One by One, or Nothing

It is possible for individuals to learn from experience. Years have passed since I put my hand on a hot stove plate, and although I must have made tea tens of thousand times since, I have never repeated that mistake.

From an experience in childhood, I also learned not to attempt certain vertical cliffs, even if they looked suitable for climbing. Also, not to throw rocks straight up into trees.

My Latin remains rusty; it may be rusting out. My Greek has been shrinking to an alphabet. I can no longer do Calculus, either. But my mastery of stove plates is state-of-the-art, and my old-found fear of heights continues to serve me.

Gentle reader should know that if I fall off my balconata, I was almost certainly pushed.

Not so for society.

True, among its individuals there are memories quite indelible. But society only learns secondhand.

That violent mobs and riots are a bad idea, I also learned young from hard experience. Neither I nor the adult trying to rescue me enjoyed it.

Once I even thought better of crossing a firing range, though it offered a shortcut for my walk to school. The moment I detected gunshot whizzing by, towards targets on the other side of me, I thought again. On another outing to a small aerodrome, I was able to grasp the disadvantages of approaching twirling airplane propellers.

By now, gentle reader will note, I have assembled a large inventory of things not to do, which has survived many months of the Batflu lockdown. For I remember things I knew in March.

This is not the case with the City of New York, although its citizens would appear to be human individuals. This once crime-infested megalopolis was “cleaned up” by its only Republican mayor in many decades. He won a landslide re-election.

When a real catastrophe struck, almost nineteen years ago, New York was up to it. Around the world. we tremendously admired the city and its responses; the heroism not only of its mayor but of firemen, police, even office workers.

But in the background of this story was heroism of another kind. Often under compulsion, but also often not, the people themselves had changed their attitudes. It was as if the whole city had rejoined America. And as if, in a poignant moment of tragedy, America had welcomed her back.

And here we are, all these years later. There are still individuals who remember, but “society” has forgotten what it once learned. New York free-falls into her older ways, as a national disgrace under “commie,” race-baiting politicians. The current mayor is even an anti-Semite.

Generally speaking, societies never learn. I write from Canada where there are so many examples I could bore my reader into pleading sobs.

Not only on the high political plane (where most of the individuals are contemptible) but at the lowest level, such virtues as were once commonplace have disappeared without trace. It becomes hard to explain, let alone defend, what isn’t anymore.

Responsibility – I will stick to the obvious here – is something that an individual may acquire, with the help of good parents, &c. And the notion of taking responsibility, not only for oneself but in the web of one’s surroundings, has never been unknown.

By contrast, “collective” responsibility is garbage. The belief in “social action,” except as a description of a mob, is among the most ludicrous ideas that guide us. Even a mob requires individual, knowingly evil agents, to be formed.

This applies, squared, to Twitter and Facebook. The ugly events that characterize such “social media” do not happen of themselves. Each must start somewhere. Those devils-in-human-flesh that start them could, in most cases, be easily found out; and might be punished were they not mistaken for heroes.

And the natural alliance between ignorance, and malice, could be easily understood. That this does not discourage the great mass of participants might go without saying. They are along for the ride and, like participants in any mob, become constantly less responsible for their behavior. I advise gentle reader to get out while he can.

Some of my rightwing friends are appalled that, for instance, the Bank of America pledged a billion dollars to Black Lives Matter causes, to promote various failed schemes against “racial inequality.” All are known to be counter-productive, and even the interests of their shareholders are undermined.

Branches of that bank and many rivals have been stormed in New York, and many other cities, in the course of the last few weeks. It is an open question whether the rioters even know that they have been handsomely rewarded by the banks themselves for their criminal acts.

Capitalists disunite!

I try to explain to friends that the Bank of America is not a thinking being. It is just as much a collective as the government of Venezuela, except with a little more foresight when it comes to making money. This, too, is not the product of a collective intellect, but of the imposed will of individual executives and the compatible interests of those who work for them.

Greed and stupidity will eventually bring them down, but these are background features of the human condition. Even greed and stupidity require the action of human wills.

My point ought to be plain enough, to anyone in the habit of looking around; and what follows from it should likewise be very clear. A society “advances” through the cultivation of wisdom in its members. Responsibility is inculcated, not collectively, but one person at a time.

This can be known with only a little brain-work. “Collective” teaching can only be a form of indoctrination. It can only produce a species of lab rat, never full human beings.

The task before us is to re-Christianize America. It can be done ONLY one person at a time.


*Image: The Blind Leading the Blind by Cornelis Massijs, c. 1550 [British Museum, London]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: