Evidence for Emerson

 | 

In the olden days — say, the 1960s — college professors were still carrying on debates about something called the Influence of Great Men on History. Basically, they denied that there was any.

Emerson had written, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” A century later, not many earnest professors, spending their lives in the lengthened shadows of the American Historical Association, cared to believe that. Even Bismarck and Napoleon were the products of social circumstances, etc.

Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality.

Arrayed on the other side were the writers of popular history. Whether they were sincerely attracted to the Emersonian idea, or they knew that social history doesn’t sell, they busied themselves about topics that assumed the crucial influence of a few important people. The multitudes of What Would Have Happened articles exemplify the trend: what would have happened if Hitler had ordered more air attacks at Dunkirk? What would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? What would have happened if Lee had occupied better terrain at Gettysburg?

Well, what indeed? But the academics just got more and more “social.” Today, if you want to publish historical articles with Emersonian assumptions, you will not, I repeat not, get tenure.

Yet although they don’t seem to realize it, the professors are now faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them hate President Trump, and lots of them spend their idle hours — which appear to be many — campaigning against him, asserting that if he is permitted to prevail, America will become a nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic state. But this assumes that the political shape of the nation has a good chance of being irrevocably changed by the election of a single powerful personality. And this is contrary to what you think you believe.

Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters.

I’ll leave people who are so wise about history to discuss that problem among themselves. I simply wish to note that Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality. If Trump’s personality were not significant, wouldn’t the social movement that elected him have the professors and the other members of the ruling class on the run by now?

A person of normal discernment could have followed up his victory, which was a triumph over the entrenched leadership of both political parties, by getting at least three or four parts of his agenda immediately enacted. Every victory would have strengthened his position for the next big effort to fulfill his movement’s social demands. But no. Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters. So far, none of his opponents’ fears, real or purported, have turned out to have been justified. Is this not evidence for the crucial importance of the individual personality?

And as to his opponents . . . Their strategy has depended on the socialist ideal of mass resistance among the populace. And what has this strategy accomplished? Nothing in particular. What has stymied Trump hasn’t been their Marches for Science and Marches for Women and Marches Against the Border and Marches for the Sake of Marches. It has been the lengthened shadow of Trump himself.




Share This


A Field Guide to Humanoids

 | 

In one of Woody Allen’s best films, Manhattan, he portrays a television comedy writer who gets fed up with the triviality of his job. He doesn’t want to make audiences laugh at people anymore, because he no longer finds people very funny. Only as he’s quitting do we learn the name of the program for which he writes: Human Beings — Wow! There are surely times — perhaps daily — when our sentiments echo those of that title. Sometimes we find the fellow members of our species funny, but painfully often we can’t.

Equal parts children of the gods and descendants of the apes, we possess about the same number of traits from each. If aliens from outer space were to come to earth, intent on learning all they could about us, they’d probably be puzzled. Just as birdwatchers consult field guides to the species native to their area, our visiting aliens might make good use of a field guide to humanoids. Having studied the human drama all my life, I think I could write a pretty decent one. I know just what I’d want to tell them, especially if they ever obtained the vote.

One of the main strategies of statists is dehumanizing the opposition. It must be evil, and it must never change.

The political forces that would control us want to keep us alienated from one another. They employ the time-tested tactic of divide and conquer. They don’t want us to understand human nature, because then we would learn how to get along with one another. We’d never achieve perfect harmony, no matter how much we understood, but we’d certainly be able to function without constant, heavy-handed government supervision.

One of the main strategies of statists is dehumanizing the opposition. It must be evil, and it must never change. If it could be seen to improve, gradually becoming less evil and generally better, the state would no longer be needed to protect its minions from that wicked force.

What does it look like when people change their minds about an issue? Our statist lords and masters don’t want us to know. If we came to recognize it, we might be more patient with those who disagree with us. If we realized how effective nonaggressive persuasion can be, we’d be willing to use that instead of the coercion to which we feel we must resort if we’re sure nothing else will work.

Most of my friends and relatives are leftists. When I try to get them to understand what’s really going on in this country — as opposed to the twaddle they’re told — I get dogged resistance. They don’t want to understand the changes that are taking place. Their heads are stuck deep in the 20th century, and a mythical version, at that.

If aliens from outer space were to come to earth, intent on learning all they could about us, they’d probably be puzzled.

