Belmont Club

Western Civilization's Growing Intellectual Dead Zones

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

The world is living through a crisis of civilization, which differs from ordinary disruption in that it involves not a breakdown of physical systems, as might be caused by a natural disaster or technological failure, but is a malaise afflicting the intellectual functioning of society itself.

By its nature, a civilizational crisis affects elite institutions, the dominant ideology, the core operating system of a ruling system. It is not a breakdown of the backward periphery but a madness in the heart of an empire, a rot in its ivory towers. Thomas Sowell observed back in 2004 that:

Ours may become the first civilization destroyed, not by the power of our enemies, but by the ignorance of our teachers and the dangerous nonsense they are teaching our children. In an age of artificial intelligence, they are creating artificial stupidity.

That stupidity consists of letting ideology overrule the facts despite the misgivings of the elite intellectuals themselves. An example of this, as an article by Lama Abu-Odeh in Quilette illustrates, is how the law professors at Georgetown persecuted colleagues they genuinely admired out of fear of committing heresy against progressive dogma. Describing a witch hunt at Georgetown Law to root out imaginary white supremacists and racists, Abu-Odeh writes that “terror and dread fill academic workers, professors, and staff alike, and it is everywhere … dread married to virtue, constitute to my mind the affective embodiment of progressive ideology prevalent among white liberals as developed in its most privileged space: academia.”

The virtue lies in affirming the ideology. The dread consists of the fear that you or someone you know must be sacrificed on its altar. Guilty participation in the denunciation cements their loyalty to the Cause. “When the next atrocity takes place, they feel they must tolerate it because they didn’t object to the first atrocity and, before long, a time comes when any objection can only be made at a huge cost to themselves.” That cost is the repudiation of the lie to which they have become complicit.

Trapped in this fear-virtue prison it is now possible for experts to be compelled into irrational actions against their better judgment. As Charles Schmidt writes in MIT Technology Review, “For many scientists, challenging the idea that SARS-CoV-2 has natural origins is seen as career suicide. But a vocal few say it shouldn’t be disregarded or lumped in with conspiracy theories.”

Just as the purge of innocent Georgetown law professors is a small price to pay for the greater good of advancing an anti-racist narrative, any suggestion of a lab accident origin for the coronavirus epidemic must be dismissed to protect valuable research.

David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, says a lab leak was never the subject of a “fair and dispassionate discussion of the facts as we know them.” Instead, tempers soon began to flare as those calling for a closer look at possible lab origins were dismissed as conspiracy theorists spouting misinformation. Election-year politics and growing Sinophobic sentiments only added to the tensions. …

When asked why he thought [president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York–based environmental health nonprofit and longtime Wuhan Institute of Virology collaborator] Daszak and others pushed so strongly against the possibility of a lab leak, Relman says they may have wanted to deflect perceptions of their work as endangering humankind. With so-called “gain of function” experiments, for instance, scientists genetically manipulate viruses to probe their evolution—sometimes in ways that boost virulence or transmissibility.

Even in so important a question as the origin of a global pandemic, the Narrative can severely limit inquiry. The inability of experts to consider possibilities marked off-limits by ideology creates the equivalent of a sonar shadow zone, an area which, due to the refraction of beams away from it, the probing rays of intellect can never reach. These shadow zones can be used by enemies to approach undetected. And they do, given it is axiomatic that the quality of the intelligence is determined by the questions asked of it and nothing is more useful than a list of questions that can never be asked.

Already several predatory high officials have been exposed as pious Woke frauds, activists have been caught raiding their charities to fund their perks or lavish houses. It is probably the tip of an iceberg whose full size we will never know because it is professionally dangerous to ask. These represent a continuously growing cancer that causes damage that cannot even be acknowledged. Because this malignancy has captured elite institutions, societal immune systems cannot resist it. The biological comparison to Woke “healing” is uncannily evocative.

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin have discovered how certain cancers hijack the immune system for their benefit, tricking it into helping rather than harming them. …

However, cancers frequently exploit the wound-healing side of the immune system for their own ends. Indeed, cancers have been described as ‘wounds that do not heal’ due to their ability to masquerade as damaged tissue in order to receive help from the immune system.

Only after the rot becomes too evident to deny will there be widespread recognition of the problem. But by then it is usually too late. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of collapsing civilizations is that they rarely see the crash coming. Things keep “getting better” until the smash, which reveals itself briefly in what has been termed the “Ceausescu moment,” the instant when artificial stupidity is replaced by blinding clarity.

BooksInconvenient Facts. You have been inundated with reports from media, governments, think tanks and “experts” saying that our climate is changing for the worse and it is our fault. Increases in droughts, heatwaves, tornadoes, and poison ivy—to name a few—are all blamed on our “sins of emissions” from burning fossil fuels and increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.