Astride The Herd

Some mammals occasionally commit mass, unintentional suicide by forming herds that charge right off cliffs. Native Americans used to take advantage of the, ah, counterproductive instincts that drive this behavior by directing stampedes of bison into gorges where their meat and skins could be harvested at leisure. A relatively few hunters could – and did – kill vast numbers of animals in this manner.

It’s horrifyingly easy to understand what the bison were probably thinking as they rushed to their deaths. They were surrounded by their equivalent of family and friends and following the lead of other bison just as eager as they were to move in the direction chosen by leaders somewhere off ahead. By the time they saw the cliff, if they ever did, their momentum and the pressure of those behind them – who had as of yet seen no such thing – meant they had no chance to pull back.

***

In a couple of previous posts, I’ve referred to the (to me, horrifying) fact that our nation’s ‘progressives’ – and much of our Establishment has been openly backing away from the Bill of Rights for some time. To them, our formerly shared, near-absolute belief in freedom of speech has been overtaken by a desire to control ‘hate speech’ – an infinitely malleable concept. They would eviscerate freedom of religion with the same justification, and the right to bear arms in the name of public safety. They’re fine with the fact that the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures is giving way to an all-encompassing surveillance state – often operated by and through private companies – and laws that allow the police to seize goods without trial. And as far as the Ninth Amendment, which reserves to the People powers that they haven’t explicitly granted to the government through the Constitution is concerned, fuhgeddaboudit.

Even more broadly, the left would happily jettison the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause in favor of enshrining race-based rights in our laws; indeed, it is in the process of doing so, in spite of the Constitution’s crystal-clear requirement that citizens be treated as equals before the law.

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Even more consequential than the specific rights that the left would have us ignore or revoke is the change in perspectives, in culture, that precedes these authoritarian and identitarian ‘progressive’ impulses.

Seeing ourselves as individuals with God-given, unalienable rights, rather than as ultimately interchangeable members of groups that are to be played off against each other by law is perhaps the greatest inheritance of the Judeo-Christian moral framework: souls are individual and of infinite value, so the laws should treat us as equals. It is also starkly inconsistent with the view that our affairs should be managed by an elite. The American idea was (and for me, still is) that we are empowered by God to, and must, manage our own lives. Sin and holiness (or, if you prefer, virtue) are personal, not collective – and our personal freedoms at law reflect that moral framework.

This vision of God-given, individual rights defined American society from the nation’s founding until about ten or twenty years ago. Over time, society’s understanding of those to whom such rights inured expanded from white men, at the founding, to all adult citizens.  The gloriously all-encompassing spirit of the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence gradually swept away the prejudices from the late eighteenth century, while attracting untold millions to these shores and forming the cultural basis of a nation like no other. Other countries are mostly the modern incarnations of ancient tribes, ours was based on a set of ideals that convinced people to abandon their tribes for a new identity.   

The Founders saw government having powers only if and to the extent that its authority to do so was explicitly granted by the People through the Constitution or amendments thereto. The process of amending the Constitution was meant to be very difficult so any amendments to the nation’s fundamental law – as contrasted with lesser, more evanescent laws passed by Congress – would necessarily reflect the will of an overwhelming majority of the citizenry. In contrast, today’s left would be happy to ‘amend’ the constitution by packing the Court so it can ignore Constitutionally explicit rights and invent new ones, thus rendering risible its solemn grants of limited powers.

More recently (at about the time when the ACLU stopped defending civil liberties and became an arm of the Democratic Party), for many Americans that founding vision has been forgotten or lost its power to inspire. Mavens of high culture, our government, big business and our most prestigious schools and universities now teach – and by law and through cancel culture, attempt to enforce – a vision of collective rights, sometimes cast as a socialist ideal, sometimes under the rubric of ‘critical race theory’ – both of which must perforce trump individual rights every time they come in conflict.

We are being told to see (and treat) others not as the individuals they are, but as interchangeable representatives of their tribes, with the fruits of our labors – and even opportunities to work – to be distributed accordingly. In the name of ‘diversity’, actual individuality is being discouraged – and, all too often, forbidden.

***

In material terms, our society is immeasurably wealthier now than it was at the time of the nation’s founding. Even so, an asset of priceless value is being lost in the shift of much of the American body politic back toward thinking of people as inescapably defined by their backgrounds: dignity.

Dignity doesn’t come from having the things that others prize (no amount of redistribution of wealth will satisfy the desires of envy). It doesn’t come from being given things we know we didn’t earn (look at the miserable senses of self-worth that many beneficiaries of great inheritances show) or from grabbing a bigger piece of the pie by hook or by crook.

Dignity comes from the satisfaction of knowing that we have done our best at important tasks and dealt with others honorably. It comes from living our lives in a context in which our own choices are what matter most. It comes from having made our own choices, good and bad, and accepted the consequences. Only under such circumstances are we most fully alive.

In the end, the decision to characterize and deal with people based on immutable, involuntary, functionally irrelevant characteristics like race is based on a spiritual failure to see people as the individuals they are, each one equally beloved of God and – in theory – equal before our man-made laws. This failure can only lead to misery and strife, as people try to lead their best lives but are constrained by arbitrary and foolish laws.

***

Social media are encouraging us to place ourselves into the seeming comfort and safety of great herds. Those who spend their time on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like run with others who think as they do; they get their news from the same sources, seek constant reassurance that their choices are also their peer group’s choices and strive to appear to be half a step ahead of the others in their particular herd. Meanwhile, the biggest herd is unknowingly taking its direction from a very few hunters – just for fun, we’ll call them Zuckerberg, Pichai, Dorsey and Bezos.

Those particular hunters were pushing left – hard – in the recent election – and I think that by doing so they changed the result. I don’t doubt that their having done so was in their interest, as having startled and pointed the bison herds was great for the Native American hunters, but I very much doubt that it was in ours.

M.H. Johnston

4 comments to Astride The Herd

  • DCS  says:

    Dignity comes from the satisfaction of knowing that we have done our best at important tasks and dealt with others honorably. It comes from living our lives in a context in which our own choices are what matter most. It comes from having made our own choices, good and bad, and accepted the consequences. Only under such circumstances are we most fully alive.

    I concur with this sentiment entirely.

  • Eric  says:

    The departure from the founding principles of our nation is an accelerating tragedy.

  • Wch  says:

    Thanks for writing.

  • Vivian Yess Wadlin  says:

    I’m currently listening to a podcast with episodes on the great dictators, called, of course, DICTATORS. There are many similarities among the paths to power followed by the tyrants. Almost all were willing to use brutality as soon as they had enough backing to do so. Many had purge after purge killing off the waves of people who were willing to call them out. In almost all cases, the dictator set one group of his own people against another. Batista, Castro, Pol Pot, Hitler, etc., the focus of each episode sheds light on the dangers we face. It’s for young and old today because the young have never heard these stories, and the rest of us have forgotten them.

    Thank you for another insightful blog post.

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