The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.4 (Fall 2016)
The Polis vs. Progress
The Pernicious Contradiction Within Political Compromise of Basic Values
John R. Harris
If our freedoms are indeed inalienable as the logical consequence of human nature, then any political compromise of basic values reflecting these freedoms demands both that we distort our nature and that we accept such distortion as a stable, enduring solution.
Consider this hypothetical. You inhabit a tropical paradise where you responsibly harvest nature’s bounty from a pristine forest with minimal disruption of the jungle ecology. You happen to know that this particular forest contains three species of tree and eight species of medicinal herb found nowhere else on earth. One day you hear that a nightmarish mass of ravenous soldier ants is headed your way from the east coast. Your island will be devoured, and all the fauna that dwell upon it will starve (including you and your fellow colonists)… unless, that is, you consent to a desperate and—in several ways—catastrophic measure. It is this: your part of the forest must be chopped down entirely and left to dry for a week. Then, when the ants arrive, it will be put to the torch. All the ants will burn, and the remaining life will be saved. More westerly areas will provide the means of re-seeding your ruined wonderland with less exotic vegetation, and the land will eventually turn a profitable green again. Your neighbors will also charitably help you through the lean years, as an indemnity. But yes, those rare plant species will be lost for the rest of terrestrial time. There’s really no way around it; for if you refuse to act, the ants will eliminate your Garden of Eden, anyway—along with you, your neighbors, and all else that moves and breathes.
This is the political Hobson’s Choice offered in cycle after cycle of elections to conservative voters who wish to cling to certain invaluable (to them) moral principles and time-tested socio-political institutions. They are told that by attempting to keep their rare heritage alive in a vain gesture of idealism, they will not only lose their coveted treasure but also ensure the complete destruction of themselves and every well-meaning citizen around them. The great dark enemy of all moral principle, all family-friendly social institutions, and all political self-determination is on the march. That enemy must be vanquished—now is not the time to put up a theatrical defense of this or that Stone Age ritual or quaint belief.
A more lugubrious analogy of such election-time decisions might be a flesh-eating disease that creeps up one limb, then another. On the very best advice of the very best doctors, you have one leg amputated, then the other, then one arm, then the other. Eventually you run out of members to cut away; but probably well before that sad moment, you regret having surrendered even the first appendage, because from then forward the life that you preserved wasn’t really worth living—not for a mere few weeks’ reprieve always followed by another extreme sacrifice.
Over many years of living through such cycles of institutional extermination and cultural amputation in order to fight dubious political rearguard actions, I have begun to smell an odor of nonsense. It concerns our common humanity, our basic values as thoughtful beings possessed of free will. I do not regard my values as merely cultural; if I perceived them to be so, I would cease honoring them. The reason I seldom eat Chinese food isn’t because I am not Chinese: it’s because I detest soy sauce. The reason I do not practice adultery isn’t because I was raised a Christian (in fact, one of my parents was a quiet atheist); it’s because I believe that passions must not rule one’s life and that promises must be kept for the soul to find breathable air. We do not amputate a sufferer’s head to keep his cancer from spreading, because a body without a head becomes a corpse. To ask of me a sacrifice of fundamental values is to request my consent to the termination of my personhood, my human individuality and sense of meaning. We could defeat the ants, in a manner of speaking, if we committed mass suicide, for then they should have no way of starving us out. The dead are always invincible, in worldly terms. They are also not alive.
But that’s not really the contradiction whose presence I ferreted out; or it is, perhaps, a protruding tail that the contradiction has not quite managed to draw into its lair. For I am not simply laying claim to personal values; I have those, and I seem to find more of them all the time—values that I once presumed shared by many other conscientious people (sexual morals are a prime example) and that I must now practice in a lonely isolation. So be it. The life for which we must all answer at last is a personal, not a cultural, one.
Certain critical values, however, require a substantial degree of collaboration, even though they are sure to root more deeply in one individual than another. Sexual continence, for instance, consists largely of abstaining, of not doing; so does control of one’s temper. Truth-telling, on the other hand, requires investigating the facts, comparing notes, expressing and modifying opinions, and so forth: it is a demanding moral exigency which cannot be satisfied merely by telling no lies in a tight-lipped silence. It insistently absorbs one into the community. Furthermore, in most cases, I cannot picture these more participatory values in any other way than as embedded in man’s rational understanding. Resisting anger or lust may have a passionate element wherein the virtue echoes the vice, for the “reining in” effect may depend somewhat on an aversion to servitude—to being impulse’s abject slave. (Add courage to the list: the passionate hatred of being responsive to fear’s leash.) The case for truth-telling nestles in plain common sense that needs no aversion to spur it on. We cannot express ourselves to others if we lie, or if we are forced to remain silent: nothing could be more obvious than that. Our convictions, beliefs, aspirations, tastes, and even passionate fears and loves and aversions—everything that truly defines us, as opposed to our skin color or height or age—must be buried far away from other eyes in a world that suppresses truth; and when others treat us as what we are not because they have no adequate view of what we are, then we ourselves eventually cannot keep our private soul in clear focus. It would need a very strong-willed person, at any rate, to do so in a severely repressive society.
