The View From 1776

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Filth for All, or Why Do People Watch the Super Bowl?

Is there a Constitutional right to wallow in scatological language and lewd display?

A guest Friday evening on Dan Abram’s TV show repeatedly declared that he was “offended” that the f-word and other hedonistic fare were being pressured out of the Super Bowl half-time show and, to some extent, out of TV commercials created for the occasion.  He was emphatic that FCC regulation to that end is unconstitutional interference with First Amendment rights of free speech.

As we have seen in recent ACLU-sponsored legal actions, such as Michael Newdow’s efforts against “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, protection against being offended is now asserted as a Constitutional right (and may well be accorded that status by the Supreme Court).  The exception is Christians and religious Jews, who are fair game for any scurrilous attack.  Liberals get bonus point for offending believers in religious morality.

For historical perspective it is interesting to contrast that viewpoint with the conservative standards and social views of Victorian England.  For that purpose, James Fitzjames Stephen’s 1874 work, ““Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,”  is a representative exposition of the historical view of the role of law and custom in English society.  The title of Mr. Stephen’s book, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” is of course taken from the motto of the French Revolution, which spawned socialism in the writings of Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte.  It was intended as an argument against John Stuart Mill’s views and against Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, which Mill advocated.

Mill is best known to Americans for his essay “On Liberty,” published in 1859, the year of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” and philosophically part of the Darwinian secular climate of opinion.  In “On Liberty,” Mill argues that society is diminished to the extent that any freedom of expression or any life style is curbed, by law, custom, or prevailing moral standards.  Mill looks upon the eccentric and the radical as the source of vitality and innovation in society.  Mill doesn’t make the argument, but his “anything goes” advocacy squares with Thomas Huxley’s defense of Darwin that there is no such thing as morality, sin, right, or wrong; there is only the struggle for survival.

It is hardly surprising that “On Liberty” is included by liberal-socialist editors in almost every American college anthology.  The guest on Dan Abram’s TV program was simply parroting Mill’s thesis.

Mill found much to admire in Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, which called for society to be ruled by a modern version of Plato’s philosopher-king; in Comte’s case, to be ruled by himself and his intellectual followers.  Exploring Comte’s philosophy of Positivism is too vast an undertaking for this posting.  But some of its highlights were Comte’s assertion that he had discovered the Immutable Law of History that mandated a three-phase transition of humanity society, culminating in the 19th century’s scientific age.  This concept of the inevitable course of history, deriving from Comte and his contemporary Hegel, was expounded by Karl Marx in 1848 as the basis for his prediction of a world-wide workers’ revolution that would overthrow capitalism. 

In Comte’s system of thought, only the intellectuals were smart enough to have discerned the true nature of history and of the laws of social development and control, therefore society should be socialized under the control of intellectual councils.  The most important function of the senior intellectual council would be educating the people to understand the gospel of The Religion of Humanity.

Comte dismissed the idea of God and the Christian religion as ignorance that had no place in his new scientific age.  Only secular materiality had real existence in the doctrine of Positivism.  Judeo-Christian morality was immaterial, therefore non-existent.  Social and economic egalitarianism, or social justice, were the basis of his ethics.  With proper education by the intellectuals and equal distribution of property, it would be possible, he theorized, to perfect human society and to eliminate crime and wars.

Few Americans (and possibly few Englishmen) today have heard of James Fitzjames Stephen, yet he was a man of considerable public stature in his time, a prolific writer of books and magazine articles.  His father, Sir James Stephen, was Lord Acton’s predecessor as Regius Professor of Modern History in Cambridge.  Sir James carried on his father’s crusade against slavery and was the drafter of the legislation which finally abolished slavery in the British Empire.  Our author, James Fitzjames Stephen, graduated from Cambridge and became a member of the Bar in 1854.  Later he served as Legal Member of the Viceroy’s Council in India, then completed his career in a Judgeship on the Queen’s Bench.

A considerable irony is that his niece, the novelist and literary critic Virginia Woolf, was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a quintessential advocate of libertinism.

In contrast to Comte, both Mill and Stephen were fairly typical, “show me the facts” Englishmen.  Their parting point was Mill’s disposition to believe in Progress of the sort expounded by the French Revolutionary philosophers and by the socialist philosophers who followed the Revolution.  Stephen was a firm advocate of maintaining law and order by preserving historical tradition and observing the moral standards of society’s better elements.

Stephen’s precepts are visible in the following quotations from “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”:

“The great defect of Mr. Mills’ later writings seems to me to be that he has formed too favorable an estimate of human nature.  This displays itself in..the tacit assumption…that the removal of restraints usually tends to invigorate character.  Surely the very opposite of this is the truth.  Habitual exertion is the greatest of all invigorators of character, and restraint and coercion in one form or another is the great stimulus to exertion.  If you wish to destroy originality and vigour of character, no way is so sure as to put a high level of comfort easily within the reach of moderate and commonplace exertion.”

