I’ve been reading a book called Intellectuals by Paul Johnson.
Before you criticize me for reading this sort of summary, a third source at best, be aware that I’ve read all of the people mentioned — almost all. I don’t recall having Edmund Wilson inflicted on me – in their own original lucubration in full and ad nauseum, since for my sins I have a Masters in Modern Languages and Literatures.
However, lately I’ve had a niggling feeling at the back of my mind – about what has gone so seriously wrong and how we must counter it.
What has gone wrong, at least in the modern era, is the assumption that a certain type of firebrand, a certain type of what I would call “political mystic” is always right, and when not right yet he has the sort of moral and philosophical high ground, he’s “on the right side of history.” This assumption has moved our intellectual establishments further and further left, indoctrinating even the most casual TV watcher with the rotten principles of Marxism, and pushing us more and more towards a philosophy that has nothing to give humanity but death and oppression.
In reading Paul Johnson’s work, I was looking at the fathers of this “moral high ground”, this assumption that “all the smart people” think this way that has penetrated media, entertainment and academia, from another perspective. It was the same as, when taking a portrait, I might look at the subject from a slightly different angle to see how things look from there.
Paul Johnson’s view of Rousseau did not startle me, except to the extent that when I read Rousseau himself I was very young and lacked a certain experience of the world. Among other things I lacked was the understanding that those seeking to tear the establishment down usually do it for reasons of their own, not out of great altruism; the understanding that the very worst of men – narcissistic psychopaths – can pose as the very best, and be seen and worshipped by others as such; and the understanding of the intimate relationship between growing up in a broken home and longing for an all-powerful and paternal state to look after one.
All of those have been born upon me over the last twenty years (over and over and over again.) So seeing Johnson’s view of Rousseau rang several very loud bells.
Here we have a man who grew up in a family that was at best inadequate and who went through life serially friending and abusing benefactors. He lived, in fact, at the expense of others and never returned even the most elementary gratitude, instead choosing to revile his benefactors as being out to get him. (In his defense, he was probably at least somewhat paranoid.)
Normally such a man would be seen for what he was and reviled or at least laughed at. But Rousseau took his shortcomings and made them into virtues. If he was socially awkward, well then, the affectations of society must be wrong, and it was savages like him who were noble; if he was ungrateful, well, it was no less than should be expected of a genius forced to endure the presence of mere mortals.
To every one of his defects of character, he applied outward force and defended it not as a defect, but as a virtue, which the cruel world had just failed to appreciate.
Rousseau has been dead a long time, and if it were just a matter of Rousseau – no matter how much his execrable theories still infiltrate us – it would be time to let the dead horse lie. But it’s not.
Rousseau is the prototype for beardo the weirdo who has infiltrated Academia, the arts and – in its more shaven and rubicund version – journalism. How many times have you found yourself talking to a gentleman of dubious hygiene and ultra-left opinions and when you point out to him some minor social solecism, or merely look offended by it – say, double dipping from the dip bowl, or perhaps shoving past someone with no concern – you get told he is “the natural man” and therefore somehow more virtuous than you and your carefully minded tongue and manners? Even if it’s not vocalized, such superiority is assumed.
It is assumed on all levels and by everyone on every side. TV commentators who would need a brain transplant to be capable of thought and actors who would need a brain transplant to be TV commentators and whose private lives brook no scrutiny, are nonetheless considered good enough to be arbitrators of who should lead us, and smart enough to lecture us on such issues as Global Warming.
His ideas of the natural man, of the evils of civilization, of the way one should behave in public, and his assumption that ruder and nastier is by necessity better, infiltrate not just our institutions, but our stories. It’s got so that if a man has achieved anything of significance in the world of business he’s considered guilty until proven innocent, and in our fiction he’s rarely considered innocent. It’s gotten so that the “angry young men” are always justified by reason of their anger.
