Can We Find Our Way Back to Freedom?
One of the most destabilizing aspects of the chaos of the past few years is that the pillars of society—our democratic and academic institutions, along with our courts, media, police, doctors, corporate giants, and thought leaders—have not only been unable to resist the postmodern deconstruction of society but have become active perpetrators in a war on reality that is turning classical liberal democracy into a parody of itself.
How did the institutions that were meant to prevent civilized society from devolving into a barbarian free-for-all become the drivers of the current descent into madness? How do we wake society from a nightmare in which nothing is sacred, freedom is blasphemy, and roosters are laying eggs… when society merely shrugs its shoulders in resignation?
It’s time to take a deep dive into the myths, stories, and grand narratives that bind society together in order to understand why society is unravelling and how we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
The Unravelled Tapestry
To understand why a society unravels (which seems to happen every few generations — more on that shortly), we first need to understand how it is woven together. If we take a bird’s-eye view of the fabric that binds any healthy society together, at its core we find a complex system of interconnected layers starting with society’s awareness of its history and the stories of its ancestors. Principles are the mental shortcuts we use to condense the lessons from these stories into convenient packages to make them easier to apply to our own lives and to pass on to future generations.
Constitutions codify those timeless principles into law. And then we build legal, academic, and political institutions on top of that constitutional foundation in order to impose those principles onto day-to-day life to ensure that everyone plays by the same set of rules. And that takes us full circle back to the myths, stories, and fables that we tell ourselves about our history, our place in the universe, and about our hopes and dreams, which together form a kind of “grand narrative” to anchor society at the center of its institutional system.
This complex tapestry of interlocking layers is meant to create a deep philosophical counterweight to the fickle trends, self-serving impulses, and dark urges that eat away at the fabric of society. It allows society to grow beyond the cooperation of the family unit by enabling people who don’t know, trust, or like one another to live together without tearing each other to pieces.
From the limited perspective of our short human lifespans, this institutional bedrock (and the principles underpinning it) seems unshakable, permanent, everlasting. We therefore assume (wrongly) that because we have been able to rely on our institutions to safeguard the democratic, legal, and scientific processes that lead to fairness, justice, and truth, we will also continue to be able to rely on them in the future. In other words, once we build a “system”, we delude ourselves into thinking that the system will be self-sustaining. We deceive ourselves into thinking that the government will do the housekeeping required to keep the system running smoothly. It’s an illusion that disguises the fragility of what we’ve built.
It all works reasonably well… until it doesn’t. The institutional checks and balances of liberal democracy are tolerably able to resist society’s short-term impulses and follies. But the system is incapable of holding back the tide if large swathes of society buy into a new way of thinking about fairness, justice, and truth.
Every few generations, seemingly out of the blue, everything comes unglued as the system abruptly dismantles what we thought was everlasting in order to realign itself with society’s “new and improved” view of the world. The clear words of our constitutions tell us this isn’t supposed to happen, yet here we are in the midst of precisely that kind of systematic deconstruction of everything Western civilization supposedly once stood for. Society seems hell-bent on pulling apart all the philosophical threads that were meant to bind us together.
There is a saying that “everything is downstream from culture.” As Sean Arthur Joyce so aptly illustrates in his new book, Words from the Dead (which sparked the idea for this essay), our poetry, movies, art, literature, music, architecture, statues, and comedy are not just frivolous ways of entertaining ourselves during our idle hours. They are the philosophical fuel that keeps the “grand narrative” alive.
Our stories and myths shape our view of fairness, define our attitudes about justice, and teach us our sense of right and wrong. They imprint patterns onto our minds about what an ideal world looks like so we can strive towards that ideal.
The arts are our mirror to reflect the current state of society. They sustain our connection to our history. And they give us a compass by which to navigate the future. They are the equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, tasked with holding us accountable to our past, providing us with a lens through which to interpret the present, and inspiring us to become better versions of ourselves.
In short, the arts shape the shared philosophical foundation upon which civilization is built and give us the words and ideas to defend society against those who seek to corrupt it. From Plato to Orwell to the moral dilemmas playing out on the bridge of Captain Picard’s USS Enterprise in Star Trek, our cultural inheritance determines how we think about fairness, justice, and truth.
Uprooting the Tree
Judges, politicians, policemen, and academics do not exist in a vacuum. They too are part of their communities and will bring the changing attitudes and perspectives of the broader community with them into the courtroom, into the police cruiser, to the political stump, and into the press. But they are typically restrained from acting on their impulses by the legal infrastructure holding society together.
Institutions create the inertia that prevents civilization from throwing itself off a cliff every time society falls in love with a dumb idea. Institutional inertia creates a kind of tug-of-war that pulls culture back towards its roots. But when the pull is especially strong and is sustained for long enough, there comes a point when the roots are unable to resist the pull and the entire tree is uprooted.
