The Herd of Independent Minds

Just about any gregarious conservative can register the same complaint: his friends of a liberal persuasion firmly believe in evolution, the hydrocarbon menace, technogenic global warming, and the virtues of green energy; they are convinced that racism is still rampant in America, that all the ills of inner-city schools can be cured by throwing more money at them, that criminals are actually victims of society, that voter fraud is a myth concocted by evil conservatives, that cheating at the polls is a sacred right of minorities, that illegal immigrants have committed no crime even though the word "illegal" is self-explanatory, that George Bush attacked Iraq at the behest of Halliburton to grab Iraqi oil...

In short, it is always the same mantra, demonstrably stupid and illogical, yet fervently espoused by all ardent liberals, irrespective of their social status or educational attainments.

How to account for it?  And why are liberals totally impervious to any counter-arguments -- on those rare occasions, that is, when they actually deign to listen to the contrary views?  The easiest explanation, of course, would be that those who persevere in beliefs glaringly devoid of any meaning or logic are just plain dumb.  But no, there are a lot of highly intelligent people -- in fact, almost the entirety of academia -- among the most vocal proponents of that idiocy.  So there must be some other explanation.  And as a matter of fact, there is.

The estimable Lee Harris, in his wonderful book The Suicide of Reason (Basic Books, 2007), explores the concept of the shaming code developed by Thomas Huxley.  Huxley, widely known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his ferocious defense of evolutionary theory, thought long and hard  about the inherent contradiction between  man's "innate tendency to self-assertion ... as the condition of victory in the struggle for existence and the obvious fact that in the struggle for survival loners are losers and individuals who banded together increased their chances of survival."  Upon reflection, Huxley came to the conclusion that the glue that holds together individuals in a group is the collective shaming code.

"It is this code that makes the members of the group feel as one," writes Lee Harris.  "They are disgusted, angered, delighted and shamed by the same things. The unanimity of their visceral response is what provides the powerful sense of collective identity. It makes them feel and think as a tribal Us, in contrast to those tribes who are not disgusted by what disgusts us, or made angry by what makes us angry, and who feel no shame at what we think of as shameful[.] ... A tribe that shares a powerful visceral code that inhibits the natural tendency of the individual to self-assertion will present a united front against its enemies."

Therein lies the explanation of the total information blockade built around the highly dubious figure of Barack Obama by the left-leaning salons and the mainstream media, even including the respectable conservative media.  It doesn't take unusual intelligence to see that the 44th president is a patent mediocrity with a totally contrived past.  And yet, crickets.  In 1600, Sir John Harrington penned these immortal words: "Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason."  In other words, treason attains respectability once it becomes a prevalent trait of the social mores, part and parcel of society's shaming code.  Today, it is the very same shaming code that causes polite society to rally around the "right-thinking" Obama and rebuff all attempts to expose him as the fraud that he is.  Even the late, utterly fearless Andrew Breitbart refused to wade into the controversy around Obama's birth certificate, advising his followers not to "go there," because he believed that it was unproductive and harmful to the conservative cause.  He understood the power of the shaming code.

But why is today's social and political scene dominated by the left, allowing it to impose its shaming code on society?  In the struggle for survival and supremacy, the advantage invariably goes to those who are more committed to maintaining and expanding their cultural traditions and who, because of the strength of that commitment, are united by the more powerful sense of group feeling.  Hence the liberals' domination of the public discourse.

Conservatives are usually reluctant ideological warriors.  For the most part, they want only to be left alone, to live and let live.  Having won a battle, they sigh with relief and waste no time beating their swords into ploughshares.  Not so the liberals.  They never tire or despair in their attempts to impose their views on all others; if they lose a fight, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and, undaunted, continue to slog toward their goals.  And in the struggle of opposites, the more fanatical will always win.

The vicious hatred of the left for its conservative opponents, belied by the liberals' constant protestations of their high-mindedness and tolerance, is also easily explainable in tribal terms.  It is the hatred of the righteous for the sinner, of the acolyte of the one true faith for the heretic.  Distilled to its essence, it is the hatred for "the other," of "us" for "them."  It is also the reason why liberals so liberally lie and cheat in their dealings with the conservative "enemy."  Everything is fair in love and war, and politics is war by other means.  Why are liberals infinitely understanding and patient toward the Islamic terrorists who threaten to destroy Western civilization?  Not only because the Islamofascists are of the third world and thus automatically endowed with virtue, but also because they offer no competition to the left for supremacy in American society, while conservatives do.

