Something new is happening here.
Americans often disagree, but that’s not new, or even unhealthy. After all, we have our own eyes and ears and brains, so it’s a bit surprising that we ever do agree. There must be something we trust more than our personal perceptions – a unifying force that reconciles our many differences.
One such force is our belief in a shared physical reality. Though, as separate persons, we will see everything in a slightly different way, we don’t think our differing perceptions change the nature of the thing that is seen. This belief makes science, history, justice, and almost everything else possible.
And we think ideas are part of this shared reality, fitting together in an orderly and trustworthy way. This belief makes it possible for us to reason and learn from other people’s ideas.
We also think some things – even profitable and pleasing things – are best left undone if they will injure someone else. This belief makes it possible for us to be just, peaceful, and compassionate.
Each of these unifying beliefs – reality, reason, and morality – is essential to life in a community, but each one is rapidly losing strength.
This is the new thing that changes everything.
Our commitment to reality is at low ebb. The normalization of drug use continues to expand. Our media and education system present a carefully crafted picture of the nation and a revised version of its history, distorting reality and shaping the attitudes of a generation. We are retreating from the obvious in ways our parents could never have imagined, including our inability to distinguish between a boy and a girl. Departures from reality are widespread and increasingly dangerous to question.
Our respect for reason is withering – not merely the process, but the idea that we should be guided by truth. In the public square, and especially on college campuses, attempts at civil discourse on controversial issues are routinely shouted down. Voices in entertainment, literature, academia, and social media are silenced when they dissent from the preferred narrative. Constitution or not, our speech – and, thus, our reason – is no longer free.
Our conviction that we should not hurt other people is shrinking. Abortion has dulled our sensitivity to the destruction of inconvenient people, and some states have removed protections for children already born. The mentality of abortion is like Pandora’s box. You cannot keep it in the womb.
Our value as human beings is increasingly conditional, and because of this, our respect for ethical boundaries is increasingly conditional. When our neighbor is no longer sacred, civilization has collapsed.
So, while it’s important to talk about our disagreements, I’m not doing that here.
I’m talking about something new; our accelerating surrender of reality, reason, and morality – the unifying principles that make respectful disagreement possible. When that surrender is complete, nothing but violence will remain.
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It’s been a complicated year in an increasingly complicated world. It’s hard to know what is true, hard to believe that our thoughts even matter. We follow the crowd because, month by month, the crowd grows stronger and, month by month, we have less power and less confidence to do anything else.
Complexity does that to us. It builds crowds because people long to be sure, and crowds can be sure of things that individuals aren’t. Crowds create their own momentum, rewarding their followers with simplicity and safety and approval. Crowds are horizontal. You don’t have to look up, you only have to look around. You only have to follow.
Just this morning I stumbled upon an old story about this. The Governor gave an order that everyone – except for one man – obeyed. Day after day, his neighbors challenged the man, but he had his reasons and “refused to comply”, even though obeying the order would do him no real harm and refusing it would put his community in danger.
Perhaps he was a nut, but he represents the alternative to crowds – what we might call the vertical option. He did not look at what other people were doing. He stood tall and very much alone, believing he was not really alone.
We don’t have much appreciation for that kind of person today, which is a funny thing considering our nation was made for such people. Vertical people stand alone, even when they stand together. They believe they have a personal connection to ultimate reality; an ability to know what is right and a responsibility to do it.
That our nation was made for vertical people and not horizontal people is the reason for the war in our culture today. We (who close churches) would never write a Constitution that – before all else – guarantees the free exercise of religion. We (who censor opinions the crowd rejects) would not guarantee freedom of speech. We (who applaud the power of the crowd) would not create an Electoral College to reduce the power of the crowd, and we (who disbelieve in a Creator) would certainly not declare citizens to be “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.
The America we are is at war with the America we were. We who once said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, do not ourselves breathe free. Our freedom is increasingly measured and meted by its compliance with the crowd, revoked by rulers who claim power our Constitution forbids. We are, in an irony that will ring through history, a nation of free men and women who no longer yearn to be free.
Mordecai, the guy in the Bible who would not comply, will never be loved by the crowd, but he is an example for those who still believe we were created to stand tall and, when necessary, stand alone, though we are never truly alone.
All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” Day after day they spoke to him, but he refused to comply…When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai.
Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.