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
15.2 (Spring 2015)
The Polis vs. Progress
More on Freedom (In Response to “Conflicts Among Notions”): In Praise of “Armed Camps”
John R. Harris
If the purpose of human life on earth is to advance the species—“advance” being understood with respect to materially objective measures such as freedom from disease and resilience to catastrophe—then the freedom of individual humans has virtually no relevance, for each of us would be but a soldier-ant laboring at the great anthill’s construction. If “advance” or “progress” is to be defined in more conventionally moral terms, however, then everything changes. If “progress” means “closer approximation to the good”, and if “the good” is understood in terms more spiritual than material, then advancement can only proceed on an individual basis. I submit that common sense speaks on behalf of the latter definition. A “good” person is to most of us one who spares a baby rather than executing it because the commune’s reproductive quota has been reached; who confesses the truth about the secret police force’s special perks rather than covering it up for the sake of “public morale”; who refuses to administer euthanasiac injections to legal, vocal dissenters rather than collaborating in their quiet effacement to “keep the peace”. The good person, in a word, is a person of conscience. Anyone who cannot grasp this through the medium of natural reason already wanders beyond the pale of moral sanity, I should say. It is against such persons as he that the humane remnant of humanity must stand, despite divisions of culture, religion, and politics. The “secular progressive” is necessarily the enemy both of freedom and of humanity; for in opposing one he opposes both, by the only definition that makes humans more than an intelligent species of animal.
In reference to Mr. Wegierski’s essay, I believe that self-styled “religious” extremism, fundamentalism, or fanaticism may effectively be defined as any creed that aspires programmatically to bring heaven to earth: to silence all individual conscience, that is, so that The Rule is obeyed punctiliously by one and all, under threat of immediate annihilation. I assert that such delirium contradicts the metaphysical roots from which it claims to grow and stakes out, instead, an entirely terrestrial realm of power and terror. This is secular progressivism in the thinnest of disguises; and, once one pierces the disguise, the shock of so often finding such zealotry in league with politically correct, pseudo-scientific, New Age authoritarianism soon dissolves. The beast knows its kin by smell, if not by sight.
Nothing, of course, can be good which impedes the good. If the good man grows in his knowledge of the inner law through the steady exploration of his common humanity, sometimes stumbling or mistaking his way, then the bad man impedes other people from making any such personal journey of discovery at all. For this reason, I would not hesitate to call the devout secular progressive evil. The good man seeks to know God: the wicked man insists on being God.
From the perspective of moral goodness, then, the essential freedom is the freedom to err and to fail. Individuals must be allowed to blunder in order that they may identify blunders. (Naturally, this freedom does not extend to errors that confine a similar freedom in others. To market a harmful product while deceptively representing it as beneficial curtails the health and mobility—and perhaps the life—of unfortunate dupes. Punishment for such conduct is, indeed, part of the blunder from which the malefactor is expected to learn.) Societies that respect the scope of freedom necessary to develop an individual sense of right action must therefore tolerate a certain amount of self-destructive behavior in their citizens. The drunkard must be allowed to wake up with his hangover. The lazy wastrel must be reduced to begging for his bread when winter comes. Administering fifty lashes to the man who gazes upon his neighbor’s wife for too long can only transform libidinous gazes into acts of individual heroism that defy tyrannical thought-police. If a man covets a woman beyond his reach, let him wrestle with the situation’s impossibility. In some parts of the world, we call that “growing up”.
At the same time, parents must have an acknowledged right to raise their children in an atmosphere where wrong examples (that is, examples identified by their personal conviction as corrupt and ruinous) do not abound. Children are not capable of exercising their free will in a morally responsible fashion. They must be allowed time both to absorb the notion of self and other (in the case of the very young) and to divine the abstract principle under which a specific behavior falls (in the case of the older). It would be absurd to expect a toddler to understand entirely on his own how his monopolizing the toys robs an equally entitled playmate of pleasure, and absurd to expect a first- or second-grader to grasp that an “innocent” lie about homework limits his moral independence of worldly circumstance—his “honor”. Good parents employ a certain amount of duress to bring their charges under the law’s practical sway in the hope that, after years of apprenticeship, a blossoming adolescent will begin to see the journey’s far destination. Ethicists have talked and written about the idealism of moral abstraction discovered in “inkling” fashion at least since Socrates explained the eternal, vaguely remembered other life in Phaedo while awaiting his hemlock.
