(Centennial Fellow) From small, initially unnoticed increments can eventually come whopping change, sometimes catastrophic change, change from which there is no return, no going back, no way out. We see this in all sorts of things, in illnesses that are then plagues, in personal habits wrecking lives, and we see it in history, in whole nations gone asunder. My worry here is America. I am scared.
I am scared because we are approaching the tipping point on issue after issue, from debt grown obese to liberty grown skinny to children with scarcely a chance in this world because their single-parent homes did not give them one. And yet I do not think we have had the exceptionalism wholly squeezed out of us. I remember what it has accomplished in my own lifetime, not least in confrontation with racism horrors, and I am sure it can step forth again.
It had better, beginning with awareness about just how close to toppling we are and looking first at the intellectuals who do more than some might suspect to shape the culture. Ideas have consequences, and the ideas of the intellectuals worm their way through society to what sooner or later informs the everyday thinking of vast numbers. That’s the case with postmodernism, a philosophy that insists all truths are cultural, that there are no universal norms, that there is no objective reality we can know.
This mostly self-refuting twaddle has nevertheless inspired multiculturalism — out of which divisive identity politics emerges — and an erosion of principles whose only defense becomes group consensus. I was once in a meeting of some top community leaders and was virtually hooted out of the room when I offered as a universal truth that 2 plus 2 equals 4. Not always, I was told.
The opposite of postmodernism, which sometimes attacks science, is scientism, which sees science as God, that beyond which nothing is required, the provider of all truths of all kinds, no philosophy need apply, poetry be gone, end of story. I love science. It is one of humankind’s most splendid achievements. It also has limits, and, by the way, owes much to the Christian faith, but you weren’t taught that, were you?
One reason you weren’t is that our universities have less and less enthusiasm for Western civilization — so little enthusiasm, as a matter of fact, that precious few now require it as a core course for a degree. Some of us culturally biased sorts think it a profound blessing, especially for that civilizational offspring called the United States of America. We worry that a society that quits believing in itself is a society for which the word “decline” is too weak-kneed. Try the word “suicide.”
Yes, we do have good, even great universities, and thousands of professors are first-rate thinkers — another reason for my optimism — but understand, too, that leftist eagerness is very much at home in many of these institutions, providing endless nourishment for statist politicians. That bunch is threatening us with an out-of-control “gimme” state, with some $3 billion in fresh federal IOUs every day, with regulation drowning our economy and precious, crucial freedoms.
The chief difficulty with addressing these and other tipping-point issues is that so many of them dig deeply into our lives. Have I mentioned our flunking K-12 educational system, the public-pension menace, our tragically overpopulated prisons, killer “greenies,” a Constitution rendered close to meaningless, contempt for success, lunatic litigiousness, central planning that cannot plan its way out of a wet paper bag?
There are many more, but there are also specific, positive, practical solutions. With increased public focus on the dangers we face, there can be increased hope that this high-minded, vigorous, inventive nation of so remarkable a history and so much future promise can long endure.
Jay Ambrose was formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver. He is now a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow. This is the first in his new series of columns, “The Tipping Point Cometh.”