Thursday, December 19, 2019

Collective Madness

“They said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name.’ ”

What is collectivism? It’s not just the belief that it helps to have others around, or that a group can do more than a lone person can. Rather, it’s the belief and practice of making a group more important than any or all individuals in it.

It requires us to define the value of each human being by the crowds to which we suppose them to belong — their cultural, racial, economic, educational, sexual and historical peer-groups. It’s a form of Marxism, really, but Marxism in new clothes, because the evils of Marxism are too well known.

Marxism in New Clothes

It’s always a deeply resentful ideology. One group (the rich, the bourgeoisie, the white, the privileged, the male, etc.) is defined as “oppressors” of some other group (the poor, the proletariat, the non-white, the historically disadvantaged, the female, etc.). The “oppressor” group is indicted with evil actions and motives, and is made the focus of the resentment of the “oppressed” group. And the aspirations of the “oppressed” for justice are made to depend on their ability to foment guilt and to seize the mechanisms of political power, so as to allow them rectify the alleged evils of the past.

But collectivism doesn’t first present itself as resentful. Instead, it presents itself in the name of equality. It locates some obvious social inequity, makes it prominent, and calls for redress. Thus, it appears humane, compassionate and morally earnest, at first. But very quickly, in order to mobilize the masses, it gins up resentment. It magnifies its concerns beyond all others, and calls for more and more radical acts of rebellion against the status quo. Eventually, it calls for violence.

Collective Madness

When Madonna tells a crowd of women’s marchers that she has contemplated “blowing up the White House” or when Louis Farrakhan calls on people to “rise up and kill those who kill us,” it’s just collectivism singing in full voice.

Collectivism’s all the rage in the academy these days, too. In high schools, colleges and universities, the message of the power of collective action is trumpeted as the key to social renewal, poverty relief, combating injustice and equalizing the world. What has always been impossible to us before will become possible when enough of us buy in — that’s the song they’re singing.

And young people are buying.

History Lessons

Yet collectivism, one would think, has done more than enough to discredit itself in the last century. Back then, over 100,000,000 people were killed by collectivist political regimes. That’s far more than all the people killed in the wars of previous history combined. The twentieth century witnessed the gas chambers, the gulags, the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing, and a host of other morally disastrous projects carried out in the name of the collective good. After the Berlin Wall and the economic disaster of the Soviet Union, one would think it would be forever dead.

Yet now we hear again the clarion call of socialism in North America. Everything from housing to medicine, to education, to the economy, we are told, would be better if put in the hands of our petty politicians, rather than left to the dynamics of local situations, of free choice, of an open market or of individual initiative. We must, it is thought, get all this stuff “under control” in the grand name of equality.

We race toward transnationalism, toward borderless countries, toward economic federations, the European Union and ultimately globalization — as if the problem all along had been not too much collectivization and collectivization for bad reasons, but too little, and merely the wrong kind. The ideal of unification persists.

We didn’t just learn nothing from the twentieth century. It seems we haven’t learned a thing since the Tower of Babel. We’re still harping on the idea that whatever is wrong with the human race, it will get way better if we just add more fallen humans to the mix.

The Tower of Babel

You remember the Tower of Babel, don’t you? It’s one of the first recorded incidents in the history of humankind. On the plains of Shinar, all the world’s people gathered in a great collective effort — to build a tower higher than any other, one that would stand as a monument to their unity and power. Their aspiration was that it would even make them godlike.

And God confounded their plans and scattered them so that, despite all subsequent human efforts, mankind will never again be unified. They’ll live in different locations, in different cultural groups. They’ll misunderstand each other and contend with each other. Like iron mixed with clay, they’ll never stick together again. They won’t even speak the same language.

That is the lot of mankind. It’s been God’s rule since forever. How strange it is to hear these old ideas about collectivizing trotted out by so many modern, Western politicians, who seem uniformly impressed by this great new idea, and convinced globalism’s utility as a general panacea should be obvious to all … as if it isn’t one of the oldest delusions on earth.

Young Collectivists

Most concerning, probably, is the currency these ideas are enjoying among our young people today. Notoriously short of historical memory, today’s young people are even more susceptible than previous generations, because in most schools history is no longer really taught. What’s taught instead is that history is merely a “tale told by the winners”, no more true than any fictional narrative, and a lot worse for the fact that such “tales” are really designed to serve no more than the power-interests of the status quo.

Today’s history teachers got that idea from Nietzsche. That man has a lot to answer for. But I imagine he’s probably answering for it right now.

In my experience with young people, they are drawn to collectivism not out of political savvy, and not even out of a cynical disposition toward history. Some are drawn because they feel personally helpless. Some are drawn by the promise of “free stuff”. The best among them are drawn because they are idealistic and naïve, and want to help the world. And some, I would suggest, are motivated by a perverse and anarchic desire to “break the machine and see what happens”. Those are the ones who put on black masks and go out to “Punch a Nazi” — ironic, since Nazism was National Socialism, a thoroughly collectivist ideology. Here again, some understanding of history would help.

So Right in the Beginning, So Wrong in the End

Philosophers talk about “the principle of charity”. They mean that when you’re trying to sort out an argument with someone, you will see things more clearly if you don’t assume the worst interpretation of their view that you can, and just jump on that. Ultimately, you will be more likely to get at the truth of the matter, and maybe even win the debate, if you take the reading of the other person’s view that is in the kindest, most generous light that you can manage — short of being untruthful to what they’ve actually said, of course.

