By attacking Jonah Goldberg, a recent college grad reveals that the American mind is no longer closing, it’s closed

The-Closing-of-the-American-Mind-Bloom-Allan-9780671657154The etymology of the word “liberal” isn’t complicated. It’s from the Latin līberālis, meaning “of freedom,” which in turn derives from līber, meaning “free.” The problem with “liberalism” as a political doctrine comes about when people try to define the control from which they wish to be free.  As a recent attack on Jonah Goldberg reveals, America’s finest colleges are failing miserably when it comes to helping students examine what “liberty” really means, both in theory and in fact.

The definitional problem with the notion of “liberty” was already evident in the late 18th century, so it’s not as if American educational institutions haven’t had a while to wrestle with this intellectual problem. When Thomas Jefferson wrote about each individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the liberty that he envisioned meant an individual’s right to construct his own life: his own career, his own faith, his own personal relations, and his own economic progress.

The Bill of Rights, a binding contract between government and governed, established that Jefferson and the other Founders knew that this liberty could be achieved only through less government, not more. At various times throughout history, the federal government has stepped in to lift a heavy yoke off of people, including slavery and Jim Crow (both of which were state government initiatives), but the understanding was that the federal government wasn’t then supposed to fill the power vacuum it had created.

At the same time that the Founders were reducing individual liberty to what they hoped would be an iron-clad constitutional contract (with the enforcement mechanism being each individual’s jealously protected right to bear arms), French revolutionaries were contemplating a very different type of “liberty.” When they spoke of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” they meant to substitute one heavy-handed government (the blood-thirsty commune) in place of another heavy-handed government (the ancien regime). The notion of individual liberty, a person’s right to be free from government encroachment, was not part of the French Revolution’s operating system.

In the 220 or so years that have passed since the Bill of Rights and the French Revolution, the diametrically-opposed meanings applied to the words “liberty,” have never changed. A steady strand of thinking in America has always held that liberty means a person’s right to determine his own destiny with minimal government intervention, control, taxation, and policing. Meanwhile, whether under the heading of socialism, fascism, communism, Naziism, or Progressivism, most Europeans and some Americans (including the modern Democrat party) have steadfastly insisted that liberty means a person’s right to be free from the burden of thinking about and caring for himself. (Islam makes that promise too.)

I was reminded of this definitional paradox when I read a 23-year-old’s throbbing denunciation of Jonah Goldberg’s challenge to the recycled communism found in a Jesse Myerson article published in Rolling Stone. The 23-year-old guilty of this purple passion in support of the Left’s liberty is Emmett Rensin, who describes himself for the L.A. Times as “a political activist and essayist living in Chicago.”  His website adds that he recently graduated from the University of Chicago, which is one of America’s premier institutions and was once Milton Friedman’s home base.

Rensin may be young, and he may consider himself Progressive, but his article is actually pretty funny because it’s so reactionary in tone. This is a guy who, after four years in a top American university, looks back in longing at communism’s glory days, and regrets that he was unable to live in those heady times himself. Even his insults have a dated quality, rolling of the tongue with all the clunky rhetorical elegance that used to character a good Stalin speech. Thus, Goldberg is a “professional colonialism apologist and perennial Democratic crypto-fascist hunter.” Wow! It’s 1948 all over again.

Obviously, Rensin’s writing is not the stuff of ages, although it’s probably the stuff of old, aged Leftists. Rensin is worth quoting, though, because he so perfectly embodies the long-standing Leftist notion, one that is now de rigueur in America’s colleges, that “liberty” means the freedom to have an all-powerful government take care of you:

Young leftists like Myerson and myself share a moral outlook that fundamentally differs from conservatives like Goldberg: Freedom, in the most prosperous nation on Earth, must entail the freedom to act without the constant specter of homelessness, hunger and preventable illness. But this is nothing new, and the very founders Goldberg implies would have defended the present status quo are cases in point. The revolutionary generation (many of whom, by the way, were theatrically radical young people) was made up of men of means. They were all comfortable; many were wealthy. They had time to recycle the old ideas of Locke and Montesquieu and to dream of a nation outside the shackles of English monarchy.