Hence man’s basic nature will always, sooner or later, demand free expression; and he cannot satisfy this demand by stoically keeping lids on various bubbling cauldrons, but must instead draw his neighbors into participation. The virtuous practice of this right may take several generations to force itself forward so powerfully that it dictates reform in public policy; but it will immediately, and continually from one generation to the next, broadcast at “under the radar” frequencies to select receivers. Freedom of expression is so basic a value to human beings that any government or religion or society daring to deny it must battle internal instability until the inevitable day when it splits wide open.
And here, then, lies the full contradiction: if certain of our freedoms are inalienable and bestowed upon us by God, as claimed in the Declaration of Independence, this can mean nothing other than that they must assert and reassert themselves, per saecula saeculorum, be they ever so brutally stifled in this epoch or that one. An air bubble must finally rise to the water’s surface, and the water must finally flow under or around the stones that seem to block a downward slope. Even so must any value basic to human nature successfully work its way through immense obstacles. Why, therefore, must we sacrifice some of these values in order to save others? Why must we determine which limbs are less valuable and amputate them to save the others? Why not face the disease head-on and risk losing all of our limbs, and our whole body, at once? For in this spiritual struggle, every lost limb grows back hale and hearty as long as we enlist all of them together in standing against the world’s deadly scythe.
If one such freedom does not spring back to life—if a new society emerges, for instance, whose citizens show no interest in open inquiry and liberation from constant official surveillance, but only in feeding their appetites and plugging into fantasy worlds—then we were wrong, to begin with, in supposing our values to be basic, and we face nothing more than a mere cultural adjustment. Yet the freedoms just named are basic; and if a “dumbed down” dystopia seems all too probable today, it isn’t because we humans have no essential calling to freedom; it’s because the technology created by our very ingenuity now threatens our common humanity. The issue here concerns genuine right and wrong. It must be arbitrated by fundamental moral principle, not by either cultural trend or political expediency; and true moral principle can only be founded upon our essential nature as beings of freedom.
Let me offer a very specific (perhaps painfully specific) example of a contradictory political amputation: the preemptive focus of certain groups on illegal immigration that nudges constitutional questions out of its ken. We are warned by these advocates that we must embrace numerous smaller risks to our freedoms in order to remove once and for all the enormous risk posed to our civilization by Third World invaders, who neither speak our language nor understand our political system nor observe our standards of hygiene nor respect our laws and customs nor abstain from parasitizing public relief programs intended for legal residents. I have tried to broadcast parts of this warning myself for years, both in my writing and through what meager contributions I could offer to political action committees. What I have never endorsed and will never endorse is any initiative or package of initiatives that abbreviates or ignores constitutional rights in order to enforce neglected laws with a sure, heavy hand. A community like mine in Texas that has been flooded with illegal “guest workers” deprives me of my labor’s fruit through exorbitant property taxes; an oligarchic government that reserves the right to trim my bank account is hardly the antidote. Petty theft and other neighborhood crimes have risen steeply up and down my street; an oligarchic government whose motive powers zealously apply eminent domain replaces a petty thief with a horde of Vandals. Illegal workers who keep legal residents in the unemployment line force my tax bill for public services even higher while removing from the pool of taxpayers thousands of citizens who would have contributed their fair share; an oligarchic government that forces expatriate businesses home again and puts labor unions back in the driver’s seat will end up doubling my grocery bill and also, perversely, fueling a vast new wave of unemployment.
Rule by “strongman” is a hallmark of the traditional Mexican political system. Putting a strongman in charge of our own much-abused system to keep Mexicans from perverting it is like saving a unique forest from insects by burning it down.
The degradation in quality of life suffered by residents of Tyler, Texas, and similar communities throughout the Southwest could be well addressed within those communities, and by means fully in accord with justice and freedom: by abolishing property taxes, for instance, and shifting the burden to a sales tax (so that every consumer, legal and illegal, would pay his share); by impounding the cars of unlicensed drivers (so that illegal residents would be compelled to vacate the area); and by vigorously prosecuting businesses that employ illegal labor. Yet this is not the sort of program with which we are presented by the doomsayers—the designers of Hobson’s Choice. We have to burn down the forest so that the invading soldier ants will burn with it. If we let them pass and settle in, we are told, they will devour everything. If the right autocrat isn’t elevated to the throne, Mexican nationals will be granted the right to vote by executive order or some other trumped-up stratagem; then they will vote year after year for the demagogue who offers them the most plunder through a massively redistributive socialist welfare scheme, and the United States of America will go the way of the Titanic.