When people change their minds, the process is usually one of gradual evolution. They usually think (or want to think) that they arrived at their new opinion totally on their own, without having been persuaded by anyone else. Sometimes they even try to pretend that they never thought any other way.

They’re not going to publicly flagellate themselves for their errors, no matter how cathartic the spectacle might be for others. I know that I don’t like getting even a private flogging for mine. I sometimes do from conservatives, when I admit that I used to be a leftist. “So you know you were wrong, now . . . huh, huh, huh?” They actually think that treating me like a poorly housebroken dog and grinding my nose into a pile of poop will get me properly trained.

It shouldn’t be made personal, because it really isn’t, as the trite saying goes, “about us.” Truth existed for eons before we were born, and it will endure long after we are gone. It’s bigger than we are. We need it, but it does not need us.

I’ve seen tremendous change in many conservatives, particularly on issues like gay rights. Leftists are deathly afraid to admit this. Donald Trump is probably less hostile to gays than any president in history before Obama, but the LGBTQWERTY left has utterly convinced itself that his administration is going to herd them into boxcars and ship them off to some new Dachau.

After hearing this fear expressed for at least the five thousandth time, I finally blew my stack. I asked a sad and quaking, safety-pin-wearing friend exactly what he thought it would look like if conservatives finally changed their minds about gays — humoring him by assuming, for the sake of argument, that a great number of them already haven’t. He gave me a long, blank look, like a schoolboy who’d failed to study for an exam. Then he launched into a litany of government actions that conservatives “must” support to show how really, really, really, really sorry they are for having been such meanies.

They’re not going to publicly flagellate themselves for their errors, no matter how cathartic the spectacle might be for others.

The concept of change happening organically in society — instead of being engineered by government — is totally foreign to him. He can’t fathom the possibility that people might be persuaded by logic and experience. Everything must be forced to happen. People who think this way are abysmally and inexcusably ignorant of human nature. It’s almost as if they came to this planet along with those visiting aliens and — like them — were seeing it now for the very first time.

If we don’t learn to understand each other, eventually we will destroy each other. There have been legends about extraterrestrial visitors since the days of the Pharaohs. We keep scaring ourselves by speculating that they might someday try to conquer and colonize this planet. I don’t think we need to worry.

They’ve been watching us through their binoculars and muttering, “Human Beings — Wow!” Like Woody Allen, they may not mean that as a compliment.




Share This


Dear 454729: Welcome to CUNY

 | 

Probably I should save this for a Word Watch column, but here goes. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, once a distinguished academic institution, has commanded staff to drop “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and I suppose “Miss,” when addressing people. Faculty are urged to follow suit. The preferred option is, apparently, to address people as “John Doe” or “Mary Roe,” not as the hated, sexist, “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe.” It is intimated by the administration that federal anti-discrimination laws require this.

Of course, it’s all idiotic. It is also grossly tasteless, despite the pretense that it is intended to "ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment.” “Gender-inclusive” is different from “genderless.” And how do you feel when someone starts a letter with “Mary Roe: Welcome to the fall semester” — let alone “Mary Roe: I am sorry to tell you that your mom has died.” I don’t feel warmly welcomed or deeply respected when strangers can’t come up with a better door opener than “Stephen Cox” when they want to confide their thoughts and feelings to me. Returning to “inclusive”: if inclusivity means not knowing whether someone is a man or a woman, we will have to banish all first names, too. They might give it away. And if you want to be ethnically inclusive as well as gender inclusive, there go the last names. Soon the only way to communicate a respectful welcome will be to address people by numbers.

Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea.

This stuff is hypocritical. Do you think the exalted leaders of the City University of New York have stopped referring to themselves as “Dr.,” despite the class distinction and often the ethnic distinction involved in that? I mean, to call oneself “Dr. Smith” shows that you are better than other people, doesn’t it? And aren’t most people with Ph.D.’s Caucasians? Case closed.

But why is this important? One reason is that laws — while bad enough in themselves — become the basis of decrees, which are ordinarily worse. These decrees proceed from someplace so deep in Cubicle City that no one can tell what perpetrator to fire, supposing that anyone had the power to fire anyone. Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea (in this case the bureaucratic sponsorship of the “transgendered”). Nothing else matters: custom, grace, the real respect owing to the people with whom one wants to communicate, nothing.