It’s hard to imagine squeezing in the Continental Congress in a world where Thomas Jefferson had to run across town to his minimum-wage night job.

If liberalism believes that freedom consists of freedom from want, then we want only to extend the means for such achievement beyond the wealthy, white and landed few. Not everyone needs their own Monticello, but an apartment and some groceries might suffice.

Rensin has the youthful college grad’s passion for supposedly erudite references and sweeping pronouncements, not to mention a good acquaintance with the Spark Notes version of Marx’s turgid, lugubrious, boring Communist Manifesto. What Rensin lacks, however, is actual knowledge. If he had knowledge, he would know that freedom from want (which is what he desires) happens best when a society lets individuals decide how to create and spend wealth, rather than in societies in which the state, promising freedom from want, makes decisions for individuals about how to create and spend wealth.

It’s absolutely true that every country predicated on individual liberty and economic freedom has failed to eradicate poverty and has made terrible moral mistakes. What’s also true, though, is that these same countries have raised the standard of living for every individual within the country, from the poorest on up; has contributed wealth around the world; and has repented and remedied its moral mistakes.  (A useful primer on this is Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Ferguson.)

The contrary is true for countries of the kind Rensin envisions, with a beneficent government caring for every individual. Without exception, the promises of a managed economy have failed.  Invariably, and quickly, many more, rather than fewer, people end up mired in abysmal poverty, grinding despair, not to mention existential fear of ones own all-powerful government.  The standard of living for everyone in these countries has gone down. There isn’t one communist country that doesn’t support Winston Churchill’s justly famous observation that “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.  Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery” (emphasis mine).

Worse, in every one of these socialist countries, as the promises failed and the people took notice of those failures, the governments did something that no magnate or corporation could ever do and on a scale so vast even now it’s hard to comprehend: they silenced, tortured, imprisoned, and executed people who failed to be adequately grateful for the state’s vision of “liberty.”  This is true whether one speaks of Soviet Gulags, Nazi and North Korean concentration camps, Chinese reeducation camps, or Cuban prisons.  In each case, people were sent there, not for committing crimes against their fellow citizens (assault, murder, robbery), but for being offensive to the state, sometimes by what they said, sometimes by what they did, and sometimes just by existing.

I can already hear Rensin saying that my statements only apply to the Soviet Union, Communist China, Cuba, Nazi Germany, East Germany, North Korea, and other “communist” countries, but are untrue when it comes to socialized Europe. Again, he would be wrong. Because Europe went for soft socialism, not hard, and because America supported it economically for decades during the Cold War, it’s decline has been the slow-mo version of hardcore socialist states.

When the Cold War collapsed, and America’s dollars dried up, Europe’s economy slowly disappeared. Living standards across Europe are falling, not rising. Moreover, the petty tyranny of the EU is ramping up. Free speech is increasingly verboten in England, the home of free speech; France is reliving the Dreyfus affair with virulent antisemitism rising to the fore; Greece is in social and economic free fall; Spain is broke; and on and on. Norway still does socialism successfully, but that’s primarily because it’s floating on a sea of the Beverly Hillbillies’ famous “black gold.” It’s easy to be socialist when you have an unending stream of one of the world’s most valuable commodities.  And of course, Norway is back away from socialism as fast as it can.

This post started with Jonah Goldberg, and it’s going to end with him too. His opinion piece today at the National Review notes that, while Allan Bloom once wrote about the “closing of the American mind,” that’s no longer true.  The American mind has stopped closing; instead, it’s closed, very tightly.  On college campuses throughout America — the ones that are training the Emmett Rensin’s who are let loose in newspapers and magazines — the door has shut firmly and definitively on wisdom, general knowledge, historical understanding, and analytical thinking.  We are in an intellectual dark age as stultifying and dangerous as the one that swept through Europe with Rome’s collapse and that only slowly lifted in the eight centuries thereafter.

