Authority, liberalism, and traditionalism

Alan R. follows up his previous article at VFR with an essay on a fundamental feature of political reality that is alien to Americans in general and inadequately understood even by traditionalists: the central and indispensable role of authority in human society. However, what Mr. R. means by authority here is not the external power of law and custom, nor the enforcement of “correct” opinions, but rather the fact that most people rely on trusted authorities to help them form their views on the most basic questions. Mr. R’s insights are highly relevant to the traditionalist task. If we are to lead society away from liberalism and toward traditionalism, we cannot do that by changing everyone’s mind one at a time; we must change the minds of the people whom other people regard as their authorities.

Authority, Liberalism, and Traditionalism

The vast majority of people, including the majority of the intellectual and the highly-educated, believe what they believe on fundamental issues not because they have carefully studied them, but because the authorities whom they choose to trust have told them what to believe. The authorities tell their constituents what to believe not by saying “You must believe X,” but rather by saying or implying, “X is true,” which obviously implies, “You ought to believe X.”

By “fundamental issues,” I mean the deep and basic religious and philosophical questions, e.g., Is there a God, and, if so, what is he like? or What is the meaning of life? or What is morality? or Did we evolve accidentally or were we created deliberately? And so on.

For example, “most people” believe whatever it is that they believe about evolution/creation either because they trust the scientists/professors when they say Darwinism is true, or because they believe the pastors/priests/theologians when they say that God created life. This is not to say that people cannot give reasons for their beliefs, often good ones. Nor does it mean that both sides are equally right. Nor that people simply hear and obey, “without internalizing” the ideas or subjecting them to scrutiny.

Instead, it means that both sides of a well-defined issue always have reasons that seem good, and most people have neither the time, the talent, the training nor the inclination to do the hard work of study. Furthermore, there seems to be little incentive to study the basics; most people presumably just want to make a choice, and then get on with life. Based on the overall worldview that they already possess, and the authorities which they have trusted, they fit what the authorities say into their pre-existing system of thought.

I am not suggesting here that to trust authorities is illegitimate. On the contrary, man does not have the ability to learn on his own the most important truths, such as truths about God, morality, and the meaning of life. He must look to God, the ultimate authority, if he is to have answers to his most important questions. And even the non-religious recognize, on some level, that they need to look to authorities outside themselves. This is because all of us need to rely on authorities for most of what we know. Life is too short for us to prove for ourselves any but a tiny fraction of the vast sum of humanly provable specific facts that we need to know in order to do the business of living.

So, who are these ruling authorities? In Western society, the highest and widest authority to say what is true belongs to the teachers (especially the professors) and the media (especially the journalists). To call their authority the “highest” means they claim the authority, i.e., the right, to tell people what is really true, and to call it the “widest” means that these people, when they are acting in their professional roles, are believed by more people than any other authority. Other authorities such as parents, clergy, and government officials only have authority over their constituents, and then only in certain fields: parents have authority in matters of “parenting,” clergy in “religious” matters, and government officials in issues of governance.

A secondary, but still potent, authority is the entertainment media. They translate the ideas of the ruling authorities into concretely tangible form, giving the impression that the ruling ideas are beautiful, and their opposites ugly. It is this emotional perception that provides much of the impetus to believe strongly and to act in accordance with these ideas. In an increasingly anti-intellectual society, manipulation of emotions is crucial to ensure compliance.

This explains why politics has been unable to hold back the tide of liberalism; politics at best has done no more than occasionally slow the advance. That’s because elected officials don’t control the country; the teachers and the media do, indirectly. The liberals know this, which is one reason why they do not try to seize formal control of the government. If they control the institutions that have the most widely recognized authority to tell what is true, they can control society informally, without provoking open rebellion.

Once we have grasped the point that people are led by authorities, we can consider another, apparently contradictory fact: people will not accept an idea that too strongly contradicts what they already believe, even if it emanates from the highest authority they trust. The authorities do not fully control the masses, even in the most effective totalitarian state. This point is discussed further below.

We also have to understand that most people, most of the time, do not consciously think about their authorities, or even acknowledge that they have authorities. Most people rarely if ever explicitly say to themselves “This is one of my authorities, and I trust it.” Liberals in particular like to think of themselves as autonomous, authority-questioning people.

