May 4, 2015

CHARLES C.W. COOKE: LIVING ON BORROWED WISDOM.

If it sometimes feels as if the Bill of Rights is the only thing standing between the little guy and majoritarian tyranny, that’s possibly because it is. Americans may be freer than most, but it is often thanks to Supreme Court decisions and not to public opinion that America remains an outlier. It is because judges have stepped in that it is legal to burn the American flag in protest; that the Westboro Baptist Church may stage its execrable funeral demonstrations without fear of tort liability; that seditious speech may not be punished by the government; that disgusting videos may not be banned; that conservative Christians have been spared the indignities of the Obama administration’s contraception mandate; that collections of citizens may engage in political criticism; that parents caring for their children may not be forced by the state to join a union; that the residents of Washington, D.C., Chicago, and other “blue” cities may buy and own handguns for their protection; that the government is prohibited from searching cell phones without a warrant; and so on and so forth. Looking around the country — and examining the attitudes that prevail in Washington, D.C., on our college campuses, and in our hopelessly excitable media — can we honestly conclude that three-fourths of We the People would vote today to so restrain ourselves? We are living on borrowed wisdom.

Borrowed wisdom, indeed. That reminds me of this from Neal Stephenson’s In The Beginning Was The Command Line:

But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media.

Given the quality of our media, that’s probably a mistake.

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