Ridicule, Not Reasoned Debate, Is the Best Medicine for Political Cults | Bruce Thornton
Bruce Thornton is a
Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
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.
way, we make a convert rather than energize partisans into clinging more
tightly to their beliefs and voting to empower them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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