Understanding the times

I was listening to Bob Dylan’s Talking World War III Blues in the car last week. Those who were of responsible age back in 1963 may remember it’s about Dylan recounting his dream of being the only one alive after a nuclear war to a psychiatrist, who eventually interrupts him saying he’s been having the same dream, only he was the only one left alive (“I didn’t see you around”). It goes on:

A lot of time passed and now it seems
Everybody’s having them dreams

The song is witty, but not of course that subtle, because in those days the threat of nuclear annihilation was not a subconscious fear, but an ever-present reality. I don’t know about you, but I’ve begun to notice a similar phenomenon of shared apocalyptic experience, if a less blatant and more diffuse one, particularly in correspondence with Hump readers.

Merv Bitkofer started a thread at Biologos about the phenomenon of the replacement in recent years of rational argument with emotional rhetoric in public life, and notably on university campuses (linking to a good video by Bishop Barron here). Barron suggested we need to return to a respect for objectivity in our discourse – but what intrigues me more is why society in general and academia in particular doesn’t actually want to do so, or otherwise they would have done it long ago. If irrationality rules on university campuses, you can bet there’s an intellectual ideology of irrationality behind it.

Not long after that thread I got a personal e-mail from another friend here, noting a not unrelated phenomenon at the other end of the political spectrum that threatens to end our way of life – the US presidency’s crude appeal to the feelings of a certain bloc of voters in the face of any kind of critical thinking. Of course, the same president has had much to say about “fake news”. Whether he’s a victim or a perpetrator thereof, it’s an odd phenomenon that anyone should see it as valid to put out falsehoods as news, not even for some political end but simply for the sake of doing it (like the glut of fake celebrity deaths on Facebook). Once, hypocrisy was the tribute vice paid to virtue, validating truth by pretending to be truthful. How did it come to be that falsity acquired the same value as truth, rendering even hypocrisy obsolete?

Polarisations in western society become more and more obvious, and they are usually couched (when one looks behind rather empty terms like “populism”) in terms of “exploited” and “exploiters”, the latter being fair game for any retribution whatsoever. In Merv’s case, Donald Trump’s perceived oppression of women, immigrants, Muslims and… well, everybody really made it OK for a comedienne (oppressed, because female) to incite people to behead him. In the case of Trump’s camp itself, the control of the media by liberals justifies lying about them on principle. And so on.

In this country, the tragedy of a tower-block fire of complex and not-yet-investigated causation justifies, apparently, leaders of the main opposition party publically accusing the newly-elected government of murder. And that helps the bereaved not at all in coming to terms with their loss, and guarantees that anyone actually at fault will be sure to cover their tracks.

Protagonists on both sides of the Brexit debate here accuse each other of being traitors, morons and, especially, moral deviants… or moral deviants by association with nasty people who happened to vote the same way. That’s a line of abuse also familar from our origins discussions, when people doubting Neodarwinism are branded as creationists-by-association, and worse – as deliberately undermining the very fabric of civilization by “social deviance”.

G20 conferences are targeted by organised violent protestors with no apparent programme for change except that of “anti-capitalism”. As long as they can identify and hate the bad guys (though it’s always non-capitalist policemen who get rocks thrown at them), they don’t need to provide a realistic alternative.

And, of course, many ordinary people are thoroughly nonplussed that what was sexually immoral both during several thousand years of culture, and in law just a decade or two ago is now promoted compulsorily to children of primary school age, any objection being labelled “hate speech”, often with judicial consequences. That even applies to objections from scientific evidence, which is trumped in an increasing number of countries by the unifying theme of all these phenomena – Identity Politics.

Identity politics is now all-pervasive, even impinging on the origins question – a certain regular poster on BioLogos has several times met rational arguments with the counter argument “white male fundagelicals”, the implication being that three (or maybe four) “oppressor” categories are combined in the writer (in this case, me) to invalidate the argument’s right even to be stated (being trumped by the female, perhaps non-white and non-evangelical status of the other, sans reasoning).

But if that seems to be an aberrant case at BioLogos, it has become a standard way of shutting down debate and even of selecting faculty across US universities. Even here in the UK, a news item I saw whilst I was preparing this piece spoke of a college that is replacing all the portraits of alumni in its entrance hall, even that of its founder, with those more representative of what the (white male!) president decides to be more deserving categories. Note that the actual achievements, or the links to the college, of the individuals to be pictured are not the main consideration – only the categories to which they are deemed to belong. As pointed out in Merv’s BioLogos thread, reason has been replaced with rhetoric, in the name of academic respectability. Even science is not exempt: there was the March for Science, seeking to “foster a diverse and inclusive scientific community”, ie one that excludes the wrong kind of diversity as “anti-science”.