In normal times, culture changes so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. Institutional inertia further disguises the philosophical currents tugging at the roots. But once culture strays far enough from its roots, the disconnect between culture and institutions becomes irreconcilable, and the system will suddenly lurch in the direction of society’s pull in order to rebuild the system around the expectations of the people. This transition phase creates a dizzying temporary destabilization during which the culture and the uprooted institutional system are no longer pulling against one another.
When a culture is suddenly freed from institutional drag, it leads to an extremely rapid restructuring of society. It also leads to a pitched culture war for control over the new unifying grand narrative that emerges from this chaotic transition period. That’s when it becomes apparent that something truly monumental has shifted beneath our feet. And most of us are caught off guard because these monumental shifts only happen once every few generations.
Culture evolves in long social cycles. If you go by the Strauss-Howe generational theory discussed in the popular book, The Fourth Turning, the long cycles in human history tend to culminate in crisis periods, which happen every 80 years or so. They happen approximately every four generations, which is why the authors call the crisis era the fourth turning. These fourth turnings mark the chaotic transition when one “grand narrative” collapses and is replaced by another after an intense period of destabilization. Prior “fourth turnings” happened in 1459-1497 (War of the Roses), 1569-1594 (Armada Crisis), 1675-1704 (Glorious Revolution), 1773-1794 (American Revolution), 1860-1865 (US Civil War), and 1929-1946 (Great Depression, WWII). Now it is our turn.
The views expressed by Klaus Schwab, Al Gore, and Steve Bannon, among many others, draw heavily upon the study of social cycles (both Al Gore and Steve Bannon have specifically referenced The Fourth Turning as having influenced their ideas). In essence, they all recognize that the post-WWII grand narrative has run its course and that society is adrift and due for a philosophical realignment; they are hoping to capitalize on the period of crisis in order to try to shape the grand narrative that emerges from the chaos once the transition period comes to an end.
Some might even speculate that some of our leaders, fully aware of the lack of philosophical anchors at this stage of the long social cycle, may even be actively working to break society’s connection to its philosophical roots while deliberately stoking crises with the goal of “nudging” society towards their ideological vision of society. Build Back Better. The self-inflicted wounds caused by Covid mismanagement, the energy crisis, the inflation crisis, fertilizer shortages, the Ukraine war, etc, all come to mind.
“The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.” — Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum*
“I really believe COVID has created a window of political opportunity…” — Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and member of the Board of Trustees of the World Economic Forum*
The “pandemic provided an opportunity for a reset” and to “re-imagine economic systems” — Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada*
The abysmal failure of our judges, politicians, doctors, academics, and policemen to speak out in defense of the principles embedded in our constitutions — and the lack of pushback from the public at large — reveals the momentous society-wide cultural shift that happened long before Covid came along. Covid became an institutional crisis because society as a whole — from judges and public health authorities all the way down to the average person on the street — had long-since lost faith in the philosophical anchors of classical liberal democracy. The institutions caved because the bulk of society had come to view the legal and philosophical restraints imposed by our constitutions as problematic obstacles rather than as much needed limits to what government can do. If Covid had happened in 2001, our philosophical roots would have reined in the panic. By 2020, the roots were too weak to resist the pull.
The grand post-WWII narrative and its central principles have ceased to inspire society, leaving culture disconnected from its roots and obsessed with an ever-growing assortment of hobgoblins upon which to project its angst (along with the ever-growing expectation that government is supposed to do something about all those hobgoblins). We were already a society experiencing an identity crisis, casting about for meaning, searching for a sense of belonging, and desperate for a new unifying “grand narrative” to bind us together.
The “emergency” created by Covid and the public demand for “safety at any cost” provided institutions with an excuse to abandon their constitutional restraints, giving the people inside these institutions free rein to act out the philosophical impulses that have been growing throughout society for a long time. Covid was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. It opened the door to a new “fourth turning”. The system is now in flux.
In retrospect, it is easy to recognize society’s growing loss of confidence in classical liberal principles like individual liberty, bodily autonomy, personal responsibility, freedom of speech, tolerance, meritocracy, private property, sound money, inalienable rights, and so on. The postmodernists (neoliberals) have been busily eroding the philosophical foundations of classical liberalism for a long time, robbing society of the words, ideas, and historical awareness with which to defend ourselves against illiberal postmodernist beliefs.
And we have been complacent. We surrendered the landscape of the imagination to the deconstructionists, the activists, and the cynics. How can a constitution provide a philosophical anchor for a society in which nothing is sacred?
