The View From 1776
Friday, August 27, 2004
Why Clinton Got a Pass: John Dewey and the Baby-Boomers
Why did roughly sixty percent of opinion-poll respondents in 1998 and 1999 believe that President Clinton?s sexual conduct and marital infidelity, as well as his perjury before a Federal grand jury and a Federal court, were of no relevance to his fitness for office? Many commentators saw this as something new for American society and traced it to the social revolution in the 1960s. That was certainly the immediate impetus, but the shift goes back much further and much deeper.
What we experience today are the cumulative results of changes in political ideologies that began in the 1880s, reached critical mass politically in the 1930s, and became a cultural avalanche in the late 1960s. During that span the United States moved from an ethos of morality and religion to a materialistic ethos that values public policy to the degree that it furthers hedonistic license and doles out material economic benefits for targeted interest groups.
That ethos, earlier called the philosophy of pragmatism, is now taught in our schools as situation ethics.
Pragmatism is the philosophy that there are no standards of right and wrong independent of specific situations, that there are no such things as truth or morality that are valid for all human beings. By implication, the words in the Declaration of independence, ?We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights??,? become meaningless drivel. Pragmatism asserts that the only proper measure is the effectiveness of a belief or an action. Whatever works, regardless of its collateral effects, is true and good for that specific case.
Since pragmatism is concerned only with gaining a result, it is willing to allow the end to justify whatever means may be demanded. Liberals in the 1930s stoutly defended Stalin?s Moscow showcase trials and the liquidation of millions of kulaks and other inconvenient groups, because liberals had ?seen the future, and it works!? Socialist utopia at the end of the rainbow justified whatever inhumanities were perpetrated in its name. Thus feminist groups and other liberals could overlook President Clinton?s abuses of the law and of women, because their goals coincided with his social-justice policies. Within the perspective of pragmatic philosophy, the White House was acting properly, because its spin machine quite clearly worked.
An early convert to pragmatism?s ideas of social justice, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, said that there is no higher standard, such as natural law or morality, against which to measure legislation or public policy. The truth, he said, is simply whatever wins out in the market place. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler?s minister of information, would have had no quarrel with that view.
From the standpoint of liberals, Justice Holmes?s pragmatism had a further benefit. Under its corollary, known as ?legal realism,? since there is no higher law, such as customs and traditions of morality and judicial precedent, the law is only what a particular judge declares it to be in a particular case. If the law is whatever the judge says it is, then the judge is entitled to legislate from the bench. Overstepping the Constitution?s limitation of powers is, in pragmatic terms, a means justified by its social-justice aim.
As with all such radicalism, however, judicial activism is potentially a dagger at the heart of liberalism as well as of traditional Constitutional government. Having established the practice, liberals will have no rational response if radically conservative judges in the future legislate conduct that liberals find abhorrent. If legal realism is the standard, nothing bars Federal courts from ordering, for example, imposition of a Puritan theocracy, should conservative extremists come to wield sufficient political power. ?Legal realism?s? essence is thus revealed as a reversion to pre-civilizational, barbaric, might-makes-right. It is the opposite of a constitutional government of laws, of rules that apply equally to everyone.
The philosophy of pragmatism was articulated by Professors William James and John Dewey. Professor James remained on the political sidelines at Harvard, but Professor Dewey, the most influential of all the intellectual icons from 1900 to the 1940s, devoted his career to spreading the secular gospel of pragmatism in the educational community. He saw clearly that the most effective way to institute socialist pragmatism in America was to teach this ideology to children in the public schools.
Professor Dewey believed that scientific methodology, highly successful in the physical sciences, would be equally so in the then-new fields of sociology and psychology. Following the design laid out by the comte de Saint-Simon, socialism?s founder in the 1820s, intellectuals would employ the social sciences to restructure society under government regulatory authorities. Like Pavlov?s dogs, people would be trained to salivate when social scientists rang their bells. For starters, Professor Dewey?s Reconstruction in Philosophy explicitly called for scrapping all existing ideas of morality, philosophy, and religion as dogmatic ignorance.
One of Dewey?s fellow intellectuals was the New Republic?s founding editor Herbert Croly. Pre-figuring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt?s New Deal, Croly?s 1909 book, The Promise of American Life, called for a powerfully-centralized government of efficient and disinterested planners who would simply impose social justice upon the nation. Jeffersonian emphasis on individual liberty, he felt, had produced a mediocre populace that had failed to aspire to national greatness and had ignored the need to redistribute the country?s wealth to the workers. The remedy, he said, was to diminish or eliminate the legislative role, both at state and national levels, and to build up the power of the President to implement collectivist policies. State governors and legislators at the state and national levels were, in Mr. Croly?s opinion, second-rate people who should give way to the educated elite. Only the latter were sufficiently prepared to direct the nation toward social justice.
Mr. Croly?s views created an instant sensation among the intelligentsia, enough for Federal Judge Learned Hand to send a copy of Mr. Croly’s book to Theodore Roosevelt, urging that he use his political energy, if re-elected to the Presidency, to resume implementing its ideology.
The general populace had no awareness of this specific vision, but throughout the western world there was a sense that humanity was progressing almost inevitably toward a better future, as science amplified economic productivity and ideas of political liberty became more widely accepted. World War I came as a shattering blow. Millions were killed or maimed in the brutal trench warfare. Governments and historical empires crumbled.
