By David Montgomery
It is not easy to write about the dissolution of the
American Dream, yet evidence of its demise is all around us.
Believers in an earthly paradise with no police, pristine
nature, peace and love would see, if they open their eyes, that their demands
have made large parts of our country unlivable.
Their belief that it is possible to create heaven on earth justifies the
creation of an earthly hell along the way.
This, indeed, has been the philosophy of every revolutionary leader and
intellectual in the modern era — from Marx, Hitler and Mao to the founders of
Much of conservative thought — in which I include myself — recognizes
the imperfection of human nature because it embraces ideas of natural law and
individual responsibility that set the standard under which imperfection is
recognizable. We do not expect or aspire
to heaven on earth, and we certainly do not believe it is necessary to destroy
what we have in order to make gradual improvements. Yet unfolding before us is evidence that
America is not as exceptional as it seemed to be and is no exception to the
general rule that countries and civilizations rise and fall.
In the last issue JDQB described some of the pathologies in
our political system that make it incapable of dealing with what should be easy
issues. I believe that the conflict
between demands for radical change and the tradition of incremental improvement
go beyond those political pathologies.
Accusations of favoring socialism fall far short of the mark of what those
now on center stage left want. We are
seeing a conflict of incompatible philosophies, beliefs about the purposes of
life that humans choose to follow. In
this issue I want to dig deeper into the origin of these threats to our
democratic system and social peace.
First, a digression into what I see as the overt
threats. The first is impossible to miss
– the riots, looting, and violence that have accompanied the demands of Black
Lives Matter (BLM). BLM’s plan,
echoed by several
members of Congress, is for “dismantling the whole system
of oppression wherever we find it.” A
large group of once mainstream politicians implicitly support this plan when
they condone violence, excuse property damage and looting, and condemn police
without cause. Others not directly
connected to BLM declare their revolutionary zeal through symbolism like demolition
of monuments and erection of guillotines.
Then there is the much larger group of those who use the
words “Black Lives Matter” with little or no awareness of the destructive philosophy
and praxis of the formal organization. When
I refer to “BLM” here, I refer only to its leadership and those followers who
are informed about and committed to achieving its stated goals, excluding this larger
group of sympathizers. Nevertheless, the
unwitting sympathizers do provide BLM with an appearance of respectability and
a pool of potential recruits into its cadre.
Increasing attacks on freedom
of speech, free exercise of religion and the nuclear family are also purposeful
steps toward “dismantling the system of oppression.” As others have noted, our public education
system, institutions of higher education, and our media are failing utterly to
prepare students for living productive lives and exercising independent
judgment. Social studies curricula indoctrinate
students in the dogma that every aspect of American life and history is
pervaded by racism and oppression. Even
elementary school students are introduced to sexual activity and led to
question their gender identity. This educational process eliminates critical
thought, moral values and the communal ties that once held us together.
The new left appears to be unconcerned that creating an imagined
heaven on earth requires going through the hell on earth of chaos in the
streets and agitation by multiple identity groups claiming oppressed status. In its philosophy, this violation of the law
of non-contradiction is avoided by calling it “dialectic”.
Many of us are deeply worried that, despite its virtuous
start and success in overcoming past challenges, the American experiment might
also fail. Chaos has not, historically,
led to replacement of the Ancien Regime with a new world without
oppression. It has instead led almost
inexorably to totalitarian governments in other countries and times.
In the book The
Crisis of Modernity that I recommended in the last issue, Augusto Del Noce
describes the philosophies that have led to the current crisis (Page references
are to the Kindle Edition). My simplified
version of his typology includes two competing and problematic attitudes toward
life. Both of these arose out of the Enlightenment
rejection of belief in anything beyond the human and natural world. This is an absolutely critical point.