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  • Ymarsakar

    Mind? What MIND? Zombies Do Not Have Brains, yet alone Thought.

  • MikeR

    The Left has been subverting our educational system for years now.  Most institution of higher learning and their staffs live in a socialist bubble and produce citizens like Rensin –  firmly indoctrinated into the cult.

  • Libby

     A “political activist and essayist living in Chicago,” huh?
    I’m going to make a wild guess that this young fellow has never had a real job prior to graduating college. And by “real job” I mean one where he had set hours, and that required some sort of physical labor (paper route, waiter, retail, etc.) and a tangible, measurable deliverable. Bet he only did unpaid internships/non-profit type stuff.

    • lee

      Or one after graduating from college. Unless you consider “political activist and essayist” a real job.

      • Libby

        Heh, agreed! Emmett just sounds like someone who has spent his entire life working hard at being the best Emmett he can be, free from the burden of having to earn his keep or doing menial tasks at someone else’s direction. I have a cousin who has spent his whole life focused on bettering himself, thanks to a trust fund and inheritance. He is rabidly Left and believes he knows more about how the world works than the rest of us. He and Emmett would get along famously.

  • mdgarnett

    You reference one of my favorite books.  To those who don’t know of Allan Bloom, look him up on the Internet – his back story is quite interesting.  Bloom was gay, conservative by today’s standards (though he denied being conservative and said he was misunderstood) and was fiercely attacked for his book.  I also recommend Saul Bellow’s novel, Ravelstein, which is supposedly based on his friend Bloom.
    As for your final comment re Rome:  it is very trendy to compare our current state to Rome but I think it is valid on many levels.  As someone who likes your writing, I’d welcome an elaboration on the comparison if you would be inclined to write it.   (Late Republic political comparisons in particular)
    thanks for a very good post.

  • MacG

    More lowest common denominator thinking.  You can’t have better healthcare than me IT’S NOT FAIR! So you get the same aspirin that I do. 
    I think the problem is that they must have heard Regan saying that a “rising tide lifts all boats” and rising tides, as we all know, is caused by GLOBAL WARMING!!!! CAST ABOUT THE ENDANGERED RED HERRINGS!
    Well, <i>maybe<i/> they are not that single minded but like their climate models they lack certain data about the human condition leaving their computations to match their worldview.

  • JKB

    I disagree that we are entering the intellectual dark ages.  Knowledge is not trapped anymore.  It is free.  We really have to get passed this idea that it resides at the universities.  Sure there were some people  supported by others to indulge their whims.  But that was a good gig and has been taken over by those who have little more than whimsy.  For near 200 years, all the universities had was collections of books.  Those books are now out in the open.  Free to untold numbers of people across the world.  We can’t conceive of the advances that will happen now that the knowledge can be embraced without the conditioning.  Those who until very recently had no access to the knowledge.
    True, America’s upper middle class brats are being despoiled.  But as Megan McCardle wrote recently, most of them are automatons, terrified to take a chance lest they end up without a perfect score and their life in ruins.  
    I take solace in the fact that the universities in England became hidebound in the 17th century, but that left great men outside of the mediocrity.  They went to alternative universities, came from the trades, they transformed mankind while the university types lamented the end of knowledge, that all to be known was explained.  While the Oxbridge gazed upon their navels, the world steamed right by them.  

  • Charles Martel

    Bravo, JKB. I think you’re spot on with your observation about the liberation of knowledge from the moribund confines of the academy. The slo-mo wreck of so-called higher education is way underway on several fronts: The awarding of virtually useless degrees; rampant grade inflation; the oppression of male students; the racism of affirmative action; high student debt; crappy “scholarship” that simply parrots reactionary Marxist cliches; administrative bloat; the corruption of college athletics.
    Truly free and curious minds don’t need “higher education” anymore—at least in the stultifying, hidebound form that it is now offered. Book, think hard before sending your kids to the kind of indoctrination factory that your husband so dearly loves.

