The Dissolution of the American Dream

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 BLM.

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. 

The Threats

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. 171)

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 came before.

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 raised.

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 allegiance count. 

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 entirety.

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 intimidation.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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 century.

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.