The Competing Philosophies
Liberal philosophy sees the individual as the fundamental
unit of society, and politics and law as the means by which the
often-conflicting desires of each are reconciled. The institutions of liberal democracy
flourished in this atmosphere, laws protecting private property and contracts
led to unprecedented wealth, and an increasing number of human rights were
enshrined in law.
As long as the populations of Western Europe retained common
religious beliefs, national identity and shared values, this system worked
tolerably well into the post-World War II era.
The “inalienable rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence
were guaranteed regardless of religion, race, sex or national origin.
That sharing of faith, national identity and values has
eroded in the past 60 years, with the 1960s a watershed. Increased wealth and individualism supported
the idea that satisfaction of individual desires was the principal criterion
for morality. Liberation of sexual
activity became ubiquitous, facilitated by abortion and “the pill.” Church attendance plummeted, and many
religious leaders joined the chorus preaching that each person is entitled to
define his or her own morality and lifestyle.
In the shadow of the Vietnam War, patriotism became déclassé. “Rights” became something to demand and
establish through use of power, including judicial power disconnected from
political accountability, rather than deduced from a higher Power (whether it
be a deity or just a Constitution). Sex
confined to heterosexual marriage was rejected in theory by the wealthy and in
practice by the poor, helping in both cases to maintain their status.
Strange as it is to anyone who observes the record of human
frailty, religious belief in a life beyond this world has been replaced for
many by a similarly unprovable belief that the world is inexorably moving
toward a prosperous future for all in which oppression and conflict will
cease. The cognitive dissonance that
appears when facts make the latter belief hard to sustain leaves believers in
peaceful progress vulnerable to the opposing philosophy, that a world free of
oppression can only come through violent revolution.
The opposing view, now ascending, is usually attributed to
Karl Marx despite its other antecedents. This view divides humanity into two
classes, the oppressor and the oppressed. A fundamental principle of this view is that
standards of truth and morality are nothing more than social constructs imposed
on the oppressed by the oppressors. As a
result, “there are no moral limitations to revolutionary action.” (Del Noce, p.
Everything is subordinated to the struggle to eliminate the
oppressor. Individuals no longer matter,
neither as moral agents nor as valued human beings. All that matters is whether they are
designated as oppressors or oppressed.
The necessary and sufficient justification of any action or atrocity is
that it furthers the destruction of the system of oppression. The intrinsic value of each human life has no
place in such a system of thought, only the success of the Revolution.
What Marxism does provide, according to Del Noce, is a
secular religion, with rituals of conversion and its own impersonal system of
values. Even its ultimate goal mirrors
the Christian vision of Heaven as beyond human understanding. Marx describes his future society as “… so
other with respect to the existing one that any attempt to describe its
attributes would be an arbitrary fantasy.” (Del Noce, p. 78)
One other aspect of this opposing philosophy is worth
mentioning: “From the viewpoint of revolutionary violence, … the past must be
erased” (Del Noce, p. 21). The new consciousness of class, and now race, must
not be challenged by truth about history.
The willingness to sacrifice innocent lives to create a
world free of oppression is clearly evident in the actions of BLM. Violence
associated with its protests has killed far more black men, women
and children than the police-involved shootings that triggered the protests. BLM’s activities have led to more murders
of blacks by blacks since its appearance than there were
police-involved deaths. Yet BLM and its supporters continue to lead violent
protests and have succeeded in reducing police protection in high crime
areas. Many critics of BLM and its
supporters point out the moral contradiction.
But they miss the point. The destruction
of the system is the only morality that matters under the philosophy adopted by
BLM, not individual human lives.
BLM also follows Marx in its rejection of reasoned debate
based on facts and logic. Truth and
morality are found, as Marx put it, in action not in contemplation – whatever
serves the cause is both true and justified, no matter how objectively false or
immoral it may be. The same belief is
found in the claims by today’s demonstrators that demands for facts and logical
argument are themselves instruments of oppression.