These two truths (people believe authorities, but not automatically) have to be properly understood in relation to one another, because an emphasis on either one at the expense of the other will mislead us about the nature of persuasion. But the more fundamental fact is the one I began with: man relies on authority for guidance on the deepest issues.

I first became aware of this when considering “values clarification” as a technique for teaching ethics to young people. Liberals claim that if people choose (or create) their own values, they will be more committed to those values, and therefore more moral, than if they had been forced to adopt values provided by someone else. Reading various critiques of “values clarification” made it apparent to me that people do not create their own values; instead, they choose to follow moral principles articulated by others. And usually people do not fully reason through on their own what these principles really mean, and why they might be right or wrong; instead, their primary effort (if they make one) is directed toward the process of choosing which authority they will believe.

Another insight came as I discussed and considered the raising of children. Back when most of my friends and I were single liberals, when we would discuss having children, many of us would express apprehension about what we would do when our children became teenagers: according to liberalism, teenagers are supposed to rebel against their parents, to “question authority,” and so on. But I began to realize that these ideas of what teenagers are “supposed” to do are recent developments. Historically, teenagers have always wanted to become adults, not to rebel against their parents’ religion.

Indeed, the very idea “teenager” is a twentieth-century invention: By definition, a teenager is a quasi-autonomous individual who combines much of the irresponsibility and immaturity of a child with much of the power and privileges of an adult. Teenagers “rebel against their parents” mainly because they are told that they are supposed to rebel, because rebellion is said to be part of the process of becoming autonomous, because parents are said to hold old-fashioned beliefs that have been superseded by societal evolution, and because liberalism holds it to be the sacred right of every individual to be different. Although teenagers do have a natural impulse to separate from their parents, this impulse can manifest itself in many ways, most of which don’t involve open rebellion. The teenagers of our day rebel mainly because they are told that they are supposed to.

This discussion is mainly about persuasion as a collective, not an individual, phenomenon. When we attempt to persuade an individual, he has a history that we are contending with, he is part of a group to which he is loyal, and he respects certain authorities. Ultimately, then, to persuade a large number of individuals, we have to change the intellectual environment that forms people’s beliefs.

But there is also a lesson to be learned here about individual persuasion. I believe that there are vast numbers of young people who go along with liberalism because they have not yet heard a persuasive critique of it, but who suspect that the emperor has no clothes. And contemporary postmodern liberalism, with its radical relativism and nominalism, is definitely naked. These young people are looking for a trustworthy authority to tell them how the world really operates, and if we conservatives can make a good case, they will begin to trust our ideas.

For persuading individuals, the key is to identify, make explicit, and criticize their fundamental presuppositions about reality. Persuasion about fundamental issues is difficult because so much is at stake for the person you are trying to persuade. But it is possible for people to change their minds, especially if they have a deep respect for truth, and if they begin to recognize the bad results that necessarily follow from their current thinking. For persuading groups, though, the key is the authorities.

This point is often missed by intellectuals, because the kind of people who enjoy scrutinizing fundamental issues are generally well-educated and reflective, so it is natural that they would assume others are like them. We intellectuals tend to think that the battle must be won one person at a time. Individual persuasion is the tactic, but the strategy should be to win over the authoritative institutions. [LA adds: this is really the key practical point of this essay, and it needs to be developed further.]

By the way, this is one reason why justification by faith makes sense: “faith” in the Christian sense really means “trust in what you have good, but not perfect, reason to believe.” The most crucial choices you make are the choices of whom to trust, and without trust in the right Authority, you will be led astray. Since man does not have the ability to reason out the right answers strictly on his own, he needs to trust the words spoken by the Author of reality in order to be wise.

People only obey the authorities on life’s most basic issues: the existence of God, the meaning of life, the possibility of knowing, the nature of morality, etc. When it comes to issues of a less fundamental and more tangible nature, people generally can give an account, often quite detailed. But the more basic an idea is, the more difficult it is to articulate and understand intellectually, and the less equipped John Q. Public feels himself to be to analyze it carefully.