The last sentence of the quotation perfectly describes the outcome of the liberal welfare state.

Mr. Stephen writes, “The odd manner in which Mr. Mill worships mere variety, and confounds the proposition that variety is good with the proposition that goodness is various, is well illustrated [by the following quotation from Mill]: ‘Exceptional individuals…should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass ? in order that there may be enough of them to ‘point out the way.’..... “

“If this advice were followed, we would have as many little oddities in manner and behaviour as we have people who wish to pass for men of genius.  Eccentricity is far more often a mark of weakness than a mark of strength…...” 

Mr. Stephen advocated preservation of society by law and custom that protected religious, moral, and political traditions.  This is illustrated by the following quotation:

“The following way of stating the matter is not and does not pretend to be a solution of the question, In what cases is liberty good? but it will serve to show how the question ought to be discussed when it arises…..

“Compulsion is bad:

1. When the object aimed at is bad.

2. When the object aimed at is good, but the compulsion employed is not calculated to obtain it.

3. When the object aimed at is good, and the compulsion employed is calculated to obtain it, but at too great an expense…...

“If, however, the object aimed at is good, if the compulsion employed such as to attain it, and if the good obtained overbalances the inconveniences of the compulsion itself I do not understand how, upon utilitarian principles, the compulsion can be bad. [both Stephen and Mill favored the utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham, but in different degrees and different ways]  I may add that this way of stating the case shows that Mr. Mill’s ‘simple principle’ is really a paradox.  It can be justified only by showing as a fact that, self-protection apart, compulsion must always be a greater evil in itself than the absence of any object which can be possibly obtained by it…..”

Mr. Stephen elaborates, in the following quotation, on matters that sound very familiar today:

“I think, in short, that Governments ought to take the responsibility of acting upon such principles, religious, political, and moral, as they may from time to time regard as most likely to be true, and this they cannot do without exercising a very considerable degree of coercion….

“In order to show more distinctly what I mean by coercion in favor of religious opinions, it is necessary to point out that I include under the head of religious opinions all opinions about religion, and in particular the opinion that a given religious creed is false, and the opinion that no religious creed is absolutely true, as well as the opinions which collectively form any one of the many confessions of faith adopted by religious bodies.

“There are many subjects of legislation which directly and vitally interest all members of religious bodies as such.  Of these marriage, education, and the laws relating to religious endowments are the most prominent.  Suppose now, that the rulers of a nation were opposed to all religion, and were prepared to and did consistently legislate upon the principle that all religions are false.  Suppose that in harmony with this view they insisted in every case on a civil marriage, and regarded it as the only legally binding, although the addition of religious ceremonies was not forbidden…..

“Suppose that, in addition to this, they were to organize a system of national education…...Suppose that in all of these the education was absolutely secular, and that not a shilling was allowed to be appropriated out of the public purse to teaching of religion in any form whatever….No one, I think, will deny either that this would be coercion, or that it would be coercion likely to effect its purpose to a greater or less extent by means not in themselves productive of any other evil than the suppression of religion, which the adoption of these means assumes to be a good….

“Mr. Mill ought to say, I think, that in every case it is bad, irrespective of the truth or falsehood of religion, for it is coercion, and it is not self-protective….”

Mr. Stephen views the state classically, as an organic whole intended to promote Aristotle’s summum bonum:  individuals living a moral life within a moral state.  Abandoning this, he foresees, will result in the very situation confronting the United States today.

“The second case is that in which the Legislature regards various creeds as respectable, and favors them more or less according to circumstances, and either equally or unequally… America all Churches stand upon the same footing as lawful associations based on voluntary contract…The fatal defect in the arrangement, which must sooner of later break it up, is that it tends to emasculate both Church and State.  It cuts human life in two.  It cuts off religion from active life, and it reduces the State to a matter of police….To turn Churches into mere voluntary associations, and to sever the connection between them and the State, is on the part of the State an act not of neutrality but of covert unbelief…..

“In so far as the principle is accepted and acted upon with real good faith, the State will be degraded, and reduced to mere political functions.  Associations of various kinds will take its place and push it to one side, and completely new forms of society may be the result…...Such experiments as these have nothing to do with liberty.  They are embryo governments, little States which in the course of time may well come to be dangerous antagonists of the old one.”

Thus today in the United States we have what historian Paul Johnson describes as a fragmentation into pagan worship, in such forms as feminism, environmentalism, animal rights, abortion rights, gay rights, multi-culturalism, and anti-religious liberal-socialism.  Demonstrably we no longer have a society united by a common cultural understanding and a common language.  Anti-Americanism is too often the prevailing ethos on our college campuses.

Our original Constitutional government of limited powers, in which the states are responsible for the regulation of daily life and are the source of most of what we call government, has long since been usurped by a socialistic welfare state, with all meaningful power collectivized at the Federal level.