TCS Daily

Mass Men?

By Paul J. Cella - June 21, 2004 12:00 AM

It is interesting question to contemplate: does education, in the modern sense, make a man more or less susceptible to propaganda, which I define here as mendacious manipulation of the mind? The conventional answer is, of course, less -- but the more I think on that convention the less I am convinced by it.

Now by modern education I mean what is normally achieved at American universities by young men and women who achieve it without a clear sense of why it is, in itself, worth achieving, or what should be included in it. They might be better described as half-educated, which I do not mean as a term of derisive abuse. Everyone feels that they must matriculate through college, though few can put their finger on why. There is a vague but ubiquitous social pressure to arrive at this destination, with hardly any explanation of why the journey is worth taking or how a man might discern whether he has indeed arrived at it. And as a matter of plain fact, a striking number of serious men who decline to take the journey, end up nevertheless quite successful, often founding small businesses or entering into fruitful trades.

Resistance to propaganda consists in that sophistication of the intellect which allows one to develop in one's mind a mental picture which inoculates by providing an alternative. That is to say, I see an old Communist Party recruitment video, replete with joyous worker laboring in satisfaction at collective farms or factories -- and in my mind's eye I conceive of the soul-crushing Gulag, the Famine, and great men who, amidst starving fellow slaves, write their memoirs on toilet paper. By this image, the propaganda is checked, disarmed and defeated. The antidote to untruth is not skeptical disbelief, a purely negative impulse, but the affirmation of truth, an act of positive vigor.

Modern education generally provides only the negative impulse, the impulse to distrust: an unfledged cynicism full of bluster but empty of real substance. This impulse is peculiarly treacherous, and cunning propaganda will readily conquer it; for the skepticism inculcated by modern education will rarely include a distrust of one's own emotions (the doctrine of original sin having been discarded) which comprise precisely the organ at which propaganda aims its contrivances. Moreover, to leave discontented the human hunger for belief in something, to provide no armor against the poison of despair, is simply to make vulnerable young minds. It is no accident that Nazism began as a student movement in an age of disillusionment; or that the ideologists of what Burke so memorably labeled "armed doctrines," together the greatest of modern scourges, bled the ground red with the blood of young skeptics and freethinkers.

It may seem almost a truism to say that wicked ideas are not resisted by skepticism but by good ideas. But it is only a truism because it is a truth that is slipping from our complacent grasp. Skepticism by itself is aimless and emasculated; and it is only by the light of principle that skepticism is armed. It is precisely because I know courage to be a great virtue that I am skeptical of any attempt to denigrate courage practiced. It is because of the doctrine of original sin, which I see so plainly to be true in myself, that I know that power cannot be trusted in human hands. By the light of doctrine, of principle, the world is illuminated; and skepticism is, if I may use the phrase, baptized.

Another way of saying this is that imagination, or the cultivation of the rightly-ordered intellect, not skepticism, is the only effective treatment against propaganda. Modern education teaches an ersatz method of treatment, by encouraging students to distrust, not merely the chaff of propaganda, but everything of the wheat, including the grain that is truth. The intellect is not cultivated, it is deprecated; discernment is not encouraged, nor wisdom, nor discrimination. Indiscriminate scornfulness is instead favored. What appears and is marketed as prudence and worldliness is usually revealed as mere poltroonery. I wonder if it is not too much to say that most modern skepticism and relativism is merely a mask for cowardice. And the students of this pusillanimous philosophy have become a great host of bewildered minds, ambling about, confident of their hollowed out defenses, trusting in their dull rusting weapons.

It is fashionable in Conservative circles to vilify the universities; but as a fact this thing predates what passes today for Conservatism by a great many decades. In fact, most Conservatives today, for all their harangues against leftist academics, have largely bought into the philosophy from which this blunder I have just described descends. That philosophy goes by the name Utility; and they are with Locke and Bentham against men like John Henry Newman. Locke condemned the classical liberal education on the very familiar grounds that it failed the test of usefulness: "Can there be any thing more ridiculous than that a father should waste his money, and his son's time, in setting him to learn the Roman language?" Bentham enlarged the objection into an entire philosophy. And the modern critics of academe hardly offer a refutation. They denounce our schools on essentially utilitarian grounds; that is, they interrogate about practical results, but do not question ends. They charge the schools with failing to achieve their own ideals, and they expose many instances where professors replaced useful fact with useless cant. The universities are mistrusted because they are now failing to even lay a foundation of utilitarian information and method. This jeremiad, about the politicized university peddling ridiculous ideological gibberish, is all for the good as far as it goes; but it does not go to the heart of the matter. To the decline of the University, the critics of today answer that it does not pass the test of utility or practical usefulness. They do not answer as Newman did, resoundingly, that health of the intellect, like bodily health, is useful because it is good.

"'Good' indeed means one thing, and 'useful' means another; but I lay it down as a principle, which will save us a great deal of anxiety, that, though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful. Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific; it is not only good to the eye, but to the taste; it not only attracts us, but it communicates itself; it excites first our admiration and love, then our desire and our gratitude, and that, in proportion to its intenseness and fullness in particular instances. A great good will impart great good. If then the intellect is so excellent a portion of us, and its cultivation so excellent, it is not only beautiful, perfect, admirable, and noble in itself, but in a true and high sense it must be useful to the possessor and to all around him; not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world. I say then, if a liberal education be good, it must necessarily be useful too."

Newman thought, very sensibly, that universities ought to teach students what is good, true and beautiful. But the whole edifice of modern education, to which, by and large, most Conservatives have conceded, is debased by an utilitarian ethos that has cast such ideas from its compass; this, in part, because our shared ideas about the Good and the True have fragmented, leaving only worldly success as the standard. If men cannot agree on what is good, the unspoken argument goes, at least they can agree on what is profitable or successful.

Yet there is no utilitarian method of resistance against propaganda short of the cultivation of the intellect. There is no easy formula; no heuristic shortcut. That resistance must be active and individual; it cannot be passive and general. When people are told blithely that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal revived the American economy from the Depression, they must have ready in their minds the contrary fact that it did little of the sort; that, rather, it was not until the War began that any sustained revival occurred. But when they are elsewhere told that war is a positive good for a nation's economy, they must have ready the contrary fact that no enterprise dedicated to massive destruction can possibly be the cause of a real growth of wealth.* The work of propaganda is too multifarious, too subtle, too ubiquitous to suffer neat shorthand methods of inoculation. To defy this empire of influence requires vigorous, ably-trained intellects.

Now it is not my view that men have all become automatons beneath the crushing weight of modern propaganda; my vision is not so darkened by gloom, despite what some readers may conclude. But it is my contention that, in our media age, the approach to the minds of men is unimpeded by the older traditional barriers -- the family, the church or parish, the local community, etc. -- to a degree largely unparalleled in history. We are truly as mass society, and many of us are indeed Jose Ortega y Gasset's mass men. It follows that to resist propaganda is a responsibility left to the individual alone, largely unassisted by the once deep-rooted resources of community; and in our atomized society, I worry that individual minds are not being trained as they should be to repel the onslaught.

* Author's endnote: This latter is the famous "broken windows" theory, of which Henry Hazlitt observed that if adopted on a smaller scale would recommend the economic advantages of breaking random windows, that we might thus make business for some glazier, whose new business would multiply throughout the local economy. "The smashed window," Hazlitt writes is his remarkable little book Economics in One Lesson, "will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be . . . that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor."


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