Whatever the miseries of the markets, there’s one thing in rich supply — these are boom times for audacity. At the UN, Saudi Arabia has just sponsored a two-day forum on “interfaith dialogue.” Turn on the TV talk shows, and — Good Morning, America — there’s Bill Ayers lecturing Americans on politics. Open the Washington Post, and there’s Eliot Spitzer, opining about excess (ours, not his). And it just keeps coming, whether it’s Reverend Wright (back onstage, with Bill Ayers in the audence), the G-20, GM, that tinpot economist who wants to turn over the remains of your 401K over to the Social Security administration, the bailouts of the bailouts of the bailouts …
And this is before the era of “Change” has even officially begun, with its vague promises of grand social engineering; of socialism “rebranded” as “spread the wealth,” of censorship “rebranded” as “fairness,” of a potential super-majority chanting “Yes-we-can,” while re-creating America as a state-planned society in which No-You-Can’t. Somewhere in this sea of audacity, this slip-and-slide multi-flotsam relative-jetsam universe, words themselves start to lose all meaning. They convey no reality; just endless “narratives.”
How to survive this without going under, or going nuts? It will take more than pining over opportunities squandered, or pondering the demographics of potential swing states in future elections. What’s needed is a revival of clear-thinking and clear arguments about the principles and meaning of free men and free markets. This is a good time to re-read some of the classics, written in earlier battles in the same long war of ideas. To name just a few: Friedrich Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society“; Frederic Bastiat’s candle Petition; or, on another front, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Sure, you might have read them before. But odds are, they’ll make even more sense today, and they’re an awfully refreshing antidote to that phenomenon which has become known as the mass media.
Even more important, someone needs to teach these ideas to the next generation. Don’t count on that happening in schools already engulfed in political correctness; America by now has a teaching establishment to which Bill Ayers sells textbooks on how to teach. But there’s no reason why the “underground” should be the sole domain of the far left. Teach at home. Teach your children, your nieces, your nephews; read aloud to your family and friends — keep the ideas alive, so they will be there when America starts looking for answers more valuable than “audacity” and “change.”
In this spirit, I’ve been re-reading and would warmly recommend the works of C.S. Lewis, who died in 1963. He is best known today for his children’s books, the Narnia Chronicles, but he wrote brilliantly for adults as well — and bequeathed us a spectacular collection of essays and novels about the struggles of human nature in a world not of boundless relativity, but of good and evil. Like Orwell (who published “Animal Farm ” in 1945, and 1984 in 1949), Lewis did some of his best writing in the 1940s — staring at World War II, and the monstrous social engineering of Stalin and Hitler. You don’t have to subscribe to Lewis’s religious faith to find exquisite insights in “The Screwtape Letters” (1942) — letters from an wise old devil advising a young one on how to tempt a man into damnation. Some of the best advice ever offered to ambitious students (or to anyone, for that matter) can be found in Lewis’s Memorial Lecture given in 1944 at King’s College, University of London: “The Inner Ring.”
And, from “That Hideous Strength,” (1945), the closing novel of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, I’m copying in abridged version below just one of many passages that sounds as clear a warning today as when the book was published 63 years ago. It is part of a conversation in which a conspirator, belonging to an outfit called the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E, is scheming to re-engineer to his own taste the nature of all mankind. He is explaining to an initiate how language can be used to hoodwink the public:
“Once the thing gets going we shan’t have to bother about the great heart of the British public. We’ll make the great heart what we want it to be. But in the meantime, it does make a difference how things are put. … Odd thing it is — the word “experiment” is unpopular, but not the word “experimental.” You mustn’t “experiment” on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!”