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
16.1 (Winter 2016)
Picture courtesy of the Art Renewal Center
Three Paradoxes Hiding Between Our Shoulders
Peter T. Singleton
Certain habits of thought that characterize our contemporary outlook involve us in ruinous contradiction if we stick to our logic.
The Boy That Cried Wolf
Conspiracies have grown synonymous with absurdities. Restricted areas are said to conceal secret laboratories where extraterrestrials are dissected, or perhaps dissect human beings in some sort of exchange program with off-budget government agencies. Mysterious trips by Nazi scientists are said to have borrowed the blueprints through a “stargate” that produced the V-2 rocket and the Messerschmitt 262. Covert operations are collaborating in the design of the latest smartphone so that the private lives of ordinary citizens will become an open book to unnamed security forces. Israeli Jews delivered the fatal blows to the World Trade Center—or perhaps the US government itself—for the sake of defaming Islam or raising oil prices or, in the grandest of schemes, expanding the reach of central authority beyond the point of no return.
A certain syndicated radio program devotes one show a week to “conspiracy day”. The phrase “conspiracy theorist” equates to “crackpot”, “wacko”, “right-wing extremist”, and “radical hippie pothead”. People who have nothing else in common politically or morally may join in a good laugh over the latest “weird science”, as one major news website catalogues its would-be whistle-blowing stories.
If you had a very dark plot to hide—something that the ordinary person might term “evil”—you could scarcely conceal its existence better than by feeding or funding a “conspiracy theory” about it. It could fly as black as the Stealth Bomber if only a “confidential source” could “leak classified information” to a gullible crusader with a website or a column. If a few demonstrably false details could be stirred in that would lie dormant until better resources than the crusader’s brought them to a derisive daylight, then your project would be assured years of quiet sailing.
This very scenario has been played out in the past… but to say as much, of course, is to launch a conspiracy theory.
The Terror of Happiness
Saint Peter writes that the Devil prowls about us constantly like a roaring lion. In more contemporary terms, “devil” might be rendered as “worry”—for Worry is always at our window or under our bed, prepared to poison our peace with a single subtle growl. Some of us—the more imaginative ones (whom the Devil is especially fond of teasing)—must wrap worry in a lion’s skin if we cannot see it for a day or two. We worry because we seem to have no worries: we worry where the beast may be crouching and hiding. An old Irish proverb says that grief is nearest when joy is greatest. Apparently we think that if we only keep a furry, toothy image mounted and lifelike at Worry’s alter, we will have a little less to worry about; for if we are not showing too much happiness today, the beast will pass on and look for more succulent prey.
We do not thus worry ourselves to death, or not often—but we worry our happiness into a sickly specter of what it might have been.
An impending interview, a performance evaluation, a trip to the doctor, an awaited letter of acceptance or rejection… all of these can thrash about and roar for weeks or months in the shadows before we finally drag them into the daylight. On that day when we finally face our fear with a bravery born of exhaustion and despair, the beast never has much of a bite. Even if he pounces upon us in the fiercest attack imagined, it fails to leave us in the imagined ruin. We live, and tomorrow will bring another job or a new chance or maybe just some precious peace and quiet after—at long last—a good night’s sleep. The apprehension of the attack, we realize, mauled us far worse than the predator’s claws.
And yet, within a week, we are disrupting our sleep again by forcing the nameless, shapeless monster into an approaching figure. We are creating a new bogeyman. We have to, because otherwise… otherwise, we might be happy as innocent little children are happy. Adults long since, we refuse to be taken by surprise; and so we keep thrusting horns and hooves onto an image that really has none, and convincing ourselves that somehow this gives us power over the future.
If the Devil did not exist, we would have to invent him. And he does exist. He is none other than our invincible faculty of invention that turns mere absence of light into a muscular black tiger.
Growing the Plant the Kills the Garden
Young people rebel. Perhaps it was not always so: they used to idolize their elders, apparently, and live for the day when they could experience the rite of passage into manhood or womanhood. Those were very old, very stable societies; and, in a sense, they were very simple ones. Nothing new under the sun. But in our more complex societies of the progressive age, young people rebel. It is their special rite of passage (passage into whatever is left after radical rebellion). You can’t be a man until you kick the traces, drink some firewater, and break all the speed limits on a quiet night long past curfew. Only that way do you kill your lion.
Now, there is something to be said for rebellion. He who obeys laws because they are the Tradition does not have love of order in his heart, but only fear of Tradition. Programming, as we call it in the Computer Age—or cultural conditioning, as it was lately called (or brainwashing, as it was known during the Cold War)—does not produce “internalization”. It turns people into robots. They show no signs of having a free will because they show no awareness of recognizing options. They choose the “right” way only because any other way is unthinkable; and because any other way is unthinkable, their way cannot really be right, because they have not really chosen it. A behavior can only be good or bad if an optional behavior was available and a conscious selection between the two was made. Conditioning blinds us to options. Young people, especially, who cannot imagine any options seem timid, anemic clones of the model that we elders had hoped to reproduce in them.
Yet what kind of parent does not condition his children? Why would you not seek to terrify your child with the risks of drinking and driving unless you had no interest in the child’s longevity? Why would you not tell your toddlers horror stories about the riverside unless you didn’t mind losing one or two of them to crocodiles? The older generation always attempts to brainwash the younger with unexamined, probably fallacious (at some level) beliefs because it wishes to see its progeny reach maturity. Young people do not have minds and hearts fit to plumb the mysteries of life; they must therefore be hazed away irrationally from the risks of life. This is what you do if you love your children. In other words, this is what you do unless you are yourself a dangerous monster.
The hazing is a large part of culture—perhaps the major part. Eventually, those children become us adults just as we were once they; and, in turn, they “deceive” their children as we did them, because they love their children and wish them to thrive. Such are the ways of culture. A vibrant culture is, in a manner of speaking, serial deception.
But the deception, to return to the former point, compromises the young person’s moral development. Young men are not truly brave if their only reason for being so is to earn praise from the tribe—for what would they do when a brave act was required of them with no one watching? Young women are not truly virginal if they flee midnight trysts only because they fear that someone may be watching—for how will they be chaste wives if their legal husband fails to satisfy a voracious appetite that they have never learned to master? At some indeterminable point between youth and age, every successful human being is supposed to see through the external conditioning and discover the basis of the rules within his or her own soul. This seems to mean that the properly, fully acculturated adult must at some moment have unmasked the fraud of culture. And most cultures are very bad at staging those moments: the Zulu’s boy’s slaying a lion is relatively easy, in comparison.
Our own progressive era, when youth has become a terminal disease, proudly boasts that it wants nothing to do with the fraud of culture—and so its children grow up (to the extent that they grow up at all) like wild little Tarzans left exposed in the jungle. Yet cultures not our own are indulged with no end of tolerance in their most outrageous frauds, whether because we cannot repress a romantic longing after salutary limitation or because the Superman pose of protecting child’s games from reality flatters our paternalism-fed ego. Neither our rejection of dubious rules in our own lives nor our indulgence of them in others’ is of any profit to us: it kills both the good effects of culture and the good effects of moral resistance. A Stone Age mentality—digitalized version—looms in our near future.
Why have we developed such a fatal distaste for paradox?
After a thirty-year career of steady teaching, Dr. Singleton now instructs and consults part-time. He resides in the North Texas area.