So I’ve been working hard to wrap my head around where today’s collectivists are coming from. Because while some are obviously lunatic, a great many are not such bad people, and some, I think (though I can’t say for sure) are genuinely well-meaning. Certainly they seem to see themselves as driven by compassion and communal caring. That’s the way they talk. So I’ve tried to account for the good-hearted ones, not just the loonies. That just seems charitable.

Where “Justice” Goes Wrong

And here’s what I think. I think that it all begins when there’s no God in the equation — or when a person starts to think that God cannot really handle what is going on in the world, and has essentially left it up to us.

Under those assumptions, a good-hearted person can come to be convinced that collective action is the only hope for the world. They can feel that the individual is just too small and weak to achieve the levels of change necessary to, say, save the planet, provide medical care, manage migration-related issues, or renew society morally. And in particular, they can come to feel that they, as individuals, are simply too small and weak to do this. But they can’t bring themselves just to sit on their hands and let the world go fall apart. These are morally-minded people, and they feel morally compelled to do something about it.

So now, if you were a good-hearted person who thought that the future was up to human action and nothing else, and if you thought that the individual (you, in particular) was too small and weak to achieve it, what would you do? Probably collectivize, no? Get together with a bunch of others who believed the same thing, try to take over the political process, and impose your vision of justice on the world, maybe? That wouldn’t be much of a stretch, would it?

Dealing with Dissent

And if, while you were trying to do good for the world, someone — an individualist, a person with a different economic or social program, a person advocating values other than those embodied in your movement — were to try to say no to you, is it hard to imagine that would make you both angry and fearful? You’d be angry that they’d try to stop you “doing good”, and fearful that they might undermine the collective fervor needed to propel your plans forward, wouldn’t you? You might say, “Well, I’m trying to do something very important for the good of humanity here, and you’re just being negative.” That’s stage one.

Or worse, you might say, “We need everybody to believe in my project, which is for the good of humanity ... and you, you’re standing against us! You’re the problem!” And you might try to alienate, bully, or manipulate that person into coming over to your side, or at least into being silent. But maybe you think that all right-thinking people should agree with you. And this person doesn’t. And maybe you’re a believer in the idea that people are essentially good, but miseducation can make them behave badly. If so, you might well think that an objector is just in need of “re‑education”. So then, off to re‑education camp with you. That might be stage two.

Stage three. Your opponent is being really difficult. Persistently difficult. And you come to think that maybe there’s no way, or not enough time, to fix what’s wrong with them. In such a case, the better place might be to put them in jail or an asylum of some kind, to segregate them from the population so that they can do no harm.

But once you’ve begun to think in terms of removing people from society, you’re on the way to stage four. That’s when you can bring yourself to line people up and shoot them into a pit. Again, it’s all for the good of society: “These people were really, really bad … and they were holding us up. They were preventing our heaven-on-earth, and thus harming us all. And we had no success trying to control them or limit their influence, so in order to get the critical mass of collective belief we need we had to eliminate their influence. The bullets and the pit were an unfortunate necessity …”

The End

That’s how a good-hearted person goes collectivist, then can even go very, very bad. And it’s a pattern that was repeated throughout the twentieth century.

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.” That’s not quite true, because as I’ve said before, history never repeats. But Santayana was right about this: that we tend to make similar mistakes over and over again, especially if we don’t grasp what made us make the error in the first place. Secular collectivists have made variations of that error over and over — and it always begins with the urgent sense of personal responsibility for the world, without consideration of God.

The Response

That fact gives us an important solution.

What do you say when a well-meaning Christian young person is getting involved with collectivist ideologies and causes — say, somebody who’s earnest for equality and social justice, but is naïve about collectivism’s history and its dark side?

They’ve been armed against you if you criticize that ideology directly. They’ve been told you’re just a voice for tradition, regression and oppression, somebody with a stake in keeping the status quo. So the direct approach is unlikely to make a dent. But if we’re talking about Christians, you can still make them more thoughtful about what they’re doing if you point them to this question: “Where is God in all this?”

Where is God?

Okay, the world is full of unfairness. People experience all kinds of things. Life doesn’t always seem just. And yes, we must all work to do our best to remedy injustice where we find it — to stand up for the poor, the downcast and the despised. That’s core Christian action. But we are not like non-Christians. We do not believe the saying, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” It’s not. Your part is up to you. No more. It’s not up to you to seize control of the means of production, or overrun the government. It’s not up to you demand that you be heard, to bully your objectors, or mobilize others to persecute those who refuse to see things your way.

Where is God in all this collectivism? What place would today’s socialists, the Leftists, the Progressivists and the Social Justice Warriors give to God? The answer, of course, is none at all. They’re overwhelmingly secular. Mankind is going to solve its own problems through collective action. God doesn’t even figure in that equation.

But to an earnest young Christian, that cannot be a matter of indifference. A collective scheme that denies any place, let alone first place, to the Prince of Peace is manifestly wrong-headed and doomed. No Christian should be content to join in such a project.

And so the right question leads to the right conclusion.

Conclusion

The impulse to remedy injustice — to promote equity, to include the marginalized, to feed the poor and lift up the downtrodden — is a very Christian one. But without Christ, those desires can become as misguided as any other. To put God back into the equation is to set justice on its right course; and to reckon without him is just the old pride of Babel.

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