The battle with creeping socialism was already being waged before the invasion of the “Mexican ants”—and already being lost. Legalizing tens of millions of unskilled laborers will most certainly precipitate an economic crisis… but the crisis already loomed in our near future. The years ahead of us will be painful, but our need to suffer this pain and learn from it was already patent before invasion from the south accelerated the disease.
In our struggle to recover our health, we will find again what makes a human being; we apparently need to rediscover that. As today’s “free money” rapidly drains from entitlement programs, as consumer spending falls with the inevitable collapse of the dollar, and as available jobs inexorably shadow the decline of consumer spending, we will learn whether or not “dark people” are incapable of pulling themselves together and making rational, independent adjustments to the situation… or whether they will simply riot and loot while waving Mexican flags. Like the authors of the Declaration, I am confident that they—that we—will rebuild our neighborhoods and communities with hard work and respect for personal freedoms (even if we have to learn each other’s language). I do not believe that “ants” will “devour” us: I believe that we will collectively renew our knowledge of how to draw life from the good earth, and that we will collectively fashion ways to protect our children from roving hooligans. Free men and women do not like to live in fear. Eventually, they band together to defend their homes, though they may have to do so with hoes and machetes.
The political forces that stirred the Mexican diaspora south of the border are essentially the same as those interested in drawing it north into our daily lives: corrupt, power-hungry elitists who need mass confusion or mob violence or panic in the streets to open their career doors. We legal residents of the United States are not fighting a swarm of insects: we are, instead, enduring daily acts of minute sabotage from a shifting, unseen enemy who hides in plain sight within our institutions of government. Mexicans are no more insects than is any other nationality, but all of us can be lured into a mass-behavioral mode that obscures our humanity. At this rate, with the volume of deliberate manipulation and obfuscation being practiced upon us, we may all require another generation or two for common humanity once again to float to the surface.
Yet though the smoke of neighboring homesteads in our hypothetical paradise is already circling mine, I will not torch everything rare and wonderful to stop the ants. I will not be reduced to thinking in the imbecilic binarism of, “Destroy and live, or don’t destroy and die.” I will not buy into Patrick Buchanan’s “demography is destiny” formula, as if the freedoms asserted by the Declaration were somehow encoded in northern European genetic material and were incomprehensible to other DNA. It is precisely because I am an American, a Christian, and a human being that I embrace the Declaration; to handle it as if its principles must vanish once brought into close contact with piñatas and Mariachi bands is to shred it and burn it—for the Declaration is my forest.
While that opening analogy may have appeared strained, let me develop it in closing to demonstrate that it has further layers of applicability. Would you not, when warned of the ant invasion, wonder how this could all be happening? For if voracious soldier ants are endemic to the area, and if one big outbreak will suffice to exterminate everything forever, then how has everything lasted this long? Or why is the first outbreak occurring just now? The ants must have been secret passengers on some colonist’s vessel: a problem not inherent in the situation, but imported from the outside. Alternatively, perhaps the huge river that was reduced to a trickle when the new dam was built traditionally posed a boundary that the marching ants couldn’t cross. (In the Charlton Heston classic, The Naked Jungle, water is indeed what finally stops the omnivorous ants.) In that case, the problem has been created by the newcomers’ tinkering with a stable environment so as to “improve” it.
Why have we shipped so many manufacturing jobs to China when the unemployment rate in Mexico is sending its population in a northward invasion? Why are we still importing oil from the Arab world when Mexico is rich in that resource? Why do we have such a ravenous appetite for mood-altering drugs that we have created a multi-billion dollar black market for them? If Mexican authorities are so overwhelmed by drug-traffickers and the Mexican people are so harrowed by them, why are our police and military not collaborating with Mexican services to wipe out the cartels? Why does the Mexican government refuse to allow private citizens to own firearms with which to defend themselves from a plague of robberies, abductions, and murders that it obviously cannot manage with its own resources? Why is the Mexican judicial system so riddled with corruption at every level?
There’s more than one way to kill an army of soldier ants, it turns out. Torching the irrecoverable forest appears to be the Procrustean alternative of dull minds, ill-informed and hasty men of action, and Machiavellian “neighbors” who have some long-range trick up their sleeve. We should never vote for one despot because the other despot will likely ruin more of what we hold dear. We should never even be asked—not by thoughtful men and women of conscience and maturity. Despotism is not part of our heritage: it contradicts that heritage. Furthermore, since all of our political heritage as Americans is predicated on the idea that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”, we cannot wink at the curtailing of any one right without turning our back on all of them. We cannot support a Mussolini-like approach to squelching the threat that crises like illegal immigration pose to our way of life, because the approach itself abrogates our way of life.
And on the other hand, neither can we destroy the calling to a higher form of political and civil concord represented in the Declaration—not even if we wanted to—since that form is latent in the mind of every human being and will eventually find expression again and elsewhere. All that we can do by delivering a mandate to the “demography police” is to ensure that the rebirth of freedom will not be here among us, or not for a very long time.
Dr. John Harris founded The Center for Literate Values and serves as its current president. He is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.