Looking for some new faith in the disillusionment following the Great War, large numbers of people on both sides of the Atlantic turned to socialism?s utopian promise of earthly perfection. The 1917 Russian Revolution seemed to them to have illuminated the path to paradise.
Socialist intellectuals like Professor Dewey had labored for decades, with limited success, to discredit and banish the historical religious and moral dimension of public and private life. Suddenly they had a lot of sympathetic listeners among the general public. Few of the public had any understanding of the constitutional implications of socialism, but its announced intentions seemed worth consideration, particularly after the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Dewey?s articles became regular features in general-circulation magazines like Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Ladies Home Journal. Church groups and ladies? book clubs actively discussed the perceived merits of socialism and its promise of social justice.
Baby-boomers like President Clinton, who came of age as student activists in the 1960s, were the first generation in American history of whom a high percentage nationwide attended college and thus the first generation to be pervasively indoctrinated with the Machiavellian calculus of pragmatism and social justice. The vast majority of Americans, despite the hardships of the Depression and World War II, still adhered to traditional moral standards. Post-war prosperity, however, gave the intellectuals an open highway. Unaware of the ideological ambush waiting in academia, Americans sent their Baby Boom kids to college in record numbers.
In what amounted to burning down the house to get rid of the bedbugs, the Boomers? youthful rebellion turned into destructive anarchism that brought college campuses to a halt across the nation. Discarding more than two and a half millennia of civilization based on traditions of morality and civic virtue for a narrowly secular and aggressively anti-religious ideology, President Clinton?s generation, as Senator Moynihan later was to observe, defined deviancy down.
Drug abuse, violent crime, sexual promiscuity, illegitimate birth rates, illiteracy and innumeracy, excessive credit card debt, and personal bankruptcies soared to alarmingly high levels, in some categories higher than ever before experienced by any society in the history of the world.
Baby Boomers made entertainers and professional athletes the highest-paid and most-admired economic group in history. Girls aged ten to thirteen, the ?tweens market,? are aggressively targeted by TV and tween magazine advertising for cosmetics, mini-skirts, and bare-midriff tops and taught that a sexy image is essential for peer status. All ages, from toddler onward, witness countless video games, movies, and TV programs that graphicly depict brutal violence. Movies and TV programs show sexual intercourse as a to-be-expected part of a casual, first encounter between a man and a woman, no more unusual than ordering a cup of coffee. Public schools teach young children the mechanics of the sex act and distribute free condoms, implicitly giving official imprimatur to sexual promiscuity. Unspeakable crimes, never before imagined, have become commonplace ? young students gun down their classmates and teachers; disgruntled employees slaughter their bosses and colleagues.
These are not unrelated phenomena. They are, in fact, the essence of and the inevitable consequences of a society governed by ?social justice,? the modern variant of Epicurean philosophy, which holds that the driving force in human social behavior and political conduct is, not aspiration to morality and civic virtue, but the pleasure-pain principle, i.e., seeking gratification of material wants and sensual desires. Morality is only a subject of comedians? ridicule.
The founders, however, had a different perspective. In the Virginia Assembly in 1788, James Madison said,
?I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks ? no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty and happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.?
We are left today with a largely secular political system crippled by its inability to call upon the spiritual side of human nature that in all past ages had been the source of civility and unity in society, the wellspring of civilization itself. Liberalism?s paradigm of egalitarian social justice promised heaven on earth, but produced the 20th century, the most savage period in world history.
Ascendance of the welfare state and secular liberalism has had the same sort of effect in the United States as the French Revolution of 1789, which destroyed their political, social, and religious order. Enshrining the Goddess Reason, France got, not a good society, but the bloody reign of terror, Napoleon?s imperial dictatorship, years of ruinous warfare across Europe, and more than one hundred fifty years of political and social instability. In this country we have a polarized political scene that resembles a religious war between those who still believe in morality and those who greet its assertion with mockery and obscene gestures. Society has fragmented into numberless special interest groups based on sex, race, ethnicity, educational level, income, disability, and sexual preferences. Inner city life approximates Thomas Hobbes?s state of nature, ?continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.?
Those hoping to repair the ship of state?s keel may have to settle for a long-range strategy of unremitting educational effort to reacquaint the public with the original philosophical and moral foundations of the Declaration and the Constitution. That, after all, is how the liberals did it. In a propaganda triumph that rivals anything devised by the Nazis or the Soviets, from the 1880s onward, academia, the arts, and literature were bombarded with John Dewey?s pragmatism, with the ACLU?s definition of the First Amendment as unfettered license for anarchists and socialists, and with novelists and historians extolling the virtues of the proletariat and denouncing existing society. Sociologists and anthropologists like Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead theorized that one culture was as good as the next. Charles A. Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States endeavored to prove that the Constitution was no more than a conspiracy by wealthy property owners to exploit the workers. The New Republic, The Masses, and other publications touted collectivizing government under a strong executive who would move us toward their national objective of egalitarianism. They were motivated by an ideological faith that, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau had theorized, original sin was the institution of private property; destroy the society that protected property rights, and the Garden of Eden would magically reappear.
The iceberg that menaces our ship of state today is immigration from non-English-speaking countries. We may welcome these new arrivals as reaffirmation of individual opportunity in American society. But multi-cultural and bilingual education have eliminated the schools as cultural melting-pots and turned them into anti-constitutional, anti-traditional agents of social corrosion. Couple this with the welfare state?s destruction of the traditional family and we have a prescription for civil strife not unlike that in Africa or the Balkans.