Do Not Be Conformed

Two weeks ago in this space (“Reflections on the Revolution in America”), I wondered if Americans are able any longer to resist change – even transformational change.

Time will tell.

In college, I heard Marshall McLuhan give a lecture about media, during which he said something I’ve not forgotten: “There is no inevitability as long as there’s a willingness to change.”

I take from this (McLuhan was a devout Catholic) the possibility that what now seems an unstoppable swing away from natural law-based morality may actually be arrested or even reversed. It’s the whole pendulum thing – although it’s going to be very, very difficult to undo, for instance, the damage done to traditional marriage.

(I wonder what effect campaigns to pass Constitutional amendments banning same-sex “marriage” and abortion would have on the political climate in the United States? Not that I think such amendments could actually be ratified, but the politics would be extremely nasty. Not that nastiness is necessarily a reason to avoid doing the right thing. Hadley Arkes will address this here tomorrow.)

We’d have victories sufficient to the day if we could simply find the political will and workable procedures to eliminate taxpayer funding of abortion providers, eliminate the HHS mandates, and adopt robust protections of religious liberty.

But such optimism as I can muster about these things is tempered by reflection on how we got to this point in the first place. The reason, I think, is that the nation has lately been swept up in a series of “preference cascades,” originally understood as the process by which individuals discover (once by rumor, now via media) that their private beliefs are shared by others, at which point the private becomes public. (Timur Kuran wrote a book about it in the mid-90s: Private Truths, Public Lies.)

These days, it works not only in giving people encouragement to be more open about what they already believe; it also moves other people to believe what they had not previously believed. Preference cascades have been among the reasons some governments have fallen and why moral-cultural limits have been obliterated.

Not quite an intellectual fad, but not far from it either; “fad” being an abbreviation of fiddle-faddle.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2011
Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2001

“Preference cascade” may be an evolved adaptation of the theory of rising expectations that goes back at least to Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville noted that the French Revolution had first sparked in areas where reforms encouraged people to believe their lives were improving, but created incendiary reaction when said reforms stalled. A similar case has been made concerning the Russian Revolution.

But whereas the 1789 and 1917 revolutions required thousands of protesting people in the streets (and which was the case more recently with the Fall of Communism and the Arab Spring), the latest preference cascades have depended more upon media, especially social media. The upheavals in the old Soviet empire were media-driven to an extent (West German TV was seen in the East; Boris Yeltsin had a sat phone). The Arab Spring was very much a Twitterevolt – never mind that the results of those uprisings have not gone as many hoped.

Toppling any evolved, established order always results in unintended consequences. When a preference cascade sweeps through time and space today, it often carries along aspirations and sensibilities not based in the organizational expectations of any revolutionary cadre and may lead to outcomes far from those intended. “Gay” activists may discover down the road that their New Order descends into some old chaos.

These cascades also create a climate of intolerance: a kind of rolling (even steamrolling) peer pressure; a soft totalitarianism by which the formerly unthinkable becomes a new orthodoxy, and heterodox opinion (the former – now displaced – orthodoxy) is suppressed.

Arthur Milikh has recently written about Tocqueville’s fear that majoritarian democracy could lapse into the same despotism practiced by royal tyrants.

Despots of the past tyrannized through blood and iron. But the new breed of democratic despotism [quoting Tocqueville] “does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul.”

But is it the majority that is ruling us today? Or is it more what the socialist scholar C. Wright Mills called the “power elite”? Except, of course, that the elite he imagined was closer to Ike’s military-industrial complex, whereas it seems the case today that we are being herded into these dark alleys by an academic-media elite, aided and abetted by some in the political and judicial classes.

You might think that in a religious nation, preference cascades such as led to approval of abortion and same-sex “marriage” would have been short-circuited by steadfast faithful, but this underestimates the extent to which, even among those who energetically self-identify as Christian, “believers” are both ignorant of the religion they profess and anyway see it as just one among many personal characteristics to be held in balance with other phenomena in life: reality, family, work, media, fantasy. And conformity.

These are somewhat preliminary, half-baked thoughts. If you’re curious about some information more fully cooked, you might find the graphs at the page linked to here pretty stunning: This Is How Fast America Changes Its Mind

One thing is sure. We all – and this includes deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops – need to recall the words of Paul (Romans 12:2): “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.