Something To Look Forward To

Published September 21, 2021

Public Discourse

I’ve been a science fiction fan for many years. But I’ve always had a special affection for a novel by H.G. Wells: The Time Machine (wherein a man travels to the distant future). As a much younger person, I wrote a memo to myself with some thoughts about the Wells story, hoping one day to do an article about it, or better yet, to write my own sequel to it.

I went digging for that ancient memo in my files last week. And I did find a memo to myself. But this one, not quite so old, occasionally shared, and far from science fiction, had the title Man, Deconstructed. Its content, in six simple points, was this:

One: The American Founders regarded a free press as a key pillar to the survival of ordered liberty. Precisely because of this freedom, and from the country’s very beginning, this has resulted in a cocktail of dignity and bigotry, intelligence and vulgarity, in America’s news and entertainment outlets.

Two: As Daniel Boorstin (in The Image) and many others have noted, technological changes in America’s mass media have had large, unintended social consequences by changing the tools and degrading the “language” of public discourse, and therefore the way Americans think, feel, and choose. To put it another way, America was created and sustained by a print culture. It’s not at all clear that it can survive in recognizable form in a technologically transformed world.

Three: The problem has been compounded by a decline in attention spans and popular print literacy, the centralization of media ownership, rising costs and the need for profit, a decline in time and resources available to journalists, and the erosion of professionalism and ideological detachment in newsrooms. As a result, many citizens experience reality from inside a media cocoon of entertainment, distractions, and selective, simplified news, while vast amounts of information and context go unreported.

Four: As the Founders noted many times, American democracy presumes an educated and carefully reasoning citizenry—a citizenry of moral agents with free will, and the maturity and knowledge to exercise it; a people of religious faith and the ethical behaviors it produces.

Five: Yet American students now routinely fail to compete with students from other countries in a variety of global comparisons. And American public education K–12 is not merely underperforming. It also resists competition, fights government assistance to alternative educational systems, and is frequently burdened with problematic social and educational theories that work against the traditional goals of education, and ignore or circumvent the will of parents. American secular higher education is plagued with overspecialization of focus and ideological bias against the country’s founding conception of humanity: men and women with free will and natural rights, guaranteed not by consensus but by a Creator. And Catholic higher education has generally failed to present a compelling alternative.

Six: Near the heart of the deficiencies in American education is our over-reliance on social science and its presumption of man as an object—man as an interesting specimen who is the source of his own beliefs and values. Obviously, social science has its legitimate uses. But as Neil Postman and others have argued, social science is not really a science at all; it’s a form of moral theology. And as Christopher Lasch (e.g., in Haven in a Heartless World) and others have shown, the hostility of many social scientists to traditional forms of marriage and family has played a major role in helping to erode those institutions over the past seventy-five years. The result is that modern social science, in concert with the hard sciences, quite literally deconstructs the idea of “man” and what being “human” means. And the lesson, to put it in traditional Christian terms, is simply this: Reason without faith inevitably eats itself and the human persons it claims to serve.

I wrote that memo some twenty years ago, and the nation it described still exists. There does remain, if mainly in flyover country, “a citizenry of moral agents with free will, and the maturity and knowledge to exercise it; a people of religious faith and the ethical behaviors it produces.” That’s the good news.

Here’s the other news. On the same morning that I unearthed the memo above, the following message popped up on one of my Reddit feeds; a heartfelt appeal to those many millions of Americans now hooked unblinkingly to the internet:

Hi everyone! I’m looking for a natural sperm donor meeting these requirements:

Age 16-23

Never used any prescription or illicit drugs

Never drank except for communiunm [sic]

Blond or light brown hair, not overweight, and comes from a 75%+ American background

Agrees to forfeit all parental rights at time of birth

No payment will be collected during any natural “breeding” sessions, however regular child support payments in the amount 20% of your income will be expected within the first month of birth. You will remain completely anonymous throughout the child’s 18 years of life, and you would be expected to maintain the same level of anonymity with anyone around you.

Please reach out to me through Messenger for more information. Thank you!

A joke? Maybe. But given the times, don’t bet on it.

What to make of such a world and the creatures in it?

My thoughts turn again these days to The Time Machine. What the hero of the story finds, 800,000 years in the future, is a paradise of luxury, pleasure, and beautiful (if witless) human descendants, the Eloi. The experts that run the place, who keep the machinery of the good times rolling, are the posthuman Morlocks, who live underground. One of the disagreeable facts about members of every elite modern leadership class—take the Boston to Washington corridor, for example—is that they tend to nibble, metaphorically, on the people they lead. The Morlocks are more direct. They actually eat the Eloi. In a sense, of course, this is simply a more honest form of governance: an unambiguous, low-complexity, ecologically responsible closed loop.

Something to look forward to.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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