Behind Failure to Act as Civilization’s Sun Sets

It’s way too easy to drift toward the deep end to make some attempt at waving red flags over the news, these days.  Probably not without intent, our popular culture has shifted away from the old-time lesson that the crazy old man and the Cassandra might offer some broad insight if we could get through our impression that they are insane when it comes to the details.

Mel Gibson’s Conspiracy Theory offers a fascinating study of the subtlety with which that lesson has been transformed into a message not to spot (and warn about) broad trends in the direction of our society and our government, lest one be dismissed as a lunatic.  In that movie, Gibson’s character was obsessed with spotting conspiracies between the lines of the news, with the twist that he turned out to be central to an actual government conspiracy.

Wouldn’t the message of such a plot appear to contradict my opening thesis?  Not really.  What’s fascinating is that the protagonist turned out not to be insane at all when it came to the details  of his theorizing — that he was, personally, being tracked as part of some government plot.  Note the inversion: The things that defined the character’s craziness (e.g., compulsively buying copies of Catcher in the Rye) were the function of having been conditioned as part of the conspiracy, but his broader conclusions were an outgrowth of the imposed mental problems.

Old message: The crazy guy can’t articulate his very real insights because of his disorder, even as that disorder allows him to pierce the deceptive veil of reality. New message: The crazy guy might have some legitimate reason to be crazy, but his “insights” are just a symptom of the disorder, not worth considering at all.  In short, if you’re inclined to spot government conspiracies, there’s probably something wrong with you for which you ought to seek treatment.

The thought comes to mind after reading the essays at two sequential links on Instapundit.  The first is by Herschel Smith, who highlights and analyzes the various indications of domestic police forces’ becoming a militarized counterinsurgency force:

This is how it is to be done, it was easy to conclude.  Social science with a gun: community involvement, town meetings, law enforcement knowledge of everyone all of the time, biometrics to track people (and especially men of military age), door kicking and killing as punitive measures, all sanctioned by the authorities and fully approved.  A new mission.  No longer will we merely perform constabulary duties.  We must rebuild our cities, bring stability, and ensure that the centralized planners work with the military leaders to guide us all.  The example has been set, and we’ve watched it unfold before our eyes for ten years.  It has been paraded across our television screens for years, and now we know how to do it.

Smith’s examples are those that we’ve come across with increasing frequency, lately: the dog killed when the SWAT team invades the wrong home, the 10 year old forced naked out of the bathtub and held at gunpoint based on some similar mistake, the elderly man killed with beanbag shots because he refused to take his medicine, and so on.

Point #1: Each of these anecdotes should be (and would once have been) sufficient evidence that the premises of the programs should be reevaluated even if the horror stories are of mistakes, or perhaps “collateral damage” in military lingo.

The second essay is by Thomas Sowell, who laments the predictable scene in which college activists utilize some community-organizing, thuggish tactic and are appeased:

The cost of resistance to the campus barbarians may not have been the only factor. Resistance requires a sense that there is something worth defending. But decades of dumbed-down education have produced people with no sense of the importance of a moral framework within which freedom and civil discourse can flourish. Without a moral framework, there is nothing left but immediate self-indulgence by some and the path of least resistance by others. Neither can sustain a free society. Disruptive activists indulge their egos in the name of idealism and others cave rather than fight.

And so we get a higher education system gummed up by a lot of useless, extremely expensive courses and activities and college campuses as “among the least free places in America.”

Point #2: With student debt constantly in the news, and with increasing awareness that students are emerging from their prolonged educational adolescence lacking basic knowledge and problem-solving skills (whether they make it through college or not), there is something preventing us from repairing that which is clearly broken.  Something is keeping outrages against free speech and academic discipline from spurring reevaluation of the system.

What points #1 and #2 have in common is that addressing them would require rolling back the advance of politically powerful forces that are intensely invested in maintaining the turf that they’ve claimed.  There’s a great deal of money and influence being siphoned away for their use, and they’ve become expert at translating their own perks and benefits as if they are markers of charitable good works.

They’ve also managed to fit their perks, benefits, and power grabs into our society in such a way that not enough people can possibly be as intensely invested in opposing them.  And you have to be intensely invested, because they can impose a massive cost to resisting.  You’re a bigot; you want to destroy the community; you want to harm disadvantaged people; you’re just another conspiracy-theory crazy.  (And, hey, by the way: What’s wrong with you that you’re so intensely invested in the first place?)

What’s frightening is that the messages of popular culture no longer fortify the principle that we must protect the system by giving it due weight against well-intended affronts.  Homeowners, for example, should never feel that they must be submissive when a G.I.HOME squad gets the wrong address.  That’s a necessary restraint on the system, even if it happens rarely, and no war against a drug lord can counterbalance it.

Old mantra: Ends don’t justify means.  New mantra: By any means necessary.

More frightening is that the politically powerful beneficiaries can only expand so far before they begin to run into larger and larger groups willing to mount some opposition, especially while opposition still means political campaigns.  What happens when their compounding mandate not to let the public dismantle the system that they’ve built meets a critical mass of people who simply cannot tolerate the consequences of that system?  What happens as the urgency of their own victory leads them to break the rules of the civil system, making it all the more urgent that their opposition never gains enough power, for long enough, to review what’s been done?

We’re starting to find out, aren’t we?  And the indications aren’t encouraging for those who value freedom.

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