Not coincidentally, the current and widely accepted campaign
to remove monuments thought to represent past racial oppression is a clear
manifestation of the revolutionary philosophy’s goal of erasing memory of what
The Two Philosophies Today
One possible response from the liberal point of view is “Why
Worry?” We defeated Nazism by force of
arms and Soviet Communism by our relative economic success. The number of Americans who have the
intention of destroying our country as we know it is vanishingly small. Rioters and looters are claimed to be outside
the “peaceful” BLM movement, just opportunists, career criminals, and white
kids behaving badly in the vacuum of law enforcement. Most supporters of BLM are likely to be good
people who only want to eliminate injustice.
The reason for worry is the apparent success of the
philosophy of destruction in converting those well-meaning liberals into
effective agents of its program — “useful
idiots” in the argot of the hard left. The question that appears
over and over in speeches, confrontations, and online discussions among white
liberals is: “How can a moral person refuse to support BLM?” That rhetorical question, though useful in virtue
signaling and shaming listeners into silence, is essentially a ploy, and inconsistent
with the philosophy of the “woke” promoters of discord.
No longer is the ordinary language of morality used to condemn
racism. That would suggest that racism is a matter of individual sin, like
prejudice, discrimination and rudeness. Confession
of particular incidents and efforts to do better will not do, because that
cannot change racial identity. Instead,
the truly woke like the author of White Fragility demand that converts confess
that they are oppressors by virtue of being white and allow them to be freed of
the stigma of systemic racism only by full conversion to the anti-racist
cause. This is Marxism’s secular religion
translated into racial categories, with all the rituals and dogma that
accompany religious observances. At
bottom, like religion, it is faith-based.
Our educational system has become a major and reliable supplier
of already indoctrinated recruits for active support of class warfare, or at a minimum
unwilling to challenge it. That system
has been broadly subverted into an instrument for indoctrinating students in
the paradigm of oppression and revolution, first by disparaging the search for
morality or truth, then by indoctrination into finding fault with all things
white or American, until destruction of “the system” becomes passively
acceptable or an active cause.
Del Noce described this presciently in 1975: “Schools no
longer present themselves as institutions where teachers guide “newcomers” to
an awareness of the civilization that they must join and that they must
continue. That means discovering those truths/values that are eternal, that
directed the formation of the positive aspects of civilization, and that serve
as a norm to judge any given circumstance.”
(Del Noce, 191) Searching for this anywhere in public and higher
education is a Sisyphean task.
It is interesting that BLM has explicitly adopted the transsexual
cause – which undermines the most salient of traditional values in regard to
personal identity and relations between sexes.
It brings to mind C.S.
Lewis’s fictional chamber of horrors, in which a prisoner is
subjected to wild distortions of perception and disgusting sights, so as to
make it easier to break down allegiance to the way of life in which he was
Where This Leads
Thus, we have two recognizable philosophies in conflict. One is the dialectic of future perfection, a
struggle by the oppressed against the oppressor aimed at destruction of the
present order by any and all means. In
this worldview, all that matters about a human being is his or her
classification into oppressor or oppressed.
Individual character with its mélange
of virtue and vices no longer matters. Everyone
connected in the past with slavery or now with the pervasive system of
oppression must be cancelled. It does
not matter how little bad or how much good a member of the oppressor class
might do, because those categories become meaningless when only identity and
The alternative and still mainstream philosophy is a
slightly confused acceptance of imperfection in individuals and society, a wish
for preservation and improvement of a fundamentally good system. But, as Del Noce points out throughout his
book, this philosophy provides only weak intellectual and moral tools for
defending itself. For this majority, individualism
and consumerism have weakened belief that there is objective truth, right and
wrong and undermined their sense of community.
A view of life derived from moral relativism that has no hard standards is
vulnerable to the hard-edged class/race imperative of the opposing side.