  • Ymarsakar

    The internet will only be free for a generation or two. I foresee that once the necessary hardware architecture is designed and researched, information will no longer be free. Right now they are focusing in on controlling people via the sugar daddy approach and the harness of human instinct/emotions. Next, will be the full control of information and the mind.
    The Left will pull the trigger, once the time is right. Even if it isn’t done in the US, the Left has plenty of bases in the world, parasites to various hosts.

    • JKB

      Can’t stop the signal.  The most controlling organization in the world is roiling these days because their “secrets” are out there.  
      What we should do is to revive the lost art of  study.  The universities used to teach it by accident, as did the K-12.  Sadly, these days, those in teaching positions don’t themselves understand the difference between gameshow education and real contemplation.  Students learn what is emphasized and right now, “education” increasingly emphasizes isolated fact regurgitation instead of thought about those points in context to find deeper meaning.  

  • Caped Crusader

    Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.
    — George Orwell (via philosophyandthearts)

  • MikeR

    Caped Crusader.  Well put.  Ol George did know what he was talking about.  The incessant pounding from the political left and the complicit media has taken its toll on our culture.

  • jj

    I’ll agree that the knowledge is out there, JKB and Martel – but how many people have any interest in accessing it?    Intellectual curiosity is a fire that has to be stoked at an early age, otherwise it goes out.  Schools are supposed to do it.  Do they?  We live in a world with more and more and more books available, and fewer and fewer and fewer readers.  The knowledge is out there, sure, but it isn’t going to fly into your head: you’re going to have to expend a little effort to get it there.  This is a nation of 315 million people; if a book sells 25,000 copies that qualifies it as a best-seller. 
    I don’t think we’re “entering the intellectual dark ages” either: I think we’re squarely in the middle of them.  Stop a moment and devote some thought to how many people you encounter during the day – any day – who really don’t know anything.  It’s disheartening.

    • JKB

      The knowledge is reaching people it didn’t before.  I’m unconcerned for the most part about over indulged upper middle class kids matriculating at famous colleges.   I wonder what the kid in Africa or Mongolia will do.  Sure we let the credentialed stilted minds of academia vote, but what will come isn’t in some magazine college rating system.  
      Surely, you’ve been around kids before they entered school?  That is intellectual curiosity unbound.  School should help them organize that, but what we pass off as education more and more induces “school helplessness”.  The student loses their curiosity and depends on the hand-feeding from the teacher.  School occupies more and more of a kids time both in time served and homework, leaving little time for them to pursue intellectual curiosity.  A fair number survive the sentence to school but many are institutionalized for the experience.  Look at McArdle’s post.  That 10th grader is damaged from her education experience.  Do you think she was so fearful of the new and challenging as a toddler?  
      But remember, in a world of the institutionalized, the free thinker appears insane.  They are definitely a threat to the establishment that profits from the institutionalized mindset.  Khan Academy is going to do wonders for the “bad” kids.  They can resist the institutionalization and still acquire the knowledge and skills away from the keepers.  
      We live in exciting times.

      • Ymarsakar

        No free thinking academy can continue to exist if the government takes a cut of the money.
        Without the funding, these organizations cannot continue to operate. It will take some time before governments can have the physical power to enforce taxation on the internet. And some more time after that, to be able to control the internet economy the way they do with healthcare today. But there’s nothing being produced out of free thought that can counter this corruption.