What we are witnessing now is the attempted institutionalization of society’s embrace of learned helplessness, safety culture, cancel culture, redistribution, and all the other “gems” of postmodern philosophy. Our uprooted institutions are trying to “re-invent” themselves by attempting to put down fresh roots around postmodern neoliberal philosophy. The institutionalized forms of these destructive cultural trends are unlikely to turn out anything like society’s utopian postmodern fantasies, but at least we know the shape of the mirage they are chasing. Society wanted an all-powerful feelgood shepherd, and there are plenty of grifters willing to cater to that illusion.
But we’re still early in the chaotic transition period. What is being institutionalized now isn’t necessarily going to stick, especially as the yoke of dictatorial government begins to chafe. Brace for the unexpected as other competing visions of the future emerge and are drawn into a zero-sum struggle for dominance. The battle of the grand narratives has begun.
The Battle of the Grand Narratives
The war on reality — this postmodern neoliberal culture war against classical liberal ideals and against the objective search for truth — is part of the mythmaking and storytelling phase of an emerging postmodern grand narrative. It is weaving a new tapestry, complete with demons, scapegoats, and hero-myths, in order to try to sustain the postmodern philosophical spark and anchor itself in our institutions. And, like a jealous wolf guarding its territory, there is no red line it will not cross in order to drive the last remnants of its rival philosophy off its new territory.
It isn’t an accident that our statues, history, art, and cultural inheritance are all under attack. The outrage isn’t moral, it is the strategic tool of a rival political ideology. Even the pharaohs defaced statues, monuments, and symbols “to discredit once revered people and repudiate once venerated ideas.”* Breaking the connection to the past, demonizing the ancestral stories, and destroying rival symbols are deliberate strategies practiced by all cultures throughout history whenever there is a war of ideas.
The current public apathy towards the destruction of society’s philosophical symbols are a worrying reflection of how few people still revere the philosophical ideas behind the symbols. We cannot expect institutions to hold back the tide if society demonstrates that it doesn’t value its foundational ideals and isn’t willing to defend the symbols of its philosophical inheritance.
Fourth turnings are unpredictable and very messy precisely because they always grapple with existential philosophical questions about how society is organized. In effect, fourth turnings are zero-sum competitions between old and new visions of society, and between rival emerging grand narratives that are vying to replace the broken old order.
The cyclical pattern of history is a stark warning that the competition between grand narratives during these crises periods often devolves into a real-life slugfest, fought in blood-soaked trenches on a massive scale. The stakes couldn’t be higher because the winners reap the spoils of the economic system that is institutionalized around the winning grand narrative, while the losers, like their symbols, are sidelined into obscurity or are erased altogether.
The bedtime stories we tell our children and the conversations we have with our neighbors have never been more important — they are the only things that can resolve an existential competition of ideas before the growing rivalry plunges society either into tyranny or war. Everything is downstream from culture. We must build bridges to those who have fallen prey to the postmodernist ideology. We must take back the landscape of the imagination from the deconstructionists, activists, and cynics. To solve the institutional crisis, we must win the culture war.
The Law Bows to Culture
For lives lived during the relatively stable long periods between fourth turnings (during which a single grand narrative reigns), the idea that institutions could suddenly abandon their respect for constitutional principles in order to yield to such illiberal and destructive impulses is shocking and deeply destabilizing. And yet, when we step back to look at the long view of history, it actually happens far more often than we think.
Perhaps the best example of culture plowing through rock-solid constitutional principles (and a warning to remind us why it is so important to keep trying to build bridges to those we disagree with rather than retreating into our social media bubbles while hoping for sanity to be restored via the courts) comes from one of the most consequential court cases in US history: Plessy v Ferguson. This is the court case that legalized racial segregation across the entirety of the United States from 1896 to 1964.
The US Civil War settled the unresolved constitutional question of slavery. And yet, culture began erecting new artificial barriers between races almost as soon as the dust from the Civil War began to settle. A growing number of segregation laws began popping up at the state and municipal level all across America. In order to challenge the constitutionality of these local segregation rules, Mr. Plessy purposely sat in the white part of a rail car in Louisiana so he could be arrested in order to give his lawyer friends the opportunity to take segregation to the Supreme Court. Until that time, similar to what kept happening throughout Covid, the courts kept finding some excuse or legal technicality to avoid wrestling with the disconnect between constitutional principles and the emerging culture of segregation.
Mr. Plessy and his peers heroically decided to force the issue. They staged a meticulously planned arrest (even the arresting police officer was in on the game) in order to deny the Supreme Court any way of sidestepping the question of segregation. Mr. Plessy and his collaborators were certain that the Supreme Court would be forced to rule in Mr. Plessy’s favor since segregation was such a clear and obvious violation of the principles embedded in the Constitution — principles that their nation had bled and died for only 30 years earlier.