Around the necks of those who would stand with civilization, with decency, with parents being responsible for their children, with children being grateful to their parents, with each generation understanding and revering above all the culture in which it was brought up – no matter how understanding or empathetic it might be to other cultures – they hang not our civilization, not our prosperous society, but that of the seventeenth century, with its powdered wigs and its excesses.
Around our necks, they hang aristocracy and wealth from birth, ignoring that in the present age and in any truly economically free society (which ours hasn’t been for almost a hundred years) inherited wealth rarely lasts more than three generations.
And they do this while proposing a regime that, if implemented, would in fact, lead to an aristocracy of birth. (They are already well on the way there, how far you get being a matter of the right connections, the right schools, all of which require the right opinions and the right pedigree. Unless you think the recent spate of ivy-league presidents a mere coincidence.)
They reconcile this duality just as Rousseau reconciled his belief in the natural man and his opposition to revolution. You see, in his own words, the state he envisioned was one that would OWN its citizens. Since the citizens who would prosper under it would be totally submissive to the state then in the end, the state would create the ideal citizen who would be nothing without it. (How submissive? “When the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this simply proves I was mistaken and that what I thought to be the General Will, was not so.” In fact, “If my particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite of what was my will and I should not therefore have been free.” Or, if you prefer, the oath to the constitution he proposed for Corsica: “I join myself, body, goods, will and all my powers to the Corsican nation, granting her ownership of me, of myself, and all who depend on me.” )
In the eyes of the current followers of Rousseau, such a state needs wise people to lead it, and they are the wise people, and they have, therefore, the presumption of right on their side. Their virtue is indistinguishable from their opinions. It is these opinions, this “anger at society” this “revolutionary zeal” which sanctifies them, so that they need do nothing else.
These opinions protect them from the media, who, steeped in the same “firebrand” mythology refuse to look at the underpinnings and consequences of their avowed goodness.
Which is why when talking about, oh, Chakra Gore, with his palatial mansion that uses enough electricity to supply a small third world country, or John Advocate of the Poor Edwards, who kept his mistress in style, we hear people say “they’re good people, but…”
No. They are not good people, just like Rousseau wasn’t a good person. And while in Rousseau’s time we might not have known where this sort of intellectual tomfoolery led, now we know.
It leads to the terror of the guillotine; it leads to the Holomodor; it leads to the killing fields of Cambodia; it leads to the dead of Africa in the grip of communism – so many that there is no particular name for their demise, and still ongoing. It leads to misery, famine, destruction.
When the individual belongs to the state, that makes him the slave of those who run the state. We divide again into noblemen and serfs, but this time the noblemen have not even the pretense of a religion that believes the serfs are made of the same material and by the same G-d who made the noblemen. Instead the serfs are mere pieces, cogs in a giant machine, to be used and discarded at the pleasure of those in power.
Monsieur Rousseau, we’ve seen your paradise, and we reject it.
The only ones who like it are those who like the idea of THEIR boot stepping on a human face forever. And every time they rear their heads, we need to hold up the result of their ideas, to point out they view themselves as the feudal lordlings of a new, never ending dark ages.
There were no trials at the fall of the USSR, more’s the pity, and we never hanged the commissars from their own guts. Maybe that’s yet needed and yet to come. Maybe humanity only learns in blood. But until then – and perhaps to avoid it – we need to point out to them that “natural man” is and has always been an animal, and that our way of individual responsibility and self-respect has created the most prosperous society the world has ever seen, while their way of subjugating all to the government has brought back only the old horrors of tribalism and mass killings.
They are not on the right side of history. They never were. They are merely the modern incarnation of very old human vices.
*And on a personal note, the stomach flu has now gone on to #1 son, which means I’m almost well, but I have a PILE of bedclothes to wash and three bathrooms to clean. I TRULY feel horrible I haven’t answered all those blog requests and interviews, but I think before I even attempt it I need a nap, and then we’ll see. I’m fully cognizant I’m pushing the time to an extreme — but the last three weeks have been insane and when there is no strength there is no strength.*