  • Charles Martel

    It is almost always a small, determined group of people that upsets the civilizational apple cart. It happened when Greece faced off against Persia, and when Renaissance minds began questioning the medieval order, and when the Bolsheviks mounted their coup.
    It’s certainly happening now, as JKB points out. But the problem is that modern statist reactionaries now have awesome technological powers with which to cut down outliers and freethinkers. While it’s not as physically dangerous to be a dissident now as it was in, say, Ancient Rome or Leninist Russia, today it is socially and psychologically dangerous to run afoul of the DOJ, IRS, college administration, politically cowed-and-correct crony corporation.
    Psychopath Bill Ayers might yet achieve his goal of establishing an American gulag. But there is something to consider that gives pause to the more reality-oriented people on the left: At least 90 million Americans are armed, and large elements of our military remain patriots. If you go too far with chopping down the blades of grass that grow too high, you just might set off a prairie fire.

    • Ymarsakar

      The problem is that the Left’s alliance with the Islamic Jihad means that they’ll be able to smuggle in nukes, while we do the civil war. That’s not going to end well, for either side.

  • sabawa

    What’s to stop Rensin from living in the glory days of sharing all with all?  I hear the left decrying the corrupt capitalists and right wingers for their greed and selfishness but I don’t see them parting with their precious funds.  Go ahead.  It’s fine with me.  Perhaps you’ll feel better.

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  • Gringo

    I take solace in the fact that the universities in England became hidebound in the 17th century, but that left great men outside of the mediocrity.  They went to alternative universities, came from the trades, they transformed mankind while the university types lamented the end of knowledge, that all to be known was explained.
     Excellent point. C.D. Darlington, in The Evolution of Man and Society, points out that after the Restoration, Oxbridge was reserved for professed members of the Anglican Church. He also points out that nearly all of the innovators in English  science and engineering from the 17th-19th centuries were religious Dissidents- who were forbidden entry to Oxbridge if they openly professed their religion. A few, such as Isaac Newton did dissimulate their religious views in order to be affiliated with Oxbridge, but most did not.
    Result: the scientific and engineering advancements of the 17th-19th centuries came about without any input from Oxbridge, which instead became a training ground for clergymen and government bureaucrats.

  • David Foster

    Gringo..”(Darlington)  also points out that nearly all of the innovators in English  science and engineering from the 17th-19th centuries were religious Dissidents- who were forbidden entry to Oxbridge if they openly professed their religion. ”
    D S Cardwell, on the emergence of the British cotton-processing industry:
    The early leaders were often Dissenters who were excluded from the fruits–some might say the corruptions–of office in State and Establishment. They were therefore free to devote themselves to business as their sole professional aim while the laws of England assured them their property and the profits their genius earned.
    See my post Innovation and Social Structure and the ensuing comment thread.

    • JKB

      William  Rosen’s ‘The Most Powerful Idea in the World’ lays out a pretty good argument for the industrial revolution happened in England and not places like France.  He tracks the invention of the steam engine as his trail but the most powerful idea was the right to profit from your idea, i.e., Patents.  That is why the steam engine is a decidedly English speaking world invention (no other culture independently invented all the parts).  
      That doesn’t mean scientific advancement didn’t happen elsewhere, but, in those places invention was either dependent upon the dabbling of the wealthy or kept secret, as it was in England before the Case of the Monopolies.  To me, one could say Elizabeth I is the mother of invention by her decision to let that case to challenge her monopoly grants.  The possibility to profit from your ideas and invention brought many of the world’s inventors to English speaking shores where their industry created an industrial revolution.  

      • Ymarsakar

        Without the Industrial Revolution, many of the Leftist regimes in history could not have been granted power via their promises of progress and industrial wealth. Both Lenin and Mao used anti traditional or anti agrarian methods to break the social classes and reconstitute things in their own image.
        Wherever there is light, there is darkness. The greater the light, the greater the darkness. The more progress people make, ultimately the greater and more massive evils they produce. Technological progress is only beneficial and hopeful in the short term, for individuals. Rarely are the inventors the ones capable of controlling what their inventions will be used for in centuries.

  • David Foster

    JKB…also, though, Elizabeth I was very unsupportive of the inventor of a knitting machine, being concerned about the unemployment she thought it would create.
    Here is a letter from the inventor of that machine, William Lee, which was somehow caught in a time warp.  LINK

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