Their plan backfired spectacularly. The Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Plessy, thereby legalizing segregation across the entirety of the United States in one fell swoop. The cultural tide was so strong, and the mood of the majority was so firmly in favor of segregation that the courts found ways to invert principles whose meaning seemed written in stone. To get around constitutional limits, they embraced the perverse idea of “separate but equal”. It’s not a phrase you will find anywhere in either the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. Society invented it to rationalize its illiberal urges.
Plessy v Ferguson is a grim warning from history of how easily society finds creative ways to reinterpret rock-solid principles to suit the spirit of the times:
- “Separate but equal.”
- “Hate speech isn’t free speech.”
- “Freedom is a threat to democracy.”
- “Freedom of speech is wonderful but disinformation has no place in society.”
- “Censorship is necessary to protect the free speech of protected groups.”
- “Liberty must be restricted to protect someone else’s right to life.”
- “It’s just for two weeks to flatten the curve.”
- “Choices have consequences.”
- “It’s not coercion if you voluntarily role up your sleeve to avoid the consequences of making the wrong choice.”
Oh, how easy it is to rationalize away constitutional principles to suit the passions of the times.
Never underestimate society’s ability to justify the unthinkable to get what it wants. It took another 68 years for American culture to fall out of love with segregation and for the legal system to reflect those changing attitudes via the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the tide is strong enough, everything is downstream from culture, including the law. Now is not the time to be quiet.
Thomas Jefferson’s Debts
Once they become institutionalized, big changes in cultural attitudes take generations to undo. Once a system adapts to a new way of thinking, puts down new roots, and writes those changes into law, an entire economy emerges that is dependent on this new system and is threatened if the changes are rolled back. The majority that benefits from the new order will therefore fight tooth and nail to defend the new system, for generations, even if it is rotten to the core. The illogical, the cruel, and the nonsensical will all be rationalized away for the sake of survival. No-one bites the hand that feeds him.
Even the most inalienable of rights will shatter like thin glass if a righteous majority feels morally justified in stampeding over them to reach for some utopia beckoning on the horizon. Even the clearest of principles will be rationalized away if an indebted majority becomes dependent on a morally bankrupt system. The Covid debacle and the parasitic emerging economy that benefits from postmodern neoliberal ideas is history repeating itself. We are reaping what our changing culture has sown. Woe to us all, and especially to the generations who will inherit what occurs during our watch, if this neoliberal reimagining of society succeeds in anchoring itself in our institutions.
Consider the following excerpt of a letter written by Thomas Jefferson on April 22, 1820, in which he wrestles with the immorality of the institution of slavery and laments his inability to see a way of ending it without splitting their new nation in two. You can read the full letter here.
“A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.“
Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson called slavery a moral depravity. In 1779 he advocated for the gradual emancipation, training, and integration of slaves rather than immediate manumission, believing that releasing unprepared persons with no place to go and no means to support themselves would only bring them misfortune*. In 1785, Jefferson observed that slavery corrupted both masters and slaves alike.* And in 1824, three years after his letter, he proposed a plan to end slavery (which was rejected) by getting the federal government to buy all slave children for $12.50, and training them in the occupations of freemen.*
Both of Jefferson’s grim predictions came true. America did tear itself in two in a brutal civil war triggered by the unresolved issue of slavery. And when slaves were finally freed in 1863, hundreds of thousands of ex-slaves starved to death and millions more were forced into starvation because they had no place to go.*
And yet, to the day he died in 1827 (more than 50 years after he co-authored the Declaration of Independence to found a nation around the highest of classical liberal ideals, foremost of which is the idea that all men are created equal), Jefferson nevertheless maintained one of the largest slave populations on any plantation (he owned more than 600 slaves over the course of his lifetime). Although he freed a small number of slaves through his will, his remaining 130 slaves along with his plantation lands and home were all sold to pay off his debts.
Jefferson was never out of debt in his adult life. Some debts were inherited from his father-in-law, some he accumulated himself by living perpetually beyond his means, and the rampant inflation caused by the Revolutionary War (“large land sales yielded only enough money to buy ‘a great coat.'”) as well as the financial panic of 1819 frustrated his attempts at repayment.
Once a system is institutionalized, both jailer and prisoner are locked into a rotten system. No-one cuts off the hand that feeds him. Thomas Jefferson understood the corrupting tug-of-war between morality and self-preservation, the vulnerability of both those trapped in irons and those trapped in debt, and the weight of institutional inertia that holds a rotten system in place for many generations.
The checkered details of the lives of Thomas Jefferson and his peers reveal them to be fallible and imperfect mortals, just like the rest of us. The reason they should be revered — the reason we build statues in their honor — is to preserve the story of fallible visionaries who, at the moment of snatching power out of the hands of the British monarchy, chose not to crown themselves as kings but instead recognized their own fallibilities and therefore chose to anchor society around a set of sacred principles and timeless ideals, which were designed to protect the individual from both kings and mobs, and which were designed to inspire society to continually rediscover those principles and ideals as a way to forever strive to become a better version of itself. Immortal ideas created by mortal men.