This is yet another reason why we need to equip people to think about the fundamental issues of the culture war, by teaching them to think conceptually and fundamentally about the realities of the world. The goal is not to provide a comprehensive description of reality; the belief that such a description is possible is one of the errors of classical liberalism. The goal is to counter liberal falsehoods, making it possible for people to receive and acknowledge truth.

Now what about the equally important fact that people’s beliefs cannot be fully controlled by the authorities? Fundamentally, this is because learning is cumulative: once you believe X is true, a whole range of other statements becomes plausible, and another range of statements becomes implausible. Think of an atheist. Creationism and intelligent design are implausible to him because of his presupposition of atheism, and any authority who tried to persuade him to reject Darwinism would no longer be an authority that he trusted. Because of his atheism, he trusts only authorities that are also atheistic, although he will ask for additional confirmation, beyond their atheism, before he places his trust in that authority. But if the authority he trusts maintains atheism, he will trust the other statements emanating from that authority: “Darwinism explains morality”; “man is just a highly-evolved animal”; “abortion is ok because the fetus is not a person”; “religion causes wars because religious disputes cannot be resolved rationally”; and so on.

Did the atheist choose atheism in the first place because an authority he trusted told him atheism is true? In a sense, yes. Children have thoughts about the ultimate issues, but they know they need guidance from adults. Atheists, like everyone else, have their impressions either disproved or confirmed (and clarified and expanded) by authorities they choose to trust. Almost all atheists have heard from authorities who tell them there is a God, but they are atheists because they chose to mistrust these authorities, and trust others.

What is the relevance of these ideas for traditionalist apologetics? Mainly this: in order to restore a properly ordered society, we must work to change the minds of the people who control the institutions which have the highest authority to tell what is true, so that they will teach fewer liberal falsehoods, and more conservative truths. Or, to be more practical, we need to place people with a proper worldview into positions of leadership. Overall, the people believe (or at least don’t openly defy) what the highest authorities teach, except for the small minority who either are explicitly trained in a contrary worldview, or who are able to think their way out of liberalism on their own initiative. What the authorities say to be true, the masses mostly believe.

(This restoration of a properly ordered society would also have the effect of restoring authority to the churches. Their authority, properly, is the authority to say what God says, and in a properly ordered society most people acknowledge God as what he is: the ultimate authority. Then the secondary authorities, such as government, schools, and media, would not be usurping an authority to speak on ultimate issues that they do not possess.)

But we cannot just work to take over the educational and media systems, and then begin dictating truths to the people, as, for example, the Communists took over the leadership of Russia, and then used this position to force the people to agree with them. This method only works if you ruthlessly apply tyrannical methods for many generations, as, for example, the Muslims did in the regions that are now their “heartland.”

Society’s beliefs must be changed slowly, by gradually introducing slight modifications of the beliefs the people already hold. Consider, for example, how the liberals changed our standards on homosexuality. First, they simply called for leniency in the punishment or ostracism of homosexuals. Then they called for treating them courteously. Then they called for the end of laws and customs against homosexuality. Then they called for full tolerance of homosexuality. And so on. In this way, liberalism has gradually taken over as society’s official ruling philosophy.

This is not to say that there is no need for radical thinkers who openly defy the basic thinking of society. Social change requires catalysts. But the process by which the thinking of society at large is changed is slow, like changing the direction of a fully-loaded supertanker.

Some have called for the cultivation of a “faithful remnant” of conservative society. There is something appealingly simple about this approach, but I doubt that it will be feasible. The ruling authorities have the desire to force everyone to go along at least externally with their regime, and with modern technology, they can probably do it.

What is needed is to win the war of ideas, by putting forth and vigorously defending ideas that all but the hopelessly biased must acknowledge as being more plausible. And we must also demonstrate the inadequacy of liberalism as a system of thought, not just as a collection of absurdities and outrages. But it is also necessary that the leadership of the institutions of education and journalism allow dissenters the right to dissent, for otherwise they will simply use force to maintain the dominance of liberalism within these institutions. Simply putting forth better ideas does not always ensure success; consider, for example, the fate of Christians in lands conquered by the Muslim: they have the better arguments, but Islam has the power to suppress them.

