contemporary political terms, they change from free-market capitalists to left-leaning progressive social crusaders.  Some of them, I am willing to admit, may be stricken with sincere compunction for past misdeeds or with a sincere desire to help their fellow man amid the astounding affluence that has overtaken them.  Yet even among most of these, I would wager that at least a tincture of the “game-player” circulates.  Having moved in half a lifespan from pawn to knight to bishop to king, they now transcend the chessboard entirely and view all of us as curious little pieces at the beck of their fingertips.  Bill Gates tinkers with the notion of overhauling the entire educational system so that drones will not consume resources preparing to be guard-bees or pollinating honey-collectors.  Warren Buffet whimsically speaks of reversing the magnetic polarities that drew fabulous wealth into his pockets (which gamesmanship, however, seems to position him well for acquiring yet more wealth).  George Soros undertakes the destruction of national economies and the fashioning of quaint new societies as a kind of hobby.(3)

Meanwhile, what happens to Diogenes and Socrates… and to the would-be Christs among us?  They have lived commendably ascetic lives: they have become models of moderation, and even abstinence.  They mortify us with their degree of spiritual elevation, while we excite their sublime pity with our various addictions to folly and frivolity.  They are true saints, perhaps… unless and until they begin to take their sainthood seriously.  Unfortunately, this happens more often than not—for they, too, turn out to be merely human.  They chide us publicly for our servitude to material things, perhaps from a high pulpit or a diocesan cathedra.  They virtually command us to follow their own example, their own conscience: to renounce our long hours at the job and our quest of promotion and pay raise, to desist from hoarding our harvests for a rainy day or a legacy, to rise above our physical terror of unsafe streets overrun with nomadic Visigoths.  Their vision, too, is intoxicatingly progressive (as Mark Levin’s bestseller has observed of the airy republic designed by Socrates).(4)  Though they began with both feet set squarely in a traditional belief system emphasizing self-discipline and mistrust of flashy gadgetry, they end up preaching Utopia with no less fervor than Bill Gates or Ray Kurzweil.  These Pastors and Popes may know nothing of nanobots, but the surrender of our free will which they require for the construction of their City of God nevertheless transforms us into robots.

A naïf might suppose that some eloquent, public-spirited person would warn us if this toxic brew were fermenting under our noses.  The truth is that the men and women of the Fourth Estate—the vigilant watchdogs of the Republic—themselves drink heavily of the same progressive distillation.  Why does any young undergraduate study journalism, to begin with?  Because he or she is convinced of the importance of “news”.  Who would reach such a conviction?  Obviously, not a person who inclined to believe that human events are more or less locked in eternal cycles—that there is nothing new under the sun.  This person, rather, would assume that the community desperately needs to know “the truth”, “the facts”, or else its members may make disastrously wrong decisions.

The young journalist, in other words, likely believes that a nation’s political future is significantly shaped by what information is broadcast to its citizens.(5)  People who hold such beliefs, in short, tend to see human society and its individual components as very malleable.  Given this malleability, they further tend to believe (naturally) that “better change” is preferable to “worse change”.  Hence, finally, they are predisposed to reveal facts that adduce to “better change”.  After all, some kind of triage of all available facts must take place in the newsroom: a reporter cannot communicate everything.  Important facts therefore become those whose possession will most probably finesse a malleable citizenry into supporting—or even advocating—change in the direction of tomorrow’s improved, more humane and enlightened society.

The reporter’s descent into “progress” is thus almost as inevitable as a final domino’s fall when the first domino in a close file is pushed over.

In our time, all of these vectors have converged.  Whatever ebb and flow pulses in each of them has fallen into a synchronicity of the whole.  Technology has never so clearly and thoroughly reduced the masses to Ortega y Gasset’s state of the spoiled child.  Billionaires have never enjoyed so many resources (thanks to technology) for playing God.  Ascetics have never been so cleverly tempted into worldly crusades by such wanton frivolity on so wide a scale.  Journalists have never commanded so many media with such narrow windows of broadcast time requiring such a severe triage of so very, very many recorded events.  The wheels are all about to roll right off the wagon at once: all four hubcaps are already rattling and chattering.

Nor should a quaint metaphor confine us to supposing that only four such trends are motivating our degeneracy.  I might have added some expanded notation about the professoriate’s inevitable decline into progressive fantasies, for instance: maladjusted children turn to their books, children who turn to their books do well in school, children who do well in school go on to grad school, young introverts in grad school carry the scars of their childhood maladjustment, axe-grinding scholars gravitate to wild theories vengefully promoting social helter-skelter, etc., etc.  Scholars were selected from a certain scribal background throughout the Western world until recently: now anyone with “book smarts” can go to graduate school in English or History—and virtually every kid in the nation has been deemed fit for undergraduate work.  Never before: only now.  The incubator of malaise has never been so fertile.

Once our nation descends precipitously into the progressive vision under the baleful influence of these converging trends, life will no doubt continue, at least in some quarters.  Detroit has become a killing zone as of this writing; but even in Detroit, some residents have rediscovered the self-sufficient art of gardening.  Perhaps, as well, the rotting ruins of the United States of America will feed a new political plant.  The scent of manure sits so tenaciously in my nostrils that I can scarcely imagine a flower… but perhaps that is only natural.  Are the days of “a more perfect union” at hand?  Are we finally ready, or almost ready, to form a looser federation whose components are based on regional needs (inasmuch as the central government has voided our contract by refusing its constitutional duty to defend our borders)?

One can only hope.


A draft of the preceding essay was first published online in The Intellectual Conservative (March 4, 2012).