One cannot not place examples before children, in any case. They learn by imitation, and the acts of their elders become models, whether so intended or not. Unfortunately, some adults very intentionally exact from the young obedience to horrid examples passed along by depraved traditions. The test of time is not infallible. One must suppose that the Aztec and Maya had sacrificed human victims by the thousand for a very long time before the “wicked” conquistadors put a stop to that lurid “cultural” practice. Today, if populous communities of like-minded people—cultural islands adrift in our ethnically diverse swampland—were to be left utterly alone by outsiders that they might transmit their ways unhampered, what would we find? Over here, a return to modesty among insulated maidens would be engineered by genital mutilation; over there, a celebration of family togetherness would assume the grotesque form of polygamy. At some point, among civilized nations, a duty to intrude is recognized. Personally, I view polygamy in the modern setting (i.e., without the environmental justification that Montesquieu so sagely reconstructed) as degrading to all concerned; and I would bitterly resent, furthermore, a paternalistic government’s forcing me to raise my children across the street from the polygamist model. Yet I would be reluctant to deny to consenting adults their own isolated polygamist village. An unsolved, perhaps insoluble question would remain: i.e., how can one rest confident that an eighteen-year-old third bride reared from the cradle in this setting has made her choice with an adult measure of seasoned free will? La Rochefoucauld once quipped that altruism merges into self-interest as rivers merge into the sea. He might have written the same thing about moral law and cultural habit. At some point, the salt makes the water undrinkable.
Nevertheless, it is worth stating as a general principle that distinct cultural communities in our postmodern maelstrom should be allowed to veer toward the “armed camps” to which Mr. Wegierski refers—“armed”, indeed, in the rather strict sense that the right to protect their own streets is conferred upon them. (I like to believe that sordid practices like FGM, if not polygamy, would self-terminate sooner or later if external punishment did not martyr their devotees and if the community, in a collective sense of shame, felt the silent scowl of eyes just beyond its pale.) Much has been made lately of “no go” zones in Muslim enclaves dotting the map of urban France. With righteous indignation and a genius for quibbling over the precise meaning of words, the European Union’s politically correct propagandists and henchmen insist that such places do not exist. Yet I will dare to pose the question, would it be so very bad if they did? Yes, it would, if the broader civilized community were permitting hands to be cut off for theft; yes, if Muslims were being murdered for converting to Christianity; yes, if entire buildings were being turned to slaughter-houses because presses housed within them were printing vulgar cartoons. The particular set of customs and habits in question shows an overt hostility to civilized practice: that I would never dispute.
Exceptions having been made, however (and I have just conceded that these might be numerous, any one of them probably sufficient to touch of riots in our contemporary world), why shouldn’t inhabitants of a communal island enjoy a degree of self-rule? Why may publishers or distributors of vulgar cartoons not be ordered to move their business elsewhere? Why may bakers not refuse to cater for homosexual wedding parties, and clerics refuse to perform the weddings? Why may townships not display a manger scene before their local high school—and why may those who deface the scene not be prosecuted? If the community’s prevailing values support or do not support an activity, why may a domineering central authority force local residents to expose both old and young to displays commonly viewed as corrupt, lascivious, disgraceful, perverted, blasphemous, degenerate, destructive, disgusting, and otherwise offensive to right thinking? If nobody is dying or being physically molested, then by what authority does Big Brother intrude on behalf of a distant and repellent set of values?
By the same token, allow communities, by all means, to ban any heterosexual union, any public display of religious belief, any inhaled substance other than marijuana. Create that community, and allow its members to enforce their own manner of fanaticism. Let the place’s magnetism draw those who find it attractive. The traditional Christian or orthodox Jew or conservative Muslim can easily move somewhere else: it’s the twenty-first century. In Baudelaire’s sublime line addressed to two lesbians, Faites votre destin, âmes desordonées. Let these “alternative communities” play out their hand: let us see how they end. The only people being deprived of a “lifestyle”, in that event, would be the exhibitionists who must wend their counter-conformist way before an audience standing aghast; and I would propose that such people possess no natural right to their disruptive ethos, inasmuch as its very lifeblood is the discomfort of others.
