Technical progress is often associated with moral and political regress, a theme as ancient as Hesiod’s seventh-century b.c. poem Works and Days.
In 200 b.c., not a male could vote freely in Hellenistic Greece, but the so-called Antikythera analogue computer could predict astronomical cycles in a way unimaginable 250 years earlier in Periclean Athens.
The uncanny ability to craft the great dome of Hagia Sophia did not imply that the people of Constantinople in a.d. 537 had retained many freedoms from the impoverished Roman Republic of 700 years earlier.
We are in such a period of rapid breakthroughs in technology, consumerism, and scientific advancement — equally matched by cultural, social, and political ruin.
Take the question of free speech. Fifty years ago leftist student activists — without iPads and Facebook pages — fought for “free speech areas” in university plazas where they could voice unpopular and even uncouth expression.
We may be able to communicate in a nanosecond and send photo images in real time on our cell phones, but someone who was a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s would today be shocked that there is less free speech on campus than a half-century ago — unless he is a tenured dean who helped to implement the censorship he once opposed.
If a junior faculty member were to write a paper on the racialist undertones of Black Lives Matter, the lack of factual evidence for a campus rape epidemic, or the connection between radical Islam and terrorism, he would likely have to struggle for tenure.
It is not just that a John Ford western could not pass current PC muster, but even modernist raunchy satire such as the 1980s TV hits In Living Color and Married with Children, or the comic career of a Teri Garr or Victoria Jackson, or a movie like True Lies simply could not pass today’s Ministry of Truth.
Free-speech activists, homosexual-rights advocates, feminists, and democracy reformers all privately accept that they are as free to attack the fundamentalism of the Christian Right as they are in real danger — both to their persons and to their careers — should they question Koranic support for widespread current Muslim discrimination against women, gays, and religious reformers. Political correctness has become synonymous with either cowardice or careerism — or both. We damn “Islamophobia” to win social brownie points, but we tune out when there is mention of honor killings or female circumcision. Cheap silence is always preferable to principled but risky dissent.
Orwell was wrong only on his dates. Had he entitled his novel 2016, we would immediately have recognized his parallels to the present.
Orwell was wrong only on his dates. Had he entitled his novel 2016, we would immediately have recognized his parallels to the present “overseas contingency operations,” “violent extremism,” “undocumented immigrants,” and “man-caused disasters.” The campus diversity czar is our Big Brother. Imagining that all lives matter is a thought crime. Due process on a campus today is counter-revolutionary, and proper sexual congress among students is to be scripted as a politically correct act, as if we were all Orwell’s Winston Smith and Julia. Is the Junior Anti-Sex League with its red sashes far behind?
Even as the president and his current and previous attorneys general have been African-American, race relations nonetheless are regressing to the polarized days of the 1950s. Black Lives Matter organizers now order journalists to separate by race, with whites to follow at the back of a demonstration. On campus, modern students are emulating the old University of Alabama, with Claremont undergraduates openly advertising that they do not wish to room with someone of a different race. Will solicitations for “European-American” roommates be far behind?
Neither social censure nor media attention focuses on such politically correct segregation. A “safe space” on campus is a euphemism for dividing up campus life by the color of one’s skin; are separate water fountains next? Any college president who addressed an incoming class with, “Welcome, students. I hope we can fully integrate into a unified student body, in which race and gender become incidental, not essential, to our common human characters” would be summarily fired or sent on a sabbatical to a reeducation camp to unlearn crimes of cultural appropriation and assimilationist genocide. Qualification for affirmative-action status rests on guidance from the old Confederacy’s 1/16, “one drop” rule.
Emblematic of the current racial nihilism was the recent fatal shooting in Milwaukee of an African-American suspect at a traffic stop (who was armed with a stolen automatic weapon, and who had 13 prior arrests) by an African-American police officer (in a city whose sheriff is African-Americans) — leading to looting and mini-riots, in which whites were targeted by their race. “Poor” people, who said they were deprived, coordinated their looting and rioting on expensive smart phones and cool social media. Immediately prior to the shooting, several African-Americans were shot by other African-Americans — without commensurate violence or even much news coverage.