Just today on BBC news Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority, set up by the advertising industry years ago and backed by legislation to control misleading and indecent advertising, is seeking new powers to ban “gender stereotypes” in advertisements. They cite examples like housewives cleaning up alone after the family makes a mess, which sounds OK until you think a little. A “stereotype” is simply what most people do – for a husband and wife to raise a family is a gender stereotype, so will become liable to banning. As, potentially, will any situation one might consider normal, by its definition as a stereotype. And the decision about what is or is not acceptable (the stated motive in the press today being to change society) is made by unaccountable individuals appointed solely by a chairman, appointed solely by the advertising industry.

None of these things is coincidental, and they are all intimately connected by a single idea. I believe one only begins to understand these increasingly troubled times by realising that Identity Politics can only ever produce the outcome of a divided, hate-filled and eventually self-destructing society, because that’s its specific intention, just as Marxism can, on a century of evidence, only ever produce class-hatred and the destruction of the individual and of society itself, because that was its stated aim. And I suggest that those two are closely connected, through the phenomenon of Postmodernism.

If you can make time, listen to this guy’s analysis of where we are (in seven shortish parts). He’s the clinical psychologist who fell foul of Canada’s equality legislation last year by refusing to use made-up gender pronouns like “zhe”. As one who experienced the student Left in university days, and who has begun to get to grips with Postmodernism’s agenda via Michel Foucault and others, and with its effects in areas as diverse as gender politics and theology, I think Peterson’s analysis is largely right, and indeed prophetic (note that he gets visibly angry – but within the parameters of rational argument, not instead of them). It has to be important when a philosophy with the stated aim of dismantling the entire heritage of Judaeo-Christian society becomes dominant in the academy, in politics and in popular culture. It has to be tragic when Christians embrace it.

Lest you think Peterson is a lone wild-card, here’s a similar message from Noam Chomsky (himself an old Marxist), here is Stephen Hicks, here’s Roger Scruton; here even Richard Dawkins talks comparative sense simply by¬†quoting (sarcastically) a Postmodern academic… but it’s not really funny at all when such views guide university and government policy.

As a footnote, let me return to Bob Dylan, because the left-political nature of the folk protest movement of the sixties reminds us that things aren’t always quite as they seem on the surface. Talking World War III Blues, rightly enough, portrays nuclear war as a supreme moral and physical disaster. But on the same album Masters of War damns (literally, by wishing them dead) the capitalists who make fortunes out of manufacturing weapons of war – so that one almost forgets that the arms race was largely the result of Soviet Communist strategy, backed by a longstanding and public ambition of establishing world communism through inciting revolution, and through an aggressive foreign policy that had, already, produced the Eastern Bloc in Europe, the crushing of Hungarian dissidence in 1956 and Czech reform in 1968, the Berlin Wall, and ICBMs based in Cuba.

Like other Western intellectuals, such as the Cambridge spy-ring in England and the US physicists who gave nuclear secrets to Russia, the largely middle-class folk-Left saw Russia and China through rosy-tinted specs that only began to fall off, as Jordan Peterson says, in the sixties and seventies. Dylan’s own father was a shop-owner, and Bob became interested in folk music at Minnesota University and the Ten O’Clock Scholar coffee house, not amongst “folk” – though note the (stereotypical?) disabled¬† rednecks with muddy boots in the video below!

The “folk” critique was almost entirely one sidedly anti-western.To Joan Baez at Woodstock, “Governor Ronald Rayguns” was the fascist warmonger – yet as president it was he who helped end the Cold War, through the collapse of Soviet power under its own weight.

Ironically, the social evils they bemoaned in their own country (such as racism in the “backward” South, rather than that in their own Northern backyard) were actually being addressed politically, whilst tens of millions died and gross injustice reigned, virtually unnoted until the likes of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn forced it home, in the admired Communist lands.

My point is that this is not the first time academia, popular culture and politics have united to put traditional values, and especially Christian truth, on the “wrong side of history”. Neither is it the first time they’ve backed a losing horse, and caused great evil to flourish by so doing. In this case, that evil may well include the irretrievable loss of two thousand years of wisdom.

So take a large pinch of salt when you hear politicians or artists talk about “promoting American/British/Western values”. That’s just a useful narrative.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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