NEW GEOGRAPHY--We are here to guide public opinion, not to discuss it. -- Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, 1804.
By the calendar, the American republic is mature, but it’s becoming rapidly ever more infantilized. In everything from schooling to COVID-19 to race and global warming, we seem to be looking for simple, easy answers that a toddler might appreciate but healthy adults know are too pat to be true.
Every issue is cast in stark Manichean terms -- reckless COVID denier or hygienic fascist, racist versus anti-racist, climate hero or eco-criminal, enlightened about “gender fluidity” or hopelessly transphobic.
This infantilization extends across the political spectrum. The elevation of the QAnon-inspired Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia, like that of the left’s favorite, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, confirms our descent into puerile politics. Biden, with his whirring money printer, may be clumsily speeding us towards a permanent state of infancy -- substitute guaranteed income for the bottle -- but he has risen after a president whose knowledge of the world was drawn from cable television. We cannot go back to the likes of a man who sincerely imagined his vice president would throw a presidential election into reverse.
How We Got Here
Media outlets, both on the dominant mainstream left and the less powerful but feisty right, seem most concerned with whipping their audiences into an emotional frenzy. Increasingly, as former New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan puts it, “the narrative replaces the news.”
The consolidation of cultural control in increasingly fewer hands helps push this process. Companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon control information in ways undreamed of by the Medieval church. They increasingly use their power to constrain debate, relegating to the digital gulag anyone who violates the received wisdom on issues such as climate, the pandemic, and race.
Censorship is getting a fresh flush in post-Trump America. Mainstream journalists such as the New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose demand the appointment of a federal “reality” czar to help Silicon Valley de-platform those who do not subscribe to the progressive dogma. The education system increasingly seeks, notes British author Austin Williams, “to promote” a particular set of beliefs rather than “to teach.” Academia has adopted the notion of “repressive tolerance” developed by the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who saw in liberal traditions of free speech a form of oppression, asserting “liberty” was employed as a “powerful instrument of domination.”
The putatively democratic progressive left rejects traditional populism, preferring top-down control via rich non-profit organizations and foundations. Both the corporatists and the neo-socialists fear anything that smacks of populism, as Thomas Frank notes in the Guardian, regarding populists as “racist authoritarians” who “ignore the authority of the learned.”
To be sure, the complex problems facing our society -- climate change, mass migration, or the effects of technology, for example -- may often seem beyond the competency of elected representatives, particularly as more of them in both parties seem little better than partisan hacks. But as Aldous Huxley observed, scientists and other experts do not own a monopoly on either virtue or political wisdom. In many cases, they seem to have fostered the very problems they now seek to order us about to “solve.”
Pandemic and the Ideology of Apocalypse
The social, economic, and human horror brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic midwifed our first Infantada. Health crises tend to make us more dependent on doctors and caregivers, but the pandemic has raised the stakes for social control, as unelected experts, or those expected to be experts, freely issued arbitrary proclamations to the masses.
Trump’s incongruous digressions amid the crisis certainly made the expert class, and the most extreme lockdown advocates, sound more rational and authoritative. To be sure, many precautions -- such as isolating the vulnerable -- make sense, but the crisis has also accentuated a trend for the state to adopt trends, like bans on outside activities, that may have dubious medical value. In truly lunatic locales, like Oregon, the pandemic may never end, as the state now wants to impose mask mandates on a permanent basis. For some, the mask is like a progressive hijab, proof of one’s righteousness rather than a sensible, but temporary health measure.
The prevailing legacy of COVID may be the elevation of the precautionary principle into an ideology of “safetyism,” bent on what one writer calls “a zero risk” utopia. An extreme protective bias is natural for parents of infants and newborns. But for all the precaution, there has been an inadequate accounting of the lockdown’s recklessly collateral damage: mental illness and physical unfitness, crime, economic distress, educational failure, and, of course, an increase of countless hours propagandizing safetyist ideology online.
Instead of reasoned and mature debate, a Gallup poll similarly found that Americans wildly overestimate the likelihood that a Covid patient will require hospitalization. “The U.S. public is deeply misinformed about the severity of the virus for the average infected person,” the poll’s authors concluded.
In a mature society, we would have had a debate, once the crisis was upon us, to see how best to deal with it. Yet instead, we have grown accustomed to accepting the latest “science” proclaimed by the CDC, even when it seems calculated more by political issues, changing advice, for example on masks, in order to preserve supplies, then changing definitions of herd immunity to discourage openings. The media, generally in lockstep, has been loath to confirm progress, in part due to fears that their readers, essentially children, will misbehave if things might seem better.
The rush for conformity is so great that the social media firms have felt free to censor open discussion about how best to deal with the pandemic. A recent conference of leading virologists -- not nutcase COVID deniers -- was censored on YouTube for breaking what designated opinionators deemed inappropriate and misleading information. Given that some Biden appointees appear skeptical about the First Amendment, this signals trouble ahead.
Climate: The New Children’s Crusade
However terrible, Covid will hopefully fade in the decade ahead. But the next imposed apocalypse is at the ready: climate, where, even before Covid, attempts were made in mainstream media to exclude anyone not adopting a catastrophic scenario, or questioning “the science” as decided by the oligarchs and their academic establishment. There are even warnings from climate activists that the stay-at-home lockdowns associated with Covid will need to be imposed to deal with a perceived “climate emergency.”