No doubt, to expect a security force recruited from the local community to abstain from harassing dissenters physically would be naïve. If Muslim bakers in a predominantly “gay” community declined to produce a cake for a gay wedding, and if the local gay cop issued a citation from the local gay judge, would anybody be surprised to hear that the official summons’s delivery had left some dough and icing on the linoleum? The notion of placing actual force majeure in the hands of a home-grown police department exacting conformity to local tastes and manners seems to many a recipe for instant, self-rising fascism. Yet how is enforcement of a remote, invisible elite’s values any less obnoxious? It is under this tyranny, precisely, that most citizens of the West live daily, and to an accelerating degree. Laws always imply duress; otherwise, as Shakespeare’s pitiless judge Angelo observes, “mine were the very cipher of a function.” By whose will, then, ought a free people to be constrained: the supposed will of hundreds of millions, as finessed and perverted by canny demagogues, or the finely measured will of those crouching immediately under the law’s lash in a given locality? What do the high-rolling stockbroker in Manhattan and his girlfriend, the Supermodel, know about rearing a family in Wichita, Kansas? Why should they have any vote at all in the matter?
I, for instance, am not Charlie Hebdo… or Daniel Tosh, or Seth MacFarlane, or Bill Maher. I positively loathe the post-cultural trash and Stage Five suppuration—all of it broadcast globally by cable and satellite—that represents America to most of the world. Why am I to view as my patriotic duty the defense of cultural sabotage and lewd exhibitionism? I wish neither to advocate nor to mitigate the murders of pundits and lampooners: murderers are brutal criminals. Whence, however, the preposterously cultural expectation (for so it is couched) that I sympathize with an anti-cultural endeavor? I have sought to make of Praesidium an asylum for tasteful creativity and generous speculation; and while the occasional Cromwellian fumes at the license displayed in one of our short stories, I regard such childishly peevish taste as itself the collateral damage of an age where all things literate and creative have been suborned to the intelligentsia’s incendiary undertakings. Ordinary people, that is, have forgotten how to read good literature, for the word “literature” itself has been made synonymous with “decadent smut” by professors, filmmakers, and government-funded “artists”.
I will say it again, therefore: the humor of the latrine never appears in these pages under the sanctimonious banner of “free speech”. On the contrary: sooner or later, the statist machine will probably revoke our tax-exempt status as punishment for our not actively promoting the engines of cultural dissolution as they clear fields for the oligarchy’s plantation. Cyber-terrorists (a term I personally reject: I should prefer “back-stabbing punks”) have already sabotaged our site, and amateur assaults upon it occur almost daily.
Yet this line of defense—i.e., that policing our own communities will introduce no more bigotry and brutality into them than have the ministrations of Big Brother’s storm-troopers—does not do justice to the argument. The point to be stressed is not that a little bullying of one kind or another is a fact of life; rather, we should recognize that today’s “no go” zone could be tomorrow’s “bully-free” zone. The opportunity to create communities where one does not feel dominated by alien, hostile values has not been so near since the dissolution of our agrarian economies by the Industrial Revolution. Now as never before, people who find their locality too Christian or too Muslim or too pagan can pull up stakes and move. People who want to speak Swahili can create a community where Swahili is spoken (though they mustn’t expect voting ballots, traffic signs, and other official information to appear in any tongue besides the lingua franca). People who desire to live utterly without car traffic can design just such a settlement. Americans are said to change residences about thirty times in one lifespan—and the rest of the world wishes to emulate them, apparently (if one may judge by the volume of footloose immigrants streaming over borders everywhere). The impediment to transplantation has always been finding a means of employ; or, perhaps I should say, employment has often been the motive for an otherwise unwanted transplantation.
From either direction, this imbalance is no longer difficult to correct. People seeking a new community should be able to generate income once they find a locale that values their tastes and talents; and people wishing to stay put should be able, as well, to pay the necessary bills if their community’s rightful degree of autonomy is respected. The age of sharecropping and the assembly line is over. Many jobs now require that the employee have only a computer terminal. Furthermore, in communities rooted deeply in shared beliefs and experiences, commercial openings would proliferate throughout the local marketplace. (A Nigerian friend of mine, for example, ran a prosperous shop in the Eighties that sold imported African articles to people on his “side of town”—a benefit of self-imposed segregation that the dogmatic integrationist doesn’t want to admit.)