Even within liberal democracies, demands for new definitions
of rights proliferate when they are unbound from any shared concept of human
nature. These separate demands have in
the past two decades crystallized into the shared demands of specific identity
groups, which are being swayed to see themselves as oppressed when their
specific claims are not honored above all conflicting demands. At that point, identity politics is easily
taken over by parties whose goal, by pandering to identity groups, evolves
almost ineluctably into the dismantling of “the oppressive system” in its
This appears to be where the United States and Europe are
heading, failing to recognize that if we get there, the result will not be
peace, freedom and satisfaction of all desires but something
close to anarchy and chaos. Without law and authority, the
incompatibility of interests among disparate “oppressed” identity groups will
become obvious and produce unmediated conflict.
The result has inevitably been the restoration of order by a new “oppressor”
or system, in most cases worse than the original.
What can be done.
Understanding what is behind victories of the BLM cause, the
non-binary sexual revolution, the cancel culture, and limitations of religious
freedom gives a hint of what might preserve the American Dream. The lucky ones are those parents and children
who were privileged to avoid the indoctrination endemic in public education and
to retain their religious faith, traditional morality, and nuclear families. They
have the moral and intellectual clarity to withstand BLM’s appeal and
In the words of Erich Fromm: “for the first time in history
the physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the
human heart” and “for the first time in history worldly survival is entrusted
to religious conversion.” (Del Noce, p. 44) To counter the program advanced by
the philosophy of destruction, it is necessary to re-arm with the weapons of
logical thought, moral understanding and character.
Once, a religious belief grounded in the Judeo-Christian
traditions (including Deism, Unitarianism, and other faith systems) provided
that foundation for society as a whole, in the generally accepted belief that
each human being is created in God’s image with both freedom and obligations. The religious approach to social thought has
not gone away, but it is increasingly submerged in public discussions by both
revolutionary criticism and the mainstream of secular liberalism and moral
relativism. Del Noce’s verdict is that we
are now a “democracy devoid of the sacred.” (Del Noce, p. 110).
Nevertheless, those who do believe are still around. A few steps could strengthen their resistance.
- To counteract the pernicious public education system, there must be school choice, charter schools, good private and religious schools paid for by educational vouchers and financial support/wage replacement for home schooling.
- Colleges and universities are failing to provide education worth the cost and in many disciplines substituting indoctrination for learning. If, as JDQB has argued in these pages, they were required to bear some cost for their students’ failures, they might see an incentive to provide the kind of education Del Noce described.
- Positive law and regulation must reverse precedents and make preservation of the nuclear family the highest priority, trumping abortion rights, redefinition of marriage, welfare programs that reward fatherless families and separate children from parents, and special rights and privileges for LGBTQ+ that infringe on rights of others.
- Workers must receive adequate income to raise and care for their families and obtain health insurance that covers true medical care. This may require substantial income supplements for workers, perhaps through increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit, and should replace welfare programs that give aid without work.
- As the privileges and political influence of the ultra-rich become more obvious and egregious, it is difficult for even the most committed tax reformer to object to very high marginal rates for billionaires. This could substitute for guillotines.
Such changes may help to sustain the broad majority who are
not taken in but have no means to resist, to inoculate larger numbers against
the influence of those whose aim is to destroy the American system, and to
reduce over time the power of those who have succumbed. These proposals are, not coincidentally,
derived from the first
statement of the social teaching of the Catholic Church, which was
written to provide a Christian alternative to the socialism of the late 19th
The obstacle is that such a return is at odds with all the
prevailing winds of philosophy and education.
It is predicated on a return to belief in a transcendent reality, when
eradicating that belief has been the mainstream of thought since the Enlightenment. All modern philosophers agree it is
impossible to defend any consistent moral system without the foundation of
belief in a Supreme Being. Without Him
there is no firm basis for arguing the fundamental value and dignity of every
human life. Without belief that truth
and morality exist independent of our own wishes and desires, our thinking
remains vulnerable to the destroyers who are happy to eradicate all human
values and replace them with commitment to the Revolution.