Beyond the Theory of Moral Relativity
In addition to killing off older forms of humanity, birthing “The New Man” was an obsession of both National and International Socialism in the first half of the 20th century, as Alvin Toffler wrote in his 1980 book, The Third Wave:
As a novel civilization erupts into our everyday lives we are left wondering whether we, too, are obsolete. With so many of habits, values, routines, and responses called into question, it is hardly surprising if we sometimes feel like people of the past, relics of Second Wave civilization. But if some of us are indeed anachronisms, are there also people of the future among us — anticipatory citizens, as it were, of the Third Wave civilization to come? Once we look past the decay and disintegration around us, can we see emerging outlines of the personality of the future — the coming, so speak, of a “new man”?
If so, it would not be the first time un homme nouveu was supposedly detected on the horizon. In a brilliant essay, André Reszler, director of the Center for European Culture, has described earlier attempts to forecast the coming of a new type of human being. At the end of the eighteenth century there was, for example, the “American Adam” — man born anew in North America, supposedly without the vices and weaknesses of the European. In the middle of the twentieth century, the new man was supposed to appear in Hitler’s Germany. Nazism, wrote Hermann Rauschning, “is more than a religion; it is the will to create the superman.” This sturdy “Aryan” would be part peasant, part warrior, part God. “I have seen the new man,” Hitler once confided to Rauschning. “He is intrepid and cruel. I stood in fear before him.”
The image of a new man (few ever speak of a “new woman,” except as an afterthought) also haunted the Communists. The Soviets speak of the coming of “Socialist Man.” But it was Trotsky who rhapsodized most vividly about the future human. “Man will become incomparably stronger, wiser and more perceptive. His body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more melodious. His ways of life will acquire a powerfully dramatic quality. The average man will attain the level of an Aristotle, of a Goethe, of a Marx.”
As recently as a decade or two ago, Frantz Fanon heralded the coming of yet another new man who would have a “new mind.” Che Guevara saw his ideal man of the future as having a richer interior life. Each image is different.
Yet Reszler persuasively points out that behind most of these of the “new man” there lurks that familiar old fellow, the Noble Savage, a mythic creature endowed with all sorts of qualities civilization has supposedly corrupted or worn away. Reszler properly questions this romanticization of the primitive, reminding that regimes which set out consciously to foster a “new man” usually brought totalitarian havoc in their wake.
It would be foolish, therefore, to herald yet once more the birth of a “new man” (unless, now that the genetic engineers are at work, we mean that in a frightening, strictly biological sense). The idea suggests a prototype, a single ideal model that the entire civilization strains to emulate. And in a society moving rapidly toward de-massification, nothing is more unlikely.
In the 1970s, after American progressives forced our ignominious departure from South Vietnam, the combined efforts by dictators in that era to start from zero and return to the primitive took on frighteningly macabre forms, as this 2000 BBC article on Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot notes. Pol Pot dubbed 1975 “Year Zero,” and then…
When he came to power in 1975, he quickly set about transforming the country into his vision of an agrarian utopia by emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion and setting up rural collectives.
Pol Pot's radical social experiment claimed the lives of countless Cambodians.
Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.
In his classic "The Great Relearning" essay, Tom Wolfe wrote that the notion of Starting From Zero wasn't limited to governments, but often any sufficiently large societal force that believed it could jettison history. Wolfe credits the Bauhaus, the Weimar-era German modern architecture academy of the 1920s, with coining the term. But the concept preceded the Bauhaus by decades, and it would outlive that academy's relatively brief lifespan. It was a concept that was – and is – simply in the DNA of the far left. Its notion would be adopted, as Wolfe noted most humorously, by the hippies of the 1960s, who embraced the idea of "free love" and simultaneously jettisoned the seemingly bourgeois notion of modern hygiene (or as Ayn Rand would dub them in the 1970s, "The Return of the Primitive"), and by newly liberated gays exploring their own version of free love in the following decade, with what were ultimately even more self-destructive results for many by the early '80s.
Or as Wolfe wrote, "But in the sexual revolution, too, a painful dawn broke in the 1980s, and the relearning, in the form of prophylaxis, began. All may be summed up in a single term requiring no amplification: AIDS."
So while Johnson was right that moral relativism played a role in the history of the 20th century, the real horrors were caused by those who believed that they can hit the CTRL-ALT-DLT buttons and completely reboot every aspect of civilization, based on whatever was intellectually in fashion at the current moment.
Nowadays, self-styled "progressives" move forward into the past at a more relaxed pace. Or as the leitmotif of a recent video by PJTV's Bill Whittle memorably went, "Slowly...Slowly..."