A society that allows itself to be thus cheapened, bit by bit, day by day, will eventually have no customs, social graces, or respectful gestures to enable differing people to dwell together sociably. It will be a constant, meaningless drama of inflamed sensitivities on the part of some and sullen acquiescence on the part of others.

Libertarians are often remarkable for our lack of intellectual interest in the kinds of daily interaction that make liberty possible. Hayek didn’t suffer from that lack; neither did Mises or Paterson. But for too many of us, nothing bad can happen unless a government agency is directly responsible for making it happen. That leaves the rest of the culture, the culture whose values enable the government to do whatever it does, completely off the hook. You may say, “Well, CUNY is an agency of government,” and it is; but you know, or else should know, that private colleges are almost equally busy coarsening our intellectual and cultural life. We can’t let ourselves off the intellectual hook by imagining that individualism can be robust no matter how debased the surrounding culture may be.




Share This


One Flapper Escapes the Trap

 | 

America’s glorious War on Drugs is viewed with increasing skepticism. Because people keep proposing different variations of it, we never stop talking about it. But we keep talking about it in the same way. Public debate almost always dwells on the superficial aspects, rarely touching upon those closest to the heart.

The argument that addiction to, or abuse of, certain substances is of greater concern to “society” than it is to us as individuals is the basis of every form of prohibition. It claims that we belong to others more than we do to ourselves. But to prohibit certain substances because people might abuse them is a violation of human dignity. If our lives are “society’s” more than they are our own, then we are something less than entirely human.

I’ve never used illegal drugs. Even though I was a teenager during the seventies, when supposedly “everybody did it.” Was that because drugs were against the law? I don’t think so.

I didn’t hang around with people who had access to anything stronger than marijuana. And I had plenty of opportunity to see how that affected them. It made them stupid, and it made them stink. I didn’t want to be stupid, and I didn’t want to stink.

As an adult, I became addicted to an entirely legal substance: alcohol. Would I have used it if it had been illegal? As illegality wasn’t what deterred me from smoking weed, it probably would have had little to do with keeping me from drinking. I liked the taste of booze, and it made me feel powerful and utterly brilliant. It was fetishized (by the “society” to which I supposedly belong) as a rite of passage to all things grown-up and glamorous, and those were exactly the things I wanted to be.

Had I been a flapper in the speakeasy days, I’d have been swilling gin and dancing the Charleston right along with the rest of them.

Perhaps sensing the utilitarian coldness of the “society owns us” line, many prohibitionists appeal to our Inner Five-Year-Old. They simply care about us — more than we may care about ourselves. But why does their concern for us take precedence over our own? It comes around, no less than the other argument, to claiming that somebody else is more important than we are.

Their concern purportedly trumps ours. But I’ve known many alcoholics and other addicts who are valiantly battling their addiction. And not one of us got clean or sober because anybody else wanted us to. Any recovery program will tell you that is never enough. If we live and recover instead of giving up and dying, it can only be because we value ourselves enough to believe that our lives are worthwhile.

No one else can make you value yourself. Nor is it likely to add to your estimation of yourself to be told that somebody else’s interest in you is more important than your own. None of the people who have overcome an addiction to illegal drugs did so because of such an appeal. That wouldn’t appeal to anybody. Which is probably why — since it is the argument so often used — so many people are hooked on illegal drugs.

The drive to illegalize booze got traction during the industrial revolution. The saloon became the place to be counted, herded, and manipulated into voting as the powerful desired. Might this not have been because people had already begun to feel more like sheep than like human beings? Could not the desire to intoxicate oneself into oblivion have something to do with the abuse of alcohol (and drugs) in the first place?

How, then, will playing upon the sense that somebody else owns us — that we are not people in our own right in any meaningful sense — make us want to drink or use drugs any less?

Within every individual is that spark of humanity that gives us our identity. That recognition of our own worth. It goes beyond the mere survival instinct found in animals, driving each of us not only to exist, but to live. To strive for wisdom and achievement. To be free not simply from some trap (the highest aspiration of an animal), but to pursue a higher purpose.

I got sober — and stay sober — because I want to live the fullest life possible. The more “society” permits the liberty for human beings to reach their potential, the less attractive an escape into intoxication will be. Then prohibition schemes of every sort will be as dead as the flappers and bootleggers of our past.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.