Equal to ourselves

When Energy Secretary Steven Chu scolded Americans for acting “just like your teenage kids” who didn’t know how to take care of the planet he was merely engaging in another “teaching moment”. The WSJ blogs wrote:


The administration aims to teach them—literally. The Environmental Protection Agency is focusing on real children. Partnering with the Parent Teacher Organization, the agency earlier this month launched a cross-country tour of 6,000 schools to teach students about climate change and energy efficiency.

It has become fashionable for governments to treat people — even adults — like children: children who consume too much, obey too little and remain too fond their imaginary friends. And their betters take it upon themselves to guard their speech, take away their dangerous toys and curtail their choices because they are prone to make unwise ones. And most of all they see to it that we should expect no better our lives but a little welfare gruel and some end of life counseling. Once upon a time mankind saw it as their birthright to wander the fields, swim in the streams and see what was over the next hill. Today we live penned up in dark houses warded by sour matrons and bloodless didacts who are forever seeking to administer their “teaching moments”.

Two observations on human freedom, the first by Ronald Reagan and the second by CS Lewis, recall an earlier tradition. Both argued that mankind was compelled to liberty by nature. They saw it as humanity’s right to look up at the moon and dream of the stars. Reagan said:

If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.


It’s a quaint notion. Lewis put it another way.

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation

And the differences between a society which organizes itself around stern lessons administered by bureaucrats preaching to schoolchildren and a society of free men who hire bureaucrats to take out the garbage is profound. To the latter man is master; to the former he is a taxpayer. They diverge in their basic understanding of what people are. Perhaps one of the reasons why shameful and degrading entertainment is deemed so harmless today — as gladiatorial combat was once acceptable entertainment — is that it serves to reinforce the public image of itself as a society of buffoons, who with application and attention to lessons, might eventually aspire to be like their official betters.

That is a truly post-Christian point of view. How strange it is to think that only a hundred years ago, people thought themselves guarded by personal angels in their frolic in the fields of the Lord. CS Lewis observed that:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past … are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.


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