Currently, liberals think of themselves as tolerant and open minded, so conservatives are using the liberals’ creed against them to force them to give conservatism a hearing. This, in fact, is how liberalism gradually took over social institutions that were originally very conservative: the Church, the colleges, the government bureaucracies.

It is instructive to consider in outline form the history of how liberalism took over. Beginning in the period immediately after the wars of the Reformation, thinkers we would now identify as the founding fathers of liberalism began successfully to question the basic tenets of the biblical worldview that had been Western civilization’s spiritual and intellectual foundation for a thousand years. Gradually, liberal thinkers won the war of ideas, so that by the early twentieth century, most of the intellectual leaders of society (most professors and many clergy) rejected the fundamental tenets of Christianity and the biblical worldview: the divinity of Christ, the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, the objectivity of morality, the possibility of man knowing objectively, etc.

But in spite of this apostasy of its leadership, society continued to be outwardly governed, for the most part, by the laws and customs of Christendom. And even many of the intellectual leaders of liberalism continued to live outwardly in conformity with most of these customs and rules. It was this contradiction that was resolved, at least in America, by the Sixties Revolution. The leaders of the rebellion recognized a massive contradiction between what their professors taught them and the way society was organized. They demanded that society be governed in accordance with the principles they learned from society’s intellectual leaders, and, ever since, liberalism has been slowly, steadily, and successfully campaigning to bring this about.

The history of liberalism shows it is possible to win a war of ideas. We cannot hope to emulate the exact method liberalism used to take over, because history does not repeat itself. But to defeat liberalism, the first order of business is to demonstrate both to neutral onlookers and to liberal partisans that liberalism fails.

This all shows once again the importance of presuppositions (addressed in my previous essay at VFR, “How to defeat liberalism”), and of explicitly articulating, attacking and attempting to replace false presuppositions. And for us parents, it shows the importance of properly and explicitly instructing our children in the most important truths.

Philosophically, the first step in showing that liberalism fails is showing that atheism fails. Although probably a majority of liberals are not atheists, the leaders of liberalism are mostly atheists, and liberalism as a system of thought is premised on atheism, which implies that man is the Supreme Being. Unless you challenge your opponent’s premises, you will eventually be forced to accept his conclusions. The best way to refute atheism is not to prove directly that God exists (because this is essentially impossible within an atheistic worldview), but rather to show that a constellation of ideas that are required by atheism also fail: materialism, Darwinism, the doctrine that science is the highest form of knowledge, and the belief that morality can be adequately grounded without God. I shall write more about these issues in my next essay.

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Mark P. writes:

Alan R. wrote:

“Currently, liberals think of themselves as tolerant and open minded, so conservatives are using the liberals’ creed against them to force them to give conservatism a hearing. This, in fact, is how liberalism gradually took over social institutions that were originally very conservative: the Church, the colleges, the government bureaucracies.”

This is the David Horowitz “Academic Freedom” approach. It seems to have some success here and there, but it’s difficult to monitor since universities are fairly insular societies. Personally, I don’t think this is enough. Liberals are well aware of how they came to power and they are unlikely to fall victim to their own tricks. Remember, liberalism gained a foothold not because they took a piecemeal, slow approach, gradually changing society over time. They gained a foothold because the traditionalists naively regarded liberals as the “loyal opposition” or the good-faith sceptics.

Liberals will not make that same mistake. They will circle the wagons to prevent anything like a successful, conservative use of liberal techniques.

In addition to what Alan proposes, I would suggest conservatives do what they can to destroy the media and the universities. These are largely worthless institutions that really have outlived their usefulness so I don’t understand why Horowitz and others insist they be preserved. Maybe the “conserving” bug is too strong in them, I don’t know, but there are readily available methods for greatly weakening these social cancers.

First, conservatives should propose price caps on university tuition. No tuition price can rise above $5,000. Tuition prices that do, result in the cancelling of all federal funding. Further controls over the price of books, fees, and other costs can also be proposed to prevent universities from making and end run around tuition controls. Sell this idea to the public as making education more “accessible” and preventing kids from being saddled with debt that takes a lifetime to repay. Bring up how college is becoming a less remunerative experience since outsourcing and immigration is worsening the value of a college degree, therefore, college should be cheaper. If universities complain, talk about the high salaries college professors earn or the massive endowments many high-end universities retain. Explain to them that they just have to lower the pay and dip into their endowments to make ends meet…like normal people do. Over time, this will destroy the financial prospects of the university and shift young people away from university careers (and its liberal propaganda.)

