On our kinder, gentler tyranny

Tyranny doesn’t require mass physical terror. A system of everyday rewards and punishments that arises step-by-step through cooperation among elites, who share common interests, can be enough.

(Image: Timon Studler/Unsplash.com)

Many people today deny nature, history, and the transcendent as guides to life, in favor of viewing the human world as a social construction that can be reconstructed at will. Judging by public statements, most influential journalists, educators, and government officials accept some variation of that view.

Transgenderism is an obvious example, critical race theory another. The latter is based on the belief that social benefits and detriments are assigned, rather than earned, or are even the result of chance. Good things are social privileges and bad are instances of oppression. In each case, it’s simply a matter of how society is treating the people involved.

But if such things are assigned unequally, equity seems to demand reassignment. That is now considered a obvious requirement of justice, and it is thought there is no excuse for failing to do what’s needed to comply with it. Whatever is necessary must be done to equalize social standing.

The implications are radical. For example, the terms “husband” and “wife,” and even “male” and “female,” are said to be oppressive, because they suggest there are two complementary sexes. That is thought to erase people who identify with neither sex, denying their humanity and exposing them to violence.

Similarly, opposition to drag events for children is treated by politicians and the press as a hateful attack on sexual minorities because it is an attack on theatrical displays of disordered sexuality. It suggests there is something wrong with giving children a sympathetic introduction to ways of living whose equal value and dignity are now considered fundamental points of social morality.

Many people, including numerous sincere Catholics, take a favorable view of tendencies behind such developments. After all, success and failure involve several factors, including undeserved advantages and disadvantages. Shouldn’t we try to even the odds between those with privilege and those without? And since it is difficult to determine equal odds except by equal results, why not just equalize outcomes?

That appears to make some sense, but only to a point. What determines success or failure is a combination of nature, nurture, effort, history, circumstances, and luck. Who can separate them or predict what their consequences will be? Life is a riddle, and success and failure are part of that riddle: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance in all.”

Genghis Khan started off poor and marginalized, but conquered half the world; Richard II and Edward II were born to the English throne but ended up losing it, dying in prison when their successors found that convenient.

What applies to royalty applies to other mortals and even to groups of people. Who can say why Nobel Prize winners are a hundred times more common among Jews than among other people? Or why murder rates vary so wildly by time, place, and population? If we can’t explain such extreme examples of success and failure, it seems even harder to explain less extreme examples.

Even if such things could be explained, and the relative contribution of unearned advantage and disadvantage determined, the complexity, obscurity, and general recalcitrance of human life make any but crude and sometimes self-defeating attempts at redress impossible.

Yes, we should do what is reasonable to help people overcome disadvantages, but is it obvious that redress will always be a good thing? Wolfgang was born with talent and a musical father in a musical time and place. George was born into a family with a tradition of public service. And Mary’s parents stayed married, lived upright lives, loved each other and their children, valued education and good conduct, and lived in a community that shared those good qualities. Such backgrounds are unearned, but they affect how people’s lives turn out. Is that an injustice that must be rectified?

For my own part, I’m happy Mozart was able to do what he did, and I’m happy when government officials and other influential people come out of backgrounds that emphasize public service and good conduct generally. That means that some people are born with a better shot at success than others. But that’s life, and I don’t want to abolish life.

Such views aren’t what we hear from most people who present themselves as moral leaders. Instead, we hear—ever more directly and crudely—that good things are privileges conferred by the powerful. As such, they can and should be made equal, since society is a construction and there are no limits to what those who dominate it can bring about. Those who criticize such efforts are simply people who want to maintain a position of unjust privilege.

But privilege doesn’t go away. If you insist on assigning all goods equally, you have to control all aspects of life. Then people will have no effective agency and won’t bother to produce many goods. So the proposal leads directly to a sordid tyranny, which will, of course, be run by people with an extreme degree of privilege.

That is why woke progressivism has basic features in common with previous episodes of radical social constructivism, such as the Stalinist period in Russia and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. Like people then, we now have a ruling theory that demands transformation of human life by political means. The theory is treated as unquestionable, supported (it is said) by scientific expertise, the demands of justice, and the arc of history. All social institutions must support it as basic to their mission.