It is not hard to deconstruct the imagination until all that remains of society is ashes. Swinging a wrecking ball is easy. By contrast, to create a vision that prompts society to lift itself out of servitude and oppression solely through the power of the imagination, and for that vision to continue to re-inspire generation upon generation… now that is something else altogether.
The legacy of the ideals that Jefferson wrote into the founding documents of their nation have created an unbroken philosophical thread that leads directly from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held America to account for its moral hypocrisy. We stand on the shoulders of philosophical giants. Lest we forget.
The Half-Life of Sacred Beliefs
Writing principles into a constitution as sacred, inalienable, and God-given was an ingenious stroke of the pen to signal to society that these are the foundation stones at the core of civilization. It was a way for our ancestors to warn future generations, “don’t mess with these principles or you will bring the entire system crashing down around your ears.” By declaring something to be sacred, we hope to delay the relentless reinterpretation of ideas to give people time to understand the wisdom behind the principles before they are torn down or cast aside.
“Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them ‘children’.” ~ Hannah Arendt
In effect, culture is a never-ending competition between the wisdom of our ancestors, the blind appetites of the mob, and the thirst for novelty. Each generation must rediscover and be re-inspired by the principles in order to keep them alive. Cultivating a sense of the sacred is a way to intentionally create philosophical inertia in order to give youth the time to acquire the benefit of maturity and the skill of self-reflection before it decides to burn Rome to the ground to make way for a new garden palace.
The Constitution that America’s Founding Fathers placed at the core of their republic stripped leaders of their sacred aura, but they did not leave society without an anchor to guard it against the fickle whims of human nature. They transferred the idea of the “sacred” — heavenly-endorsed authority that shall not be questioned — from people to principles.
By dismantling the sacred pre-Enlightenment idea of “the divine right to rule” and replacing it with sacred (inalienable) rights that supersede the authority of both Church and State, the republic created by the Founding Fathers laid the philosophical foundations for classical liberal democracy. (Even the word “liberal” comes from “liberty”. Liberal democracy is a democracy restrained by the limits imposed by individual rights. The Founding Fathers recognized that if individual rights are not inalienable (sacred), the rule of the democratic majority would soon become nothing more than tyranny by the majority, also known as mob rule.
America’s Founding Fathers broke the stranglehold of hereditary hierarchy. For the first time in history, the fabric of society was anchored around an idea instead of around an entrenched political elite. For the first time in history, society was bound by a constitution designed to protect individuals from both the whims of parasitic rulers and the collective self-interest of the herd. Inalienable constitutional rights for individuals, like freedom of speech, also created space for scientific inquiry to flourish. The search for objective truths depends entirely on individuals having the sacred freedom to confront established dogma and consensus beliefs. As long as no-one has the power to silence another, only evidence remains as the tool to settle the debate.
But the sacred is an elaborate illusion. It is only the belief in the sacred that makes it real. It is only society’s belief in the divine rights of kings or society’s belief in inalienable rights, meritocracy, and bodily autonomy that makes society behave as though those things exist. Ultimately, the thin veneer of culture nurtured in the grey spaces between our neighbours’ ears is the only safeguard of our rights.
We only exist as free autonomous human beings — independent of the will of both herd and shepherd — as long as the precious idea of individual sovereignty remains sacred in society’s collective imagination. That sacred belief is what is at stake in the current postmodern culture war as society attempts to rid itself of the limits imposed by the sacred principles created by Thomas Jefferson and his peers.
Like the statues once erected by the pharaohs and the golden crowns worn by kings, the paper the Constitution is written on and the stories we tell our children are tools created by our ancestors in an effort to keep essential sacred beliefs alive. Postmodernists discard unconditional rights and timeless principles as archaic fictional limits (social constructs) created by long dead men and view them as a hinderance to “getting things done”. But a wise man recognizes the fragility of a system protected only by the collective beliefs of the majority, understands how easily the raw passions of society can tip such a system into unbridled tyranny, and therefore works extra hard to communicate the timeless merits of these principles.
Even before he sold his soul to commercial interests, Santa Claus was just a fantasy… yet also an existential philosophical experience. Not every construct deserves deconstruction. Some constructs are essential to preserving the tapestry that allows society to exist; our imagination depends on them to sustain civilization.
Invoking a sense of the sacred touches us on an emotional level. It converts a philosophical principle into an emotional experience. That emotional experience is an essential tool to instill timeless principles, which protect us from the relentless strings of words that we cobble together during our lives to try to rationalize our impulsive urges. The easiest person to fool with our own words is ourselves.
