You’ve heard the slogan: “Information wants to be free.” Not so long ago the internet was hailed as a way to break media monopolies, escape government censorship, and give total liberty to the expression of diverse ideas and arguments. In fact its results have been --
1. To trivialize communication (because complex arguments can’t be expressed briefly, as in tweets, and we lose the taste for serious thought);
2. To enrage it (because intense anger and contempt can be expressed briefly);
3. To degrade it (because whatever is honorable, pure, and lovely floats in a swamp of filth and sewage);
4. To radicalize it (because readers who encounter only items with which they already agree, rather than the mix presented by old-style media, are continually reinforced in their prejudgments);
5. To dominate and control it (because social media giants shut out or buy up competition, their search results strongly favor certain viewpoints over others, they censor posts by political criteria, they kowtow to authoritarian regimes to protect their market share, and they allow the systematic publication of the home addresses of those who hold unwoke views so that they and their families can be terrorized);
6. To excite it and direct the excitement (not so much because the internet facilitates the rapid spread of wild rumors, as it does, but because media czars crown themselves as sole arbiters and censors of what counts as wild rumor);
And finally, 7. to cripple the souls of the young, whose defenses against such dangers are very weak, whose character is increasingly shaped by the worst people rather than the best, and whose guides and elders, naïve about what is happening, are increasingly deprived of the means to protect them.
Consequently, the brave new technology that was supposed to let a hundred flowers bloom tramples the blossoms and threatens the green shoots with blight.
This is unlikely to go on just as it has.
On one hand, the moral character necessary to oppose it effectively is sapped and eroded by it. Which is part of the point. To make the population docile, the first step is not to spread fear, but to destroy virtue.
But on the other, the strong-arming of dissenting opinions has become so blatant that a great many people who previously didn’t know they were being manipulated know now. Not those who get all their information from NPR, of course. I mean people who still think.
If the attempt to trample the blossoms isn’t stopped, the trampled plants may soon discover that they can propagate themselves by exploding their seed pods. I take no pleasure in the thought.
Most of what passes for teaching professional ethics these days is really teaching about professional ethics. In other words, we don’t teach would-be professionals, say, that cheating is wrong; instead we teach theories about what makes wrong things wrong, supposing that there are any wrong things. This is called metaethics. Well, there is a place for metaethics too. But how is it usually taught?
Suppose we said that because in planning for the future, some people favor astrology, some throwing dice, and some the reading of entrails, we should therefore strike a “balance” among these three approaches. Foolish, you say? Maybe so, but that’s how metaethics courses are usually run. Dab-of-this, dab-of-that approaches are widely used in medical, business, and law schools, and sometimes even the military academies.
The way it typically works is that mutually irreconcilable concepts of ethics are mined for nice thoughts such as justice, beneficence, and autonomy. It would be one thing to say that justice, beneficence, and autonomy should always be observed, but instead they are supposed to be “balanced” against each other because they are interpreted as being in in conflict. We are told, for example, that beneficence may sometimes require injustice. “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” Oh, please. That is so last century.
This isn’t a theory, but a hodgepodge of theories. Because it doesn’t require consistency, it provides endless opportunity for evasion. If you don’t like what “value” A tells you to do about situation P, you can switch to “value” B. If you don’t like what “value” B tells you to do about situation Q, you can switch to “value” C. And if you don’t like what “value” C tells you to do about situation R – well, you can switch back to “value” A.
We used to call it being unprincipled. Now it’s a methodology.
The political theorist Leo Strauss considered it a principle of modern social order that the lower foundation is stronger than the higher one: That the republic is better grounded on selfishness than on virtue. Actually the principle has been around for much longer than that. Be that as it may, we ought to consider whether it is true, for our own foundation is very low indeed.
I trust no one will be surprised by this statement. There is no need to belabor the statistics on spousal betrayal, parental abandonment, pederastic seduction by ministers of religion, or the willingness of ordinary people to lie and cheat; we have read them. It would be fatuous to relate copious anecdotes of private vice; we have heard them. As should have been expected, our public life is no more edifying than our private. Long strides have been taken toward criminalizing policy disagreements. The use of private detectives, now even police and intelligence agencies, to dig up dirt on opponents no longer surprises us. Defamatory lying is so much the norm that the sharp term “character assassination” has lost its sting, and one can only wonder how much time will pass before its place is taken by real assassination. The idea that law might not be “whatever judges say” is no longer even considered intelligible enough to be ridiculous. Although a few political science majors may have heard the expression “rule of law,” scarcely one in fifty has a clear idea what it means.
The jaded response to such dark murmurings is that although all times think that old times were better, old times were really just the same. True, some old times were much worse, and perhaps all old times were worse in some ways. Even so, we could give those times a run for their money. Part of our difficulty in seeing ourselves clearly is that we have lost the sense of what good times might be. How could the times be so bad when our vices are so gentle, so nice? We do not herd children off to gas chambers or expose them (very often) on street corners; we only authorize their mothers to kill them in neighborhood clinics. We do not force slaves to disembowel each other in gladiatorial contests; we only buy our young electronic games so that they can become habituated to the lust of bloodshed without actually committing it. We do not have a caste system; we only have hospital ethics boards to decide which lives are not worthy of life.