If you reject the theory, you’re viewed as a bad person who must be done away with—canceled—at least socially. Since the theory is unquestionable, bad results show bad actors are at work and efforts must be redoubled. The bad actors are (it is thought) likely in league with foreign governments, or members of groups who are fighting to maintain or regain their privilege—landowners, cishet white males, kulaks, deplorables.

Good people must stop them. If that means violating usual legal standards, then the standards are shields of privilege that ought to be ignored.

But why the similarities when there are huge differences between America in 2023 and China in 1968, or Russia in 1937? There is no identifiable tyrant among us, or Central Committee to set the Party Line. Legality and individual rights are real, dissent is possible (though often imprudent), and the enforcement of orthodoxy is bloodless and often not even legally required. So, do comparisons make sense?

If iron filings are light and loose, it doesn’t take much to get them to line up: a weak magnetic field is enough. And American society is becoming rather like a collection of tiny iron filings. Social ties are weak—far weaker than in traditional Russia or China. We have long tended toward individualism, and whatever traditional connections once existed have been radically disrupted by industrial society, electronic mass media, mobility, demographic diversification, and state intervention into social relations.

Foreigners and domestic critics have long commented on how dependent Americans are on the opinion of others. The weakening of social ties, which makes it much harder for us individually to find our footing and stand our ground, has exacerbated that situation. It has also made career everything among the capable and energetic people who determine the direction of society.

Under such conditions, tyranny doesn’t require mass physical terror. A system of everyday rewards and punishments that arises step-by-step through cooperation among elites, who share common interests, can be enough. And the only possible response to such a tyranny, apart from waiting for it to collapse into chaos from inefficiency and corruption, is to reverse the condition of rootlessness that lies behind it.

When secular society is as disordered as it is today, that can only happen through religion. Hence the acute need for the Faith to form not only the lives of Catholics but the setting for public life. That prospect is becoming ever more distant, but it is the only prospect that offers real hope.

People say religion in public life is tyrannical. It is much more true that fundamental loyalties that transcend the secular are the only possible defense and escape from tyranny.


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About James Kalb 151 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).

11 Comments

  1. America and the West has slowly changed it culture from Judeo Christian culture based supported by faith, family and love of country. We are now a secular culture guided by the heathens of the radicalized elite media, and education institutions. The heathen elite always looked down on Judeo Christian culture. Now they are in charge, they think they are smarter than God. This heathen, radicalized secularist sect think they are right and in so thinking cannot not stand any opposition. They truly are the modern day Fascist and can do anything they want. They ironically call everyone else who disagrees with them Fascist, racist etc.

    This changed occurred since the faith has slowly been denigrated, by heretical faith leaders (included Catholic Bishops) and development of a consumerist society, replacing the importance of faith. It has also been caused, by no small degree, by the acceptance of abortion by the majority of the population. There has been little Catholic push back against abortion. Sure there are few Catholics against it, but how many bishops or priests will stick their necks out to protest an abortion facility or just give a sermon denouncing abortion. So let’s face it when a society can kill babies with abandon, can the destruction of the culture be far behind. I always wondered how God would punish America for going along with abortion. So now you know, He let the heathens be in charge!

    • Just want to clarify something, in the reference to Bishops do not mean all Catholic Bishops. IMHO it seems since VC2 there has been a few Bishops who want to change the Catholic Teaching Dogmas to their view and to comply with the growing PC climate, thereby contributing to where we are today

  2. The Procrustean bed with a feather bed mattress.
    Or, as Whittaker Chambers phrased it: “what is socialism if not communism with the claws retracted?”

  3. Our kindly, gentler woke public schools, ruled by the selfish Unions, are ruining the survivors of our next generation.
    Not to mention hopeless acceptance of demonstrably crooked national elections.
    We have lost confidence in God’s Word due to global One World Order infiltration of our government.

