Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley recently told a high school audience that conservatives shouldn’t delight in “owning the libs” –– i.e. triggering a progressive into a hysterical response that you proceed to make fun of. Instead, we should be “persuading” progs with reasoned argument and “bringing people around to your point of view,” as Haley said.
In that way, we make a convert rather than energize partisans into clinging more tightly to their beliefs and voting to empower them.
Having spent more than 40 years in the incubators of today’s leftist nonsense, universities, I am skeptical about the power of reasoned argument among today’s ill-educated students. Most of their teachers, like most progressives, are pretty much immune to reason, evidence, and coherent argument, little of which makes it into their courses. As the old gag goes, arguing with a leftist is like playing chess with a pigeon: It knocks over the pieces, craps on the board, then struts around like it won the game. Reasoned argument cuts no ice when confronted with the irrational caprices and gratifying passions of human beings.
In fact, the assumption behind Haley’s plea is the old Socratic one that virtue is knowledge, that if one knows the good, one will do the good––one of the foundational bad ideas of modernity. When people believe wrong or dangerous ideas, the paradigm goes, that’s because they’re deficient in knowledge. They just need to be better informed of the facts, and better trained to spot incoherent and fallacious arguments.
The rebuttal of this claim was made by Socrates’ contemporary Euripides, whose sex-maddened character Phaedra says in a moment of lucidity, “We know the good and recognize it, but we cannot do it.” Two thousand years later, Dostoyevsky’s spiteful character Underground explains why: “One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness –– that is the one best and greatest good.” We are free to choose our actions and beliefs even if they’re destructive, dangerous, or irrational. The fact that we want them, and they gratify us, and we can choose them is all that counts.
This faith in reason to sort out the true and the good from mere opinions drives much of our culture. Fooled by the success of science and technology in understanding and manipulating the natural world, we naively think that we can do the same for the human and social world, that we can manufacture Stalin’s “engineers of the soul” and create utopia. Yet for two hundred years the power of irrational, destructive passions and impulses has spattered the pages of history with blood. Materialist science still has no answers to our most profound questions––what should we be and what should we do. And the decline of faith left us vulnerable to political religions, which promised to answer those questions, and create a utopia of social justice and happiness, only now to be enjoyed here on earth.
Political religions fail because the materialist utopia is literally nowhere, and reason more often its slave than its master. Humans are too complex, irrational, and unpredictable to be the stuff of perfection, and no amount of cultivating reason will change that fact. Germany was the most civilized, sophisticated, and intellectually advanced culture in the 20thcentury, yet it descended into murderous madness. Reason became the slave of evil passions, to the point that it was no longer even recognized as evil. Consider the designer and manufacturer of the high-efficiency ovens used in the death camps. He proudly put the company name, Topf and Sons, on the doors of furnaces specifically designed to quickly turn the bodies of the murdered into ashes. People fired with such “passionate intensity” in their beliefs were not going to be “persuaded” to think otherwise. They responded to pleas for reasoned debate like the young Nazi whom Karl Popper tried to reason with: “You want to argue? I don’t argue, I shoot.”
The history of modernity is crammed with other examples of the futility of reasoned persuasion and argument in the face of the passionate beliefs spawned by modern political religions. Actually, “cults” is a better word, for most religions accept a transcendent reality, while a cult is a human creation. And what is more cult-like than the level of irrationality we have witnessed since Donald Trump won the election? It does not bespeak a coherent, well-reasoned dissent, but the hysterical anger of those whose passionate beliefs and justifying ideologies have been attacked. And since for the left “the personal is the political,” challenging their beliefs is a challenge not just to their ideals, but to their very being, a wound to their identity, to what makes them the kind of superior person they imagine themselves to be. In the absence of faith in the transcendent, these ideologies that promise the better world of social justice also provide, as baptism once did, the sign of one’s salvation.
We also have to remember that the beliefs, ideas, and fake history embraced by the progressive cult have been drilled into students from kindergarten to university, and reinforced in popular and highbrow culture alike. They now comprise the unthinking default belief system one never questions, any more than one questions the heliocentric planetary system. And if some heretic does question them, the faithful will unite in condemning and ostracizing him, the way cults like Scientology do. Like Popper’s young Nazi, they don’t want to debate and reason together and search for the truth. They want to shut you up.
Of course, we are nowhere near the level of intensity that led to political religions like Nazism and Communism. But that is not because people these days are morally superior and more civilized than Germans or Russians in the 20thcentury. For one thing, our immense and widely distributed wealth narcotizes us with an abundance of pleasures and diversions. We are better behaved only because we can afford to be. That’s why so far, the political agitation and hysteria have remained mostly at a symbolic level, fashion and status displays rather than calls to organized mass violence.
Second, our political system, though under assault for decades, still displays the brilliance of the founders’ architecture. That order still survives because the Founders accepted the permanence of man’s innate tendency to destructive passions and acts, and so divided and balanced political power to keep it from being concentrated in the hands of the tyrant. Also, as the election of Donald Trump shows, Constitutional structures like accountability to the citizens through regularly scheduled elections, the electoral college’s check on majoritarian tyranny, and a still vibrant Bill of Rights all still make possible a check on the tyrannical impulses that reside in most cultists, who typically are led by some “great leader” beckoning acolytes to a political Promised Land where “the rise of the oceans slows and the planet begins to heal.”
Third, though weaker than it was even 30 years ago, religious faith is holding on among a significant part of the citizenry, and so is able to offer an alternative to the secular nostrums of the left. Shored up by an originalist Supreme Court, religious freedom is now less vulnerable to the assaults of the secularist left, which cannot abide a power and authority competing with their own.
But all things change with time and circumstance. We cannot become complacent, for, like rust, the lust for power never sleeps. Any number of events could end our rich, comfortable existence, and bring our characters to the level of our circumstances. Under the iron necessity of want and fear, people could find the will to serious violence that they currently lack.
How we go about countering the rhetoric that could be the precursor to such violence is an important question. Some, like Nikki Haley, counsel reasoned persuasion and coherent arguments that demonstrate how much better off all will be if conservative principles guide our republic. I wish her the best, but my many years among several generations of young people confirm what the murderous 20thcentury teaches––you can’t educate or reason someone out of his passionate delusions.
Worse yet, we are so rich today that we can, at least in the short term, dispense with the wisdom of experience and common sense that guided our ancestors, whose foolishness exacted a fearsome price. No activists on the left today pay a price for their patent nonsense and counterfactual bluster and glaring hypocrisy. Those are all luxuries of the selfish rich. When incoherence pays in fiscal and social capital, how are you going to persuade someone to give it up? Conversion usually follows bitter and painful disillusionment. Right now, the progressive cult is affordable. No one starves, no one’s shipped off to the gulag, no one stands in line for hours to buy a moldy head of cabbage, no one is awakened by boots and gun butts pounding on his door. Comfort is usually not the best soil for conversion, and those with a full stomach are less inclined to change their ways.
Telling conservatives that they should go forth and “persuade” leftist to change their minds is a fool’s errand. Arguments didn’t keep Socrates from being executed by an Athenian jury, and conservatives are unlikely to change many minds among evangelical progressives. In the rough and tumble of the democratic public square, scorn, satire, and humiliation are often more effective than well-reasoned arguments. That’s what made the scatological Aristophanes a much better politician than Socrates. He understood that democratic politics, in the end, is not about reason, but motivating voters to pick the better policy. And the best way to accomplish that is to reduce political rivals to objects of the ridicule their ideas deserve.