Here, too, we need not official doctrine but spirited, informed debate. Yet dissenting academic experts, like Judith Curry and Roger Pielke, are routinely ignored, attacked, and marginalized. Some skeptics are threatened with jail, and companies with being dispossessed of their assets or, perhaps, simply dropped into the media memory hole. All this despite clear evidence that draconian regulation, whether in California or Germany, has had a negative impact on middle and working-class families. For many prominent advocates, even the actual truth of climate change -- even however “phony,” as one advocate suggested -- is less important than the opportunity to reshape the future along utopian “green” lines. As longtime climate activist and former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth explained, “even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.”
Instead of mature reason, and a search to balance impacts, we get puerile posturing. The student movement around Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, funded by “green” business interests, recalls the youthful fanaticism of the “holy children” who rampaged through Europe in the thirteenth century, or Mao’s Red Guards unleashed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Ecotopian shock troops, couched in semi-theological chanting of “follow the science,” seek to enforce ideological conformity against climate skeptics of any kind -- even those who agree that climate change poses a serious challenge.
The problem, ultimately, is not that of the children, but the adults who encourage their dread and moralizing hysteria. Greenpeace founder Robert Johnson suggests we are moving from legitimate rational concern to a state of “climate hysteria” openly promoted by a scientific and political establishment which sells ever more extreme scenarios justifying a progressive expansion of dictatorial powers and rule by experts. Even climate scientists and figures like physicist Steve Koonin, former science advisor to President Obama’s energy department, are openly warning that these exaggerations and dire predictions threaten the credibility of the movement itself.
As with the Covid lockdowns, climate obsessions threaten mental health. Climate scientists, notes the left-leaning magazine Oz, are unprofessionally embracing emotion and salesmanship as part of their job description. The constant assertions of impending doom, Canadian psychologists suggest, have already found elevated levels of anxiety among young people, who, after all, have been told that their world could be coming to an end no matter what we do.
Like climate, race is a serious issue worthy of reasoned discussion and could be addressed constructively by a wide range of possible solutions. Yet in our infantilizing culture, discussion of race has become binary, with “the good” anti-racist, who has “internalized” all the precepts, versus the “bad” racist as anyone who questions the premise that racism defines American history and society. This Manichean approach, shaped by theories about “white privilege,” is now embedded in the education system. Students at every level are increasingly instructed -- often by faculty -- to view any dissent from accepted racialist theory as itself racist, and in need of cancellation.
The education industry works overtime to convince the young that America is hopelessly racist despite such counterfactuals as rising intermarriage, interracial dating, and the movement of minorities into the suburbs, exurbs, and even the countryside. Both academics and political progressives see attacks on Asians by African-Americans as evidence of “white supremacy” and Trumpism, not the result of longstanding interethnic tensions. The wonderful blending of cultures that happens naturally in music, the arts, and food now must now be assessed as “cultural appropriation.” A banh mi made by an Anglo is now a crime against Vietnamese culture, not a celebration of its richness.
Perhaps most damaging, the rise of Critical Race Theory promises to keep the next generation even more ignorant and ill-informed than their parents. Educators are increasingly abandoning the promotion of valuable habits and skills that help kids build successful adult lives. Basic standards of mature behavior, such as turning in work on time and not cheating, are (as has occurred in San Diego) being dropped to “combat racism.” Efforts to remove standards for selective academic high schools, blaming successful Asians for adopting “white supremacist thinking,” as a San Francisco school board member put it, recall the brainwashing efforts of Soviet Russia and China. As they are instructed in opposing anything associated with “whiteness” our poorer kids, including African-Americans and Latinos, learn much to resent but little of use in the terrible schools they are obliged to attend.
What Are We Thinking?
A civilization can survive only if its members, particularly those with the greatest influence, believe in its basic values. Today our key institutions—the academy, the media, the corporate hierarchy, and even many churches—reject many of the fundamental ideals that have long defined Western culture. Activists on both left and right, instead of emphasizing what binds a democratic society together, have focused on narrow identity politics that cannot sustain a pluralistic democracy.
Loss of faith in the basic values of our society is particularly marked among the young; nearly 40 percent of young Americans think the country lacks “a history to be proud of.” Far fewer place a great emphasis on family, religion, or patriotism than in previous generations.
Given the high-level commitment to cultural deconstruction in Western societies, it isn’t surprising that we are plumbing the lower levels of cultural literacy and see a greatly reduced interest in history among the young. Maybe we won’t quite see a reprise of the early Middle Ages, when “the very mind of man was going through degeneration,” as Henri Pirenne put it, cut off from the traditions and values of their civilizational past. But if one doesn’t know the foundational principles of our democracy, including individual freedom and open discussion, one is not likely to recognize when they are lost. Regaining a sense of pride in Western culture and its achievements as well as its faults -- while remaining open to newcomers and influences from elsewhere -- is essential to recovering the ambition and self-confidence that drove the West’s ascent, from the Age of Exploration to the Space Age.
The burden here is not on the young, but on us. If we do not insist that our media and educational institutions arm our children with knowledge and skills, and the ability to think for themselves, we may be creating a world ruled by a handful of omniscient usurpers, while the majority waste away in the digital playground, shielded from the ambiguities and difficult choices that, as adults, we should be able to make for ourselves, as people and a society.
(Joel Kotkin is a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life and the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now from Encounter. This piece was first posted at AmericanMind.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.