Today's left is every bit a tribe with its unthinking, fanatical devotion to the tribal code and animal fear of being ostracized.  The ancient Greeks believed banishment from the tribe to be the harshest of all punishments, worse than death.  Human nature has not changed, and the dread of being cast into outer darkness is still as strong as ever.  Sure, there are some exceptions, but they pay a heavy price for their bravery.  That's why so many bright people, eager to toe the line, join the fawning fandom of Obama; it's the price of admission to the club.  They may have some doubts in the beginning, but as time goes by, they undoubtedly lose their qualms.  The mask fuses with the face; they convince themselves of the truth of the cult and internalize its code, for to acknowledge the truth and rebel against the tribe is too painful and too dangerous.

Emerging from the questioning by the grand jury investigating President Clinton, Vernon Jordan loudly declared that he had "kept the faith" -- i.e., lied to save Bill Clinton's bacon.  Jordan's standing with the tribe was more important to him than the potential perjury charge.  The handlers assigned by John McCain to guide his inexperienced VP candidate, Sarah Palin, through the dangerous shoals of the 2008 presidential campaign chose to throw her to the media wolves.  They failed in their duty not due to incompetence, but because their primary concern was preserving their credentials with the Washington in-crowd, paying obeisance to the tribal values.  And so they blithely sacrificed their ward to safeguard their social status.

The astute Robert Heinlein in his 1961 best-selling SF novel Stranger in a Strange Land invented a special word, grok, to describe the phenomenon of tribal consciousness carried to its extreme: "Grok means ... to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience[.]"  The practical corollary of the dissolution of one's identity in groupthink is that all Republican outreach efforts are a total waste of time, money, and hope.  It's just too much trouble to open one's mind; how much more comfortable just to go on grokking in the tribal Nest!

Liberal intellectuals like to pose as bearers of the culture of reason, as fiercely independent thinkers.  But they are kidding themselves.  They have traded their intellectual primogeniture for the mess of pottage of group identity.  They are fully integrated into the socially and politically dominant tribe, sharing the same visceral likes and dislikes, the same shaming code.  Rather than being autonomous rational actors, they are merely an assemblage of cipher units marching in lock step to the tribal drumbeat.  Harold Rosenberg mordantly branded them the herd of independent minds.

Just about any gregarious conservative can register the same complaint: his friends of a liberal persuasion firmly believe in evolution, the hydrocarbon menace, technogenic global warming, and the virtues of green energy; they are convinced that racism is still rampant in America, that all the ills of inner-city schools can be cured by throwing more money at them, that criminals are actually victims of society, that voter fraud is a myth concocted by evil conservatives, that cheating at the polls is a sacred right of minorities, that illegal immigrants have committed no crime even though the word "illegal" is self-explanatory, that George Bush attacked Iraq at the behest of Halliburton to grab Iraqi oil...

In short, it is always the same mantra, demonstrably stupid and illogical, yet fervently espoused by all ardent liberals, irrespective of their social status or educational attainments.

How to account for it?  And why are liberals totally impervious to any counter-arguments -- on those rare occasions, that is, when they actually deign to listen to the contrary views?  The easiest explanation, of course, would be that those who persevere in beliefs glaringly devoid of any meaning or logic are just plain dumb.  But no, there are a lot of highly intelligent people -- in fact, almost the entirety of academia -- among the most vocal proponents of that idiocy.  So there must be some other explanation.  And as a matter of fact, there is.

The estimable Lee Harris, in his wonderful book The Suicide of Reason (Basic Books, 2007), explores the concept of the shaming code developed by Thomas Huxley.  Huxley, widely known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his ferocious defense of evolutionary theory, thought long and hard  about the inherent contradiction between  man's "innate tendency to self-assertion ... as the condition of victory in the struggle for existence and the obvious fact that in the struggle for survival loners are losers and individuals who banded together increased their chances of survival."  Upon reflection, Huxley came to the conclusion that the glue that holds together individuals in a group is the collective shaming code.

"It is this code that makes the members of the group feel as one," writes Lee Harris.  "They are disgusted, angered, delighted and shamed by the same things. The unanimity of their visceral response is what provides the powerful sense of collective identity. It makes them feel and think as a tribal Us, in contrast to those tribes who are not disgusted by what disgusts us, or made angry by what makes us angry, and who feel no shame at what we think of as shameful[.] ... A tribe that shares a powerful visceral code that inhibits the natural tendency of the individual to self-assertion will present a united front against its enemies."