The sense of the sacred protects us from rationalizing away vital philosophical limits that we rely upon to protect us from ourselves and from one another. It harnesses the power of the imagination to shape our behaviour. The sense of the sacred is an essential part of the tapestry created in our collective imagination, which enables complex societies to create order from chaos and to live together without tearing each other apart.
Whether the sacred is expressed in secular or religious terms, what we perceive as sacred creates an anchor to bind us together as a functioning society. The symbolism, the emotions, and the sense of awe and wonder invoked by our sense of the sacred have the power to inspire a shared imagination in a way that words alone cannot. When nothing is sacred, we lose our philosophical defenses. When nothing is sacred, we become a species adrift, fractured, impulsive, ruled by our emotions, unable to know ourselves, unable to limit ourselves, and unable to function as a cohesive society.
Whether the sacred is experienced in secular or religious terms (there is more than one way to arrive at the same endpoint), the sense of the sacred protects society’s philosophical tapestry from humanity’s urge to pull at strings to see what unravels.
Postmodernism is the collapse of the sacred. It is a deconstruction of the imagination. It is the destruction of the shared world we create in our collective imagination and a destruction of the philosophical limits we place on ourselves within that imagined world.
The harsh reality is that the lofty ideals of classical liberal democracy are a fragile veneer painted over mob rule. It works only as long as the majority believes in the principles underpinning the system and are inspired to behave as though they are real. In the past, traditional liberals, conservatives, and libertarians argued relentlessly about the exact recipe for how to put those classical liberal principles into practice, but the never-ending argument over the details was itself an essential part of what kept the ideals alive in the public imagination. The system remained intact because the majority believed that the ideals were real, eternal, and worth defending even at great cost to themselves, which is another way of saying “sacred.”
If we let the nihilism of postmodern neoliberalism destroy the sacred belief in classical liberal principles, society’s rules will be decided by the ever-changing attitudes and appetites of the mob. If nothing is sacred, then society’s only anchors are the whims of its leaders. We will return to the default of history in which “might makes right”, and society will be plunged into a never-ending zero-sum struggle to control the raw power of the throne. Even the sacred belief in the divine right of kings once served a purpose, not only to protect those at the top of the hierarchy from challenges from below but to also protect all of society from being consumed by never-ending tribal warfare.
It is not an accident that society’s nihilistic rejection of sacred principles is accompanied by the rise of a sacred infallible technocracy (“trust the experts”). When principles cease to be the anchor around which society is built, the only alternate anchor that can prevent society from fracturing into a million warring tribes is to anchor society around the raw authority of its leaders, and to defend their authority at any cost even when they lie, cheat, steal, or are grossly incompetent. And right on cue, our technocratic leaders are instinctively trying to wrap themselves in an aura of divinely ordained power that “shall not be questioned” in order to shield themselves from challengers to the throne.
Institutional Scienz ™ and the regime-friendly media have stepped into the role that the Church once played in sanctifying the authority of chosen despots. Challenges to sacred technocratic authority are increasingly viewed (and punished) as blasphemous (defined as “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things”). Ironically, even the symbolism of the halo is increasingly making a comeback in state-friendly media.
Without sacred principles, authority is a delicate power grab played with illusions and symbols and defended with brute force. The nihilism of postmodern neoliberalism is itself an elaborate illusion; beneath the virtue-signalling and behind the systematic deconstruction of society lie the hardnosed instincts of pharaohs and emperors trying to re-establish their divine right to rule. History reverts to the mean.
Who’s the Boss? Principles vs People
In order to create stability, society requires a way to answer the age-old question at the heart of large complex societies: Who’s the Boss? To prevent society from devolving into a never-ending barbarian slugfest between warring tribal warlords, we must weave an elaborate tapestry of myths, stories, and sacred beliefs around either sacred people or sacred principles. One path leads to classical liberal democracy. The other leads to tyranny. The beliefs we choose to uphold as sacred either cement power or restrain it. By deconstructing sacred principles, postmodernists are paving the way back to a hierarchical system of sacred people and sacred protected groups.
Without sacred principles, might makes right. Without sacred principles, autonomous individuals are reduced to disposable subjects who must submit to the collective demands of the herd… or more precisely, like cattle, they become the property of the strongmen who cement their grip on power by claiming to speak for the herd.
Individual autonomy exists only as long as the majority believes (and behaves) as though the individual has some kind of sacred God-given inalienable rights that supersede the authority of government even when the individual’s interests go against the interests of the majority (or against the interests of the State). The collective belief in sacred individual rights causes every member of society to behave as though individual autonomy exists. Only the shared belief makes it real. Without that sacred belief, the few will once again be sacrificed for the benefit of the many as the crowd cheers in approval.
There is nothing more sacred than the idea of individual rights. That idea, when it is shared by the bulk of society, allows each of us, individually, to be the master of our own destiny. That sacred idea allows us to exist as something other than as resources for the benefit of the herd, as something more than just cogs in someone else’s machine.