  4. I recently watched the new Nicholas Cage western movie: “The Old Way”, an OK movie, kind of a combination of a lot of old westerns, but it had its moments. One of these moments (Spoiler Alert!) that stuck out was when a U.S. Marshall warned Nicholas Cage not to go on a personal revenge to hunt down the outlaws who murdered his wife. “We’re a state now, that was part of the Old Way and with ‘Progress’ the Old Way have to die to make room for progress. The Satanic goal of Woke is to kill Christianity in the name of Progress, it’s that simple. Perverted Rainbows in our midst, The Sickle and Hammer to our East and South, and the Star and Crescent to our West; With help from Christ we can and must continue to cling to the Cross.

  5. Great insights, Mr. Kalb.
    But with the current power class at USCCB, not to mention the one who sits on the chair of St. Peter, let’s not hold our breath that the Catholic Church is going to rescue our culture.

    • The Church is well-constituted, and can bounce back suddenly. Or not so suddenly. We can only do our best and trust in God.

  6. “Who can separate them or predict what their consequences will be? Life is a riddle, and success and failure are part of that riddle: ‘the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance in all.'”

    Success and failure aren’t necessarily a riddle. I know this from personal experience. Success means that a person has the right credentials, knows who to flatter (a sin), doesn’t mind being dishonest (sinful), knows who NOT to upset (possibly immoral tolerance), is fast at work, and has few – if any – scruples.

    “Who can say why Nobel Prize winners are a hundred times more common among Jews than among other people? Or why murder rates vary so wildly by time, place, and population? If we can’t explain such extreme examples of success and failure, it seems even harder to explain less extreme examples.”

    God can answer these questions, but man could certainly work towards the truth. But at least the first question ventures into politically dangerous territory.

    “That means that some people are born with a better shot at success than others. But that’s life, and I don’t want to abolish life.”

    What does success mean? If it means that you haven’t (and, barring famine, won’t) starved to death and aren’t homeless, then it is a natural right.

    There is an element of chance, but the fact is that humans are obliged to respect the rights of others. That means that something as basic as having a job that allows a person to support himself and other dependents is a matter of natural right.

    “There is no identifiable tyrant among us, or Central Committee to set the Party Line. Legality and individual rights are real, dissent is possible (though often imprudent), and the enforcement of orthodoxy is bloodless and often not even legally required. So, do comparisons make sense?”

    A “virtual tyrant” can be identified. It is a matter of finding out what is causing injustice. The person who gets unjustly discharged for “misgendering” another person is the victim of some ideology that has been pushed by someone in power. It would be possible, and desirable, to trace where and from who such things came from.

    What is “legally required” is irrelevant when it is possible (and highly likely), due to unjust “law,” for basic human necessities to be largely subjected to the whims of those who, not being held accountable by corrupt government, coerce others. As such, the, almost certainly malicious, whims of the same are due to ignorance and/or corruption given free play.

    In medieval times, apparently, the law wasn’t applied equally (i.e. blindly) to everyone. A person with a sufficiently important position would be allowed to commit injustices against those who were less important than him and perhaps only suffer a minor punishment.

    The same dynamic is alive and well today, but it would necessary to go to court to find out the truth.

  7. “woke progressivism”? What does it mean? Is it political? Is it secular? is it undemocratic? Is it dangerous to our way of life?Depends on whom you ask.

    ABC News… What does ‘woke’ mean and why are some conservatives using it?

    Yahoo News… “We asked conservatives at CPAC what ‘woke’ means. Their replies were revealing”…

    Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, weaponizing the term, “said that his state is where “woke goes to die”.

    “Black Americans largely adopted the term “woke” going back as late as the 1940s”.

    Meriam Webster ” African American Vernacular English (sometimes called AAVE). In AAVE, awake is often rendered as woke, as in, “I was sleeping, but now I’m woke.”

    Fox News African American Vernacular English (sometimes called AAVE). In AAVE, awake is often rendered as woke, as in, “I was sleeping, but now I’m woke. In addition to meaning aware and progressive, many people now interpret woke to be a way to describe people who would rather silence their critics than listen to them.

    I am not convinced that I am more “woke or unwoke”.

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