Another conventional response to such dark murmurings is what Eliot’s dead-on expression calls “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” We cheerfully call out the social engineers and assign them the task of making virtue superfluous. This response has three parts.
The first part is to say that what matters is not character, but conduct; it doesn’t matter how sordid you are inwardly, so long as you behave. We may retain the word “virtue,” but we reinterpret it to mean mere compliance with the rules.
The second part is to change the rules themselves. In some domains, especially business, finance, and now health, the rules are made more stringent and complicated, on the assumption that it is easier to get people to comply if they are closely monitored and know exactly what is expected of them. Oddly, in other domains, especially marriage, family, and sexuality, the rules are relaxed or eliminated, on the assumption that it is easier to get people to comply if there is not much to comply with anyway.
The third part is to compensate for the inevitable social consequences of the new regime. Do businessmen break the rules? Then make still more rules and step up the monitoring. Do people have children out of wedlock? Don’t expect chastity; give them birth control pills. Do pills alter behavior so that even more children are born out of wedlock than before? Don’t reconsider the previous decision; allow parents to kill some of them. Are fathers abandoning the ones who survive? Don’t compel them to live up to their responsibilities; put the mothers on the dole. Considering what kinds of fathers and husbands such men make, mothers may even prefer such arrangements. After all, once you have infantilized men, matriarchy looks pretty good. Unfortunately, under such a regime the mothers too are infantilized, so matriarchy doesn’t work either.
I am merely illustrating. The general principle is that the effort to compensate for the consequences of a regime in which virtue isn’t expected inevitably begets consequences of its own. Eventually the regime collapses under the weight of its own supposed perfections. The lower foundation is not stronger than the higher after all.
Instead of dismissing the dark murmurings, then, let us consider what might be needed to become, not compliant, but actually good. Let us set aside foolish thoughts of making virtue superfluous, either among the rulers or the followers, and ask: As a people, what must we do to become less remote from virtue than we are?
The media and political classes treat it as almost treasonous, if not demented, not to believe that the allegations of massive anomalies and fraud in the recent election are “baseless” and “groundless.” I think that these allegations have been insufficiently investigated, that the attempts to explain them away are pretty thin, and that profound reform is urgently necessary in our electoral laws and monitoring procedures. The constant baiting and gaslighting from the other side are wearisome, and not good for the country.
The crucial point about Mr. Biden's election has been obscured both by those who think he is the president because there wasn’t any fraud, and those who think he isn’t the president because there was. Whether his election was marred by systematic fraud is a deeply important question, to be discussed seriously, not mocked, shut up, and dismissed. But it is not the same question as whether he was elected.
Congress has the sole authority to certify the vote, and the vote was certified by Congress. Rule of law is not violated by haste, poor judgment, or insufficient debate, but by not following the law.
We do the republic no favors by imitating the behavior of those hysterical partisans who for the last four years called Mr. Trump’s presidency “illegitimate” and fancied themselves “the resistance.” Doubts about the conduct of the election cast a pall over Mr. Biden's presidency, but they do not make him other than the president.
Trump mobilized large numbers of people who thought they had been forgotten by our failed political classes, many of whom had never even voted before. Unfortunately, he not only responded to their understandable grievances, but appealed too much to sheer anger, and he did not teach them the hard lessons about how a republic should work. Now that he has failed them by destroying himself, thereby crowning the Left’s failed attempts to destroy him, where are all those people going to go?
The Left thinks that if only the resentment of these previously forgotten people is denied any outlet, they will disappear again. I wonder. People whose expectations have been aroused and then crushed do not easily go back to sleep. The best hope for the republic is that calmer, more mature spokesmen for their legitimate concerns will emerge, statesmen who take them seriously instead of demonizing, patronizing, or placating them. The alternative is unthinkable.
No, the Church is not opposed to capital punishment under all circumstances. What it teaches is since today we have prisons, the instances in which capital punishment may be necessary are rare. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267).
No, the Church does not deny the possibility of a just war. What it teaches is that countries should wage war reluctantly, and only for justice. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2309)
No, the Church is not socialist. What it teaches is that the institution of private property is justified because of its contribution to the common good. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2403.)
Here is a test for Catholic social activists: How well do you know, and how seriously do you take, the principle of subsidiarity? Most haven’t heard of it.
“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno)
There have always been occasional demands for recount, but there has been a sea change. Ever since Bush vs. Gore, it has been routine Democratic practice to challenge the legitimacy of every electoral defeat (and after Trump it may become routine for Republicans too).
Expect another sea change. Future chroniclers will say that with Clinton vs. Trump, it became routine Democratic practice to attempt the impeachment of every victorious opponent (and before long Republicans will probably imitate this move too, if only in self-defense).
There may be a third. We have already seen the perversion of the machinery of justice to attempt the legal assassination of political opponents. Let’s see whether that becomes customary too. And let’s hope it doesn’t ripen into physical assassination.
The danger of such changes can hardly be exaggerated. Republics can survive a certain amount of fraud. No republic can survive the widespread conviction of its own illegitimacy.