To get a judge to defend sacred inalienable individual rights, she must not only believe in them herself, she must also see that the bulk of society believes in them. As long as society stands in silence as the statues fall in the public square and as books are being burnt, few people working inside our institutions will risk the wrath of the book-burners and statue-destroyers by speaking against it. Apathy and outrage teach institutions what society upholds as sacred.
And so, within the span of a single generation, we get from venerating Reporters Without Borders to worshiping Governments Without Limits. Institutions defend what society upholds as sacred.
By deconstructing everything, postmodernism has erased the tapestry upon which society is built. By turning everything to dust, postmodern neoliberalism has created a perversion of the fabric of society, a parody of the sacred, a mockery of the search for objective and universal truths. By destroying sacred principles, postmodernism has opened the door to sacred people.
In a strange sort of way, postmodern neoliberalism is the mirror image of classical liberal democracy. It makes claim to the same history, uses the same language, and mimics the same institutional form. Yet it is a hollow and simplistic plagiarism, a parrot singing a song in which every note is out of tune and the meaning of every word has been inverted. We are living in a cargo culture that has ritualized the words and appearance of science and democracy, without understanding how any of it works.
It is all so recognizable, yet so grotesque.
Bad Ideas Take Root in a Void
Winning the culture war is not a matter of censoring bad ideas out of existence. Exposure to postmodernist ideas is not the problem. The problem is that society has lost its philosophical defenses — it has no immunity to those bad ideas.
The ideas of Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and CNN are not a magic wand. Their logic is paper thin and built on a foundation of sand. The problem is that multiple generations have had little to no exposure to the words and ideas of the likes of Thomas Sowell, Karl Popper, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, and countless others. That void left the door wide open for the rot peddled by Marx, Foucault, and CNN to take root. The philosophical void has led society to construct a new vision of society based on the envy of Marx, the cynicism of Faucoult, and the victimhood cultivated by CNN.
Like every illiberal regime that has come before it, postmodern neoliberal culture has convinced its true believers that it can build a utopia from the ashes of what it burns, by coercing people into believing in a mirage on the horizon, by making an example of those who express doubt the purity of the vision, by subordinating individuals to whatever it decides is the collective “greater good”, by putting the “right people” with the “right ideas” into positions of authority, and then wrapping it all in an aura of good intentions. The mob has taken the seductive bait. A spoonful of sugar makes the bitter medicine go down in the most delightful way.
As long as we think of the courts and the ballot box as the frontline of this culture war, we might win a battle or two and slow the tide for a short while, but we will ultimately lose this war. For every billionaire like Elon Musk who restores free speech to Twitter, there will be a new Disinformation Governance Board created by the regime to stamp it back out. (In case you missed the announcement in the news, the Disinformation Governance Board is an actual thing; it is a new division being created within the US Department of Homeland Security to monitor our speech in order to maintain control over the narrative. Life imitates art; this is Orwell’s Ministry of Truth come to life.)
The only way out of this mess, the only way to bring long-lasting sanity back to our institutions, is to rescue people from postmodernism’s nihilistic embrace, one at a time, to re-inspire them with classical liberal principles, and for that reawakening to bleed back into the collective culture of the community.
All governments, including tyrannies, derive their powers through the consent of the governed (and/or through the apathy of the governed). Institutions only take orders from above as long as they sense that those orders have support from below (or lack meaningful resistance from below). Once the crowd turns (and grows a backbone), the dirty work of flushing a rotten emperor out of his palace falls to the institutions in order to try to win back their legitimacy in the eyes of the crowd.
Institutions will defend classical liberal principles when Main Street shows that it is inspired by those principles and values, and not a moment sooner. The postmodern descent into madness will miraculously begin to turn around when Main Street begins to reach for something other than the empty vision offered by postmodern nihilism. This is a battle for the landscape of the imagination.
The Berlin Wall fell because blue jeans and video tapes first showed people on the wrong side of the Wall that there was an alternative to the grey hopeless fog of communism — it gave people a vision to strive for and, in time, that vision eroded support for the regime. The first domino to fall was the landscape of the imagination. In time it led the crowd to lose its fear of the regime. And that led institutions to turn on their leaders as those institutions sensed that the regime had lost the support of the crowd.
Likewise, the path to the civil rights movement was paved by things like jazz music, comedy clubs, and the desegregation of the US military during the Korean war, all of which tore down the mental barriers erected by segregation. They exposed the hypocrisy embedded in the system and dissolved the brainwashing that skin color should divide us. Culture leads the way; institutions are dragged along in its wake.