Therein lies the explanation of the total information blockade built around the highly dubious figure of Barack Obama by the left-leaning salons and the mainstream media, even including the respectable conservative media.  It doesn't take unusual intelligence to see that the 44th president is a patent mediocrity with a totally contrived past.  And yet, crickets.  In 1600, Sir John Harrington penned these immortal words: "Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason."  In other words, treason attains respectability once it becomes a prevalent trait of the social mores, part and parcel of society's shaming code.  Today, it is the very same shaming code that causes polite society to rally around the "right-thinking" Obama and rebuff all attempts to expose him as the fraud that he is.  Even the late, utterly fearless Andrew Breitbart refused to wade into the controversy around Obama's birth certificate, advising his followers not to "go there," because he believed that it was unproductive and harmful to the conservative cause.  He understood the power of the shaming code.

But why is today's social and political scene dominated by the left, allowing it to impose its shaming code on society?  In the struggle for survival and supremacy, the advantage invariably goes to those who are more committed to maintaining and expanding their cultural traditions and who, because of the strength of that commitment, are united by the more powerful sense of group feeling.  Hence the liberals' domination of the public discourse.

Conservatives are usually reluctant ideological warriors.  For the most part, they want only to be left alone, to live and let live.  Having won a battle, they sigh with relief and waste no time beating their swords into ploughshares.  Not so the liberals.  They never tire or despair in their attempts to impose their views on all others; if they lose a fight, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and, undaunted, continue to slog toward their goals.  And in the struggle of opposites, the more fanatical will always win.

The vicious hatred of the left for its conservative opponents, belied by the liberals' constant protestations of their high-mindedness and tolerance, is also easily explainable in tribal terms.  It is the hatred of the righteous for the sinner, of the acolyte of the one true faith for the heretic.  Distilled to its essence, it is the hatred for "the other," of "us" for "them."  It is also the reason why liberals so liberally lie and cheat in their dealings with the conservative "enemy."  Everything is fair in love and war, and politics is war by other means.  Why are liberals infinitely understanding and patient toward the Islamic terrorists who threaten to destroy Western civilization?  Not only because the Islamofascists are of the third world and thus automatically endowed with virtue, but also because they offer no competition to the left for supremacy in American society, while conservatives do.

Today's left is every bit a tribe with its unthinking, fanatical devotion to the tribal code and animal fear of being ostracized.  The ancient Greeks believed banishment from the tribe to be the harshest of all punishments, worse than death.  Human nature has not changed, and the dread of being cast into outer darkness is still as strong as ever.  Sure, there are some exceptions, but they pay a heavy price for their bravery.  That's why so many bright people, eager to toe the line, join the fawning fandom of Obama; it's the price of admission to the club.  They may have some doubts in the beginning, but as time goes by, they undoubtedly lose their qualms.  The mask fuses with the face; they convince themselves of the truth of the cult and internalize its code, for to acknowledge the truth and rebel against the tribe is too painful and too dangerous.

Emerging from the questioning by the grand jury investigating President Clinton, Vernon Jordan loudly declared that he had "kept the faith" -- i.e., lied to save Bill Clinton's bacon.  Jordan's standing with the tribe was more important to him than the potential perjury charge.  The handlers assigned by John McCain to guide his inexperienced VP candidate, Sarah Palin, through the dangerous shoals of the 2008 presidential campaign chose to throw her to the media wolves.  They failed in their duty not due to incompetence, but because their primary concern was preserving their credentials with the Washington in-crowd, paying obeisance to the tribal values.  And so they blithely sacrificed their ward to safeguard their social status.

The astute Robert Heinlein in his 1961 best-selling SF novel Stranger in a Strange Land invented a special word, grok, to describe the phenomenon of tribal consciousness carried to its extreme: "Grok means ... to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience[.]"  The practical corollary of the dissolution of one's identity in groupthink is that all Republican outreach efforts are a total waste of time, money, and hope.  It's just too much trouble to open one's mind; how much more comfortable just to go on grokking in the tribal Nest!

Liberal intellectuals like to pose as bearers of the culture of reason, as fiercely independent thinkers.  But they are kidding themselves.  They have traded their intellectual primogeniture for the mess of pottage of group identity.  They are fully integrated into the socially and politically dominant tribe, sharing the same visceral likes and dislikes, the same shaming code.  Rather than being autonomous rational actors, they are merely an assemblage of cipher units marching in lock step to the tribal drumbeat.  Harold Rosenberg mordantly branded them the herd of independent minds.