Finally, in ethically homogeneous communities, residents would find much of the presumed need of money lifted from their shoulders. Neighborhoods would be more pleasant to live in, people would more often grow old in them, and friendships would be vastly more numerous and extensive. Hence the drive to go forth and seek amusement all over the town would diminish, many crimes against persons and property would almost vanish, insurance rates would plummet, investment in police and hospitals would gradually decline, and so forth. Concurrently, and with the aid of technology, residents could supply by their own effort many of the necessities which have made the hated white-collar career mandatory since the days of the gray flannel suit. Naturally grown food and purified water could be obtained in abundance on the typical third-of-an-acre suburban plot. Though solar and wind power, in this writer’s opinion, are largely a boondoggle, many energy needs could be met—or at least greatly reduced—by a more savvy construction of the living premises. At this instant, the annual waste of energy in the typical American domicile is staggering.
Academics and professional planners already have such facts before them, yet they persist in advancing centripetal rather than centrifugal solutions; that is, their answer is always more investment in, and more control emanating from, a central authority. Education is another example—perhaps the preeminent one—of freedom stolen from the local level with outrageously wasteful and inferior results. Any given community could and would produce a collaborative body of professionals and well-wishers (usually parents) that might very competently prepare the next generation in a way deemed appropriate by dominant communal values. Instead, parents fight a war that never ends with school boards, textbook publishers, teachers’ unions, and the Department of Education as each generation is primed with ever more propaganda and ever less knowledge of essential truths.
Even the issue of policing and physical force increasingly produces dramatic proofs that political structures throughout the industrialized world desire more centralization, not more efficiency; or, should I say, they desire more efficient centralization! A vigilante group denominated the Guardian Angels was making dangerous urban streets distinctly safer a few years ago before its civic-minded volunteers were at last intimidated by officialdom into retirement. Now we see fractured communities like Ferguson, Missouri, where police are denounced for not rendering timely assistance yet threatened with prison or lynching if they resist deadly force with deadly force. Vigilantism in Mexico has had similarly positive results in villages long overrun by murderous drug cartels—but the corrupt Mexican establishment absolutely will not contemplate the notion of private ownership of firearms. Somebody might shoot the wrong person, just as an unscreened school-teacher might molest a child.
So innocent Mexican citizens die by the hundred annually, and helpless school-children are taught to handle condoms and to fall on their knees when a politician says “green”.
I agree with Mr. Wegierski’s conclusion that the “global-culture society” seems our most likely destination if one consults current levels of political will and power. Yet I believe I differ from him in harboring an implicit faith in the “chaos factor”. Things are likely to fall apart from one or several directions, any day now. The elite ruling class, with its Democratic dreams of uncritical voting blocs manipulated like pawns and its Republican dreams of ravenous consumers led by the donkey’s carrot (to cast the situation in American political parlance), are not nearly so smart as they like to think. If “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” they will no doubt be positioned—both despicable sides—to send others to the guillotine while their own well-washed necks temporarily disappear from public view. Yet I do not believe that anarchy will be the child of chaos. I believe, rather, that brother will assist brother, that neighbor will feed neighbor, that believer will shelter believer, and that the communities of which I wrote will emerge with the irresistible force of a natural phenomenon.
And they will be armed communities, of necessity—and some of the gunfire will be witheringly deadly. We see at this historical moment how our future might play out in Ukraine. Here the EU’s oligarchy, having engineered a coup and substituted a “democratically elected” proponent of its interests, is poised to start World War III if a Russian despot—having advanced his own interests while protecting his ethnic brethren from extermination—doesn’t fold a very strong hand. Naturally, both sides are grinding out propaganda at a head-spinning rate. “Communist!” “Nazi!” “You shot down a civilian plane!” “You steered it into our air space!” “You bombed a bus full of your own people!” “You detonated the bomb and then pointed at us!” “Stalinist!” “Fascist!” “Mafia lackey!” “American toady!”
There can be no prospect of freedom for a man who would rather kill his son’s killer than raise his remaining children in peace.
As for us North Americans, sometimes I wonder if we are so eager to fight for freedom—as we are pleased to define it—on distant shores in order that we may avert our eyes from our own degrading servitude. If we allow our true enemies to pit us against each other in several wars of extermination, then and only then might some dystopic science-fiction novel unhappily see the real light of a smoky, dismal day.
John Harris (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, University of Texas at Austin) is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.