That great culture warrior and conservative, Douglas Murray, recently observed, following a visit to Australia:
I cannot think of a time when more people have lost their minds — opponents and erstwhile allies alike. I am a minimalist in my expectations for this era. I think our main job is not to be driven mad. Or at least not to behave in ways that will make us feel shame in the future.
Well might we feel broad and deep shame for our era. Conservatives, many of us, have all but given up on the party of Menzies, as it lurches from crisis to crisis, unseats elected leaders at will, sidelines just about everybody to the right of Clive Hamilton, and engages in systemic fixing, branch-stacking, the career-destruction of enemies and lining the pockets of mates.
The once great Labor Party, the party of Curtin and Chifley, has upended its old, honest, defensible, socially conservative policies and embraced holus-bolus the core ideas of the post-1968 generation of post-modernist ratbaggery.
Those once trusted organisations, the banks, have their criminal acts and corporate idiocies paraded before us on a daily basis.
Sporting codes embrace cloying political correctness, especially as it relates to race and sex, and enforce it with sanctions.
Corporations bully employees who dare to challenge the party line of big (social liberal) brother.
Fake news abounds. The very term, newly coined to describe old, old practices, is itself used as a weapon. The media, once able to differentiate news from opinion, no longer does or can. The ABC is no longer the network of James Dibble, having adopted activism and partisan advocacy as its virtuous mission.
Institutions of higher learning stop (certain) people from speaking on their campuses, lest someone be offended. The universities accept money from all comers — save those who simply wish to teach literature, philosophy and history as they have been taught for a millennium. Police forces now charge (monetarily) the innocent while failing to charge (legally) the patently guilty.
Scientists, those supposed exemplars of Enlightenment thinking, have in large measure opted for groupthink and venal grant-troughing even when this means the abandonment of scientific method.
That foundational institution, the source of all others, the family, now cannot even be defined without bastardising its core characteristics. The family is now, to borrow from Paul Keating, two gays and a cocker spaniel. Or whatever we want it to be.
Institutions across the whole of Western society no longer have standards. They no longer exhibit true virtue, having traded that for the posturing which draws applause on Twitter. They no longer yearn for excellence. They do not seek truth. What we have witnessed is, in effect, a wholesale collapse in the decency of our institutions.
Melanie Phillips, in one of her excellent books, describes a world “upside down”. Murray talks of the “shame” of our era. The traditionalist Catholic rag The Remnant – no fan of the current pope, of course – featured a recent, “Vatican going bonkers”.
The late philosopher and thorn in the side of the New Left of the ’80s and ’90s at the University of Sydney, David Stove, used the telling phrase “anything goes” to describe some of the sillier philosophical and cultural developments of the recent age.
Another cultural critic, Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) has written a work with the very same title, exploring the “death of honesty” and referring to our Kafka-esque, “curious” times.
The urbane art critic and acute observer of culture, Giles Auty, regularly laments the destruction of truth and beauty in art and architecture.
The late Christopher Pearson’s centrist coalition, which he termed “club sensible” and which amounts to a sort of pub test for what might be seen as working or not working in the world of ideas and policy — a bedrock of sanity you, might say — is either shrinking or in hiding as the whole world goes barmy.
It must be asked how did the relatively sane world of that much maligned but really quite brilliant age – the 1950s – where the core concepts and understandings of life reflecting accumulated wisdom over at least a thousand years were accepted without rancour or demur by most people, disappear so completely over a mere half century? Not a perfect world, by any stretch, but at least a relatively sane one.
So, what happened in the 1960s to change everything? After all, the seeds of much of our contemporary philosophical and cultural confusion were sown many moons before the Sixties. Philosophical nominalism dates to the Middle Ages, after all, and the nonsense of the radical enlightenment is very old as well. The madness of Marxism was visited on the world in the mid nineteenth century. As Richard Weaver once noted, ideas have consequences, though these are not always immediately apparent.
No, what changed in the Sixties was a newly emerged willingness of the many to accept whacko ideas (relativism) without comment and, sometimes, as gospel. From there it was a short step to institutionalising the absurd and the offensive, incorporating acceptance of the asinine as the acid of acceptable opinion. This is, in effect, a new and alarming version of Charles McKay’s madness of crowds. Societal dumbness and gullibility are the hallmarks of our age.
It was the seductive appeal of tolerance to those coming of age in the Sixties that was the ace up the sleeve of those who bent on changing the world. My Generation, a documentary narrated by Sir Michael Caine, told of a generation of cultural and moral freedom fighters liberating itself and the world from the ancien regime of tedious order, constraint, control and black and white morality. This was all of a piece with Maslow’s self-actualisation as the zenith of human achievement
Second, there was also now the sheer genius and rat cunning of the European Marxists (often operating in the US as well) who correctly saw the infiltration of culture and the transformation of society’s institutions from within as the means to overturn society once and for all, and began to roll it out. The capacity of the Adorno-Gramsci-Alinsky model to scale and dominate education, the media and global fora within a generation or two has been efficient to the point of being breathtaking.
Third, and providing the icing on the cake for society’s makeover and the destruction of the decency of institutions, was the coming of the age of “management”, and within two generations, the corporatisation of pretty much the whole of life. In 1941, William F Buckley Jr’s able lieutenant, James Burnham, wrote The Managerial Revolution, in which he laid out the transformation of capitalism and society’s power structures, from the business-owner class to the newly ascendant class of managers. Management as a discipline of business studies was itself born in the Sixtiess. Management became the mechanism for controlling all organisations, and pretty well all institutions, one by one, came under its spell. Managerialism was corporatism’s operating system, in effect. Burnham’s work was the subject of great interest and of critical review by none other than the management guru’s guru, Peter Drucker, as well as by that other great seer, George Orwell, who found the book both “magnetic and repellent”. We don’t have world government yet, as Burnham feared, but we are well on the way, and we certainly have a new ruling class.
So, the ingredients were all in place for fundamental change and a hollowing out of the decency of institutions. We had a gullible generation longing for liberation and pleased to be termed “progressive”; an intoxicating, foundational big idea – tolerance borne of relativism; some clever underminers of truth in all its dimensions and of traditionally conceived morality; and freshly minted management systems for control.
One only has to look at the modern university to witness in stark relief both the outworkings and the impact of the marriage of progressive ideology to corporatisation two generations back.
Now, to top it off, we have, half a century later, ubiquitous social media and global reach by subtle and not-so-subtle mechanisms for control and bullying. These weapons are now in the hands of those who would change the world. A world that the media guru of yore, Marshall McLuhan, could only have dreamed of.
It is indeed an upside down world, where anything goes, where groupthink reigns, where tradition and morality (conventionally conceived) are in universal retreat, and where institutions, even those created by God, behave very, very badly.