Second, conservatives need to propose auctioning more broadcast licenses. These auctions need to be both spontaneous and indefinite. The purpose is to deplete the value of the exisiting broadcast properties, while saddling with debt any existing property that attempts to monopolize the auctioned properties. For example, if broadcast property X, goes on the market, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and others should all be allowed to bid on that property and own it. Following that initial auction, the FCC should then have another auction for broadcast property Y. This creates a catch-22 situation for the existing media companies. If they bid to the stratosphere the price of a currently auctioned property, then they may not have the money to buy a future auctioned property. But if they don’t bid on the current property, then they will lose a monopoly to their competitors. So they have no choice but to keep bidding on whatever comes up until the cash runs out. This can be sold to the public as creating more “media choice”, more “voices in the marketplace of ideas” or some other rhetoric. Furthermore, any unintended consequences of such a policy can be remedied with antitrust lawsuits.

Finally, conservatives need to be aware of the dangers of the computer industry and its various offshoots, lke the internet. Business does not necessarily imply conservatism and the computer industry has now shifted in favor of the Democrats. This industry needs to be brought to heel by weakening the intellectual property laws that underpin it. I would suggest making “file sharing” legal and rewriting the laws that have turned file-sharing into a crime. This will also have the salutary effect of taking out Hollywood and other media content providers. Sell it to the public by telling them that, once they pay for something, they own it, just like they own the appliances in their own homes.

Note that all of these solutions have liberal arguments at the core of their proposals. They all make nice about “choice” and “freedom” and pit the haves and have nots against each other. Do this, and you’ll go a lot further than with persuasion alone.

Alan R. replies:

In response to my statement “Currently, liberals think of themselves as tolerant and open minded, so conservatives are using the liberals’ creed against them to force them to give conservatism a hearing,” Mark P. wrote “[This tactic] seems to have some success here and there, but it’s difficult to monitor since universities are fairly insular societies. Personally, I don’t think this is enough.”

While I don’t think that calling for the freedom to speak conservatism is the Magic Bullet That Will Defeat Liberalism, we shouldn’t underestimate its usefulness. And I wasn’t just referring to what goes on at the universities; the principle has wider applicability. Certainly consistent liberals (i.e., leftists) will not hesitate to choose liberalism over freedom of speech, and this is as it should be: freedom is never the ultimate good. But the vast majority of liberals (i.e., people who think and act, for the most part, in accordance with liberalism) are not leftists. They think of liberalism as being simply “recognizing the way things obviously are, and being nice, unlike those mean conservatives”, and therefore they will be faced with a genuine dilemma when forced to choose between freedom of speech and one or more of the specific points of liberalism. There is a good chance that Mr.

Typical Liberal will reluctantly decide that his support for freedom requires allowing the repugnant non-liberal words to be spoken publicly. And if he sees enough of these dilemmas, he may begin to rethink his liberalism, or, more accurately, think about it clearly for the first time. Liberalism, as opposed to leftism, is filled with contradictions (“unprincipled exceptions”, in VFR-speak), and forcing people to confront them can be very helpful to our cause.

But we must also recognize that we cannot win the war solely by inducing the enemy to defeat himself, so we must also engage in the kind of direct attacks on the enemy that Mark P. advocates. Suggested tactics that have a reasonable chance to weaken the enemy are always welcome, but they must be subordinated to the broad strategy of replacing liberalism as society’s dominant way of thinking. As for Mark P.s specific suggestions, it seems to me that “…destroy[ing] the media and the universities” is not quite what we should aim for, but rather redirecting them, so that they teach more truths. Unless he proposes replacing the destroyed institutions with more worthy ones, his proposal sounds a bit anarchistic, but perhaps I’ve misread his intentions.

Perhaps he meant that other institutions, such as the church, should replace the universities and media as the highest authorities recognized in our society. If so, then the media and universities continue to have a role, but are not the ultimate leaders.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 28, 2006 02:24 PM | Send

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