Certain topics are not just taboo, but also grounds for career-ending charges of racism, such as discussion of the astronomical rates of violent crime among young African-American males or the epidemic of type-2 diabetes and chronic obesity among recent immigrants from Mexico. Just as in our dark past, when Confederate states and local jurisdictions nullified federal laws on racial grounds, so too modern “sanctuary cities” declare themselves exempt from federal immigration statutes, at least in the case of Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. A visiting Australian neurologist who overstays his visa will eventually be in trouble at airport passport control; had he entered the U.S. by crossing its southern border illegally and staying in Los Angeles, he would likely have been exempt.
At the turn of the last century, “trust busters” of the progressive movement made the argument that the free market was imperiled by crony capitalists, who had, with government collusion, vertically integrated enormous conglomerates and monopolies, strangling free commerce and competition in the steel, oil, and railroad industries. Central to the muckrakers’ advocacy was that the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Stanfords, and Carnegies were illiberal obstacles to egalitarianism and fairness — in other words, to the aspirations of the “little guy.”
Compare that to the scene today, with the record-setting monopolies of the founders of Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Internet grandees like Mark Zuckerberg are every bit as opulent in today’s dollars, and live as often in gated estates as did the now derided robber barons of the past — and are no less unethical. They certainly share the same disdain for the working middle classes, as they seek to import cheap foreign tech labor. Yet at least Rockefeller gave us oil, and Carnegie steel; it is hard to calibrate exactly how the country benefits from millions of 20-somethings glued to their Facebook pages.
Google massages its daily news fare to reflect liberal biases. Facebook censures far more social media on the right than on the left. Twitter closes down those it arbitrarily deems incorrect. The only difference is that in the Gilded Age, plutocrats preached the doctrines of self-reliance and hard work, professing that others could follow their golden paths. Today’s versions mouth progressive bromides on the assurance that they easily have the money and influence to navigate around the bothersome concrete ramifications of their own ideological boilerplate. None of them want their families to live in the world that is the logical result of their abstract and guilt-ridden theories.
As a result of liberal hyper-wealth, the new trusts are given veritable media and political passes on their embrace of practices once seen as illiberal and self-serving, like excessive electronic monitoring of our daily lives, offshoring and outsourcing wealth, monopolizing, and giving lavishly to candidates for public office to win exemption from regulations and tax law. Just because a master of the universe wears jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt and tips his hat to Solyndra, sanctuary cities, or Black Lives Matter, that does not mean that his telos is any different from that of a Gilded Age monopolist. Hillary is Wall Street’s hedge-fund heroine; she resonates with Big Money in a way not seen since Warren G. Harding.
Disruptions in the free market and absolute control of business activities of a sort that once galvanized Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair are now deemed fine if they further a liberal agenda. George Soros has proved a lifelong financial octopus, but he has invested in liberal toadies and so earned adulation instead of muckraking. Unfortunately for Ford and Rockefeller, their foundations were hijacked by liberals after their deaths, and so they are remembered as enemies of the people.
Alcohol and tobacco producers, gun manufacturers, and car companies are routinely sued if their products are seen as responsible, even when used wrongly, for spiking injuries and death. Not so smart phones and social media. One of the greatest causes of traffic accidents today is the ubiquitous custom of texting while driving, as dangerous as using drugs or drink — and a logical end use of a smart device.
Yet for some reason, Silicon Valley’s products are deemed exempt from liberal notions of consumer liability, although it might be as easy for a nanny-state regulator to insert a motion-activated shut-off device in a smart phone as it is to install a trigger lock on a gun or to reduce the tar content of a cigarette. It is a toss-up as to which is the more deleterious to teenagers’ health: three daily cigarettes, or six hours on the sofa addicted to a video-game console, or walking in a busy crosswalk hypnotized by a smart-phone screen.
We should not delude ourselves that because a cocooned scientific elite has made startling gains in consumerism and technology, that therefore we the public are any freer, more socially and politically advanced, or somehow more ethical human beings.
More often material progress masks social regression, as we can do more bad things more impressively and more quickly than ever before — and then seek more sophisticated and contextualized exemptions. The novelist Petronius in his Satyricon relates something akin to a new sort of unbreakable glass, along with abject culinary and sexual decadence.
The public today is more wired and less knowledgeable than ever before; it talks more about diversity, fairness, and equality but practices far more tribal and racial discrimination and chauvinism.
“Speaking truth to power” is a buzz phrase in an age of far less freedom of expression and tolerance of dissenting views. We are going backward at warp speed.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.