Protests, legal challenges, and elections are an important barometer of the public mood — a way of allowing ourselves to be counted and a way of breaking the illusion that we are alone with our classical liberal ideas — but they are not the primary means by which new hearts and minds are won over to the cause. Changing minds is the job of the poets, the storytellers, and especially of the parents, grandparents, and ordinary citizens who are responsible for planting and cultivating the seeds of our culture in the minds of their neighbors, friends, and children.
No matter how much we would like to pin the responsibility for this chaos on the predatory behaviour of politicians, corporations, teachers, judges, activists, and academics, in the end both the cause and the cure lie in our collective hands. We let this happen.
We surrendered the public square, the library, the school bench, and the movie theatre to the postmodernists. We were complacent as our culture slid into intellectual bankruptcy. We looked the other way because we were busy with our lives. For too long we remained silent to avoid creating a fuss with our friends and co-workers. We failed to ensure that the important stories continued to take root in young imaginations. We let corporations, governments, activists, and media dominate the public square, decide the educational curriculum, and shape society’s vision of itself in order to serve their needs instead of ours. And so, we left entire generations defenseless to the corrosive lure of the postmodernist world view. Now the vultures are circling, attracted by easy spoils of a defenseless society. Servitude looms on the horizon.
“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.” — George Washington
Criticizing the dysfunction of postmodernism is not enough. We need to re-inspire Main Street with the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and the other giants upon whose shoulders our society stands. We need to remind society that there is an alternate vision to the one offered by the postmodernists. A vision that offers dignity, meaning, and freedom.
Grinding the Universe Down
The grip that postmodernism has on society stems from is its ability to make us not care, to destabilize our sense of identity, to rob our lives of meaning, to seed our minds with indifference and despair, to divide us, to demoralize us, to fill us with angst, and to drown us in grey fog of emptiness. It is the Nothing threatening Fantasia in the NeverEnding Story. The dimming of the imagination. The death of fantasy. People who have no hope are easy to control.
The great irony is that, by deconstructing everything, postmodernism has left itself without a deep philosophical well to draw upon to defend itself against competing ideas that bring meaning back to empty lives. It has left itself defenseless against the jester who holds a mirror up to society, the poet who brings history back to life, the parents who refuse to surrender their children’s minds to the activists, the grandparent with a story to tell, the timeless movie that captures the essential struggles of being human, and the world of ideas discovered within the pages of a book. The only way that postmodernism can defend the void it has created is by terrorizing its population through censorship and brute force. The emperor Caligula is laughing at us from his grave.
But forbidden ideas grow. Brute force is a sure way to lose hearts and minds. And human nature gravitates towards ideas that bring hope. Postmodernists are trying to institutionalize an ideology with a shrinking support base. Time is not on their side.
Over the last forty years or so culture has been on a gradual slide into the grey fog of postmodern neoliberalism. Covid, through its excesses of darkness, has rekindled a yearning for freedom. Covid has planted the seeds of a counterculture that is breathing new life into classical liberal philosophy and Enlightenment values. Freedom is contagious. Slowly, the pendulum of culture is beginning to turn.
We have a lot of work ahead of us to undo multiple generations of postmodernist angst and rehabilitate the timeless principles of classical liberal democracy. It falls on each and every one of us who have woken to the threat of postmodernism to nurture the flames of that counterculture in the imaginations of our sleepwalking neighbors, families, and friends. As the sparks spread, our numbers grow.
Half the battle is understanding the philosophical journey travelled by our ancestors. I recently read Sean Arthur Joyce’s aforementioned new book, Words of the Dead, whose essays provide a philosophical springboard into some of the most influential literature, popular culture, and history that once anchored classical liberal society. From Plato to Toynbee and Huxley, from the lynching of Irish bards in Elizabethan England and the checkered history of journalism, to the cultural phenomenon of the Star Trek franchise, he has a rare talent for teasing out the central message of philosophical works and historical events and making them relevant to everyday life.
I initially set out to write a more conventional review of his book (i.e. what I did or didn’t agree with), but the ideas the book sparked lead me to write this essay instead. Perhaps this is the best way of saying that I think the essays in his book are well worth your time without influencing the thoughts they will stir in you. I hope you will find his book as useful (and enjoyable) as I have for gaining clarity about what lies ahead.
The other half of the battle for the landscape of the imagination is ensuring that those ideas bleed out into the community. We must step out of our social media bubbles and reach out to those trapped in postmodernism’s toxic embrace. The real battle is not happening in our courts and political institutions — the real battle is for the hearts and minds of Main Street. So, have tea with your neighbor, run for city council, and take your grandkids fishing. Those are the frontlines of this culture war.
The conversations that happen face to face and the stories that are told while waiting for the fish to bite have a way of leaving an impression that lasts a lifetime. Drip by drip, we seed the ideas that will breathe new life into timeless classical liberal principles. The grand narrative that emerges from our fourth turning is up to us.
Adapted from the author’s essay.