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Eleven Harsh Truths about the World By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 17, 2002


The list below is a response to a similar pessimistic list published by John Derbyshire in National Review, to which I took such exception that I wrote an attempted refutation. I started giving my own list of harsh truths in my now-defunct blog and readers have been pestering me for the rest ever since. Starting from the beginning, here goes:

#1: The truth will not necessarily make us happy.

Stated flatly, one is inclined to reply, "that's obvious." But our society is largely predicated on the opposite assumption. For example: most of us defend free inquiry, and those who don't, like people who demonize and would ban research into racial differences, at least pretend. We not only assume that free inquiry will lead to the truth, but that this truth will be socially beneficial. But what if it turns out, when and if the empirical dust finally settles, that blacks really do have inferior IQ’s? Oops. We might be better off not knowing that.

There is no necessary reason I know of to believe that truth will make either individuals or whole societies happier than salutary illusions, what Plato called noble lies. How many societies have been kept at peace by fear of retribution from non-existent gods? How many of mankind's greatest cultural achievements have been inspired by religions that are false?

The skepticism that the search for truth produces has a nasty way of producing relativism and nihilism, the key philosophical maladies of our time. And anyway, don't we really believe that human happiness, not truth, is the good? When was the last time a major public policy decision was defended on grounds of truth, rather than of maximizing our happiness? So we want to have truth and happiness, which presumes that the two are coordinate. But what argument is there that this is so?

#2: Most People Never Think

They have, of course, the right to try. But even when they do, most don't really think at all: they just recycle a few received truths and popular prejudices, applying not the slightest test of empiricism or logic.

People primarily choose their ideas on the basis of the social validation these ideas receive. A few hundred years ago, everyone believed in witches, and within living memory, almost everyone thought segregation was common sense. This is despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence supporting either idea. This is why accumulated liberalism is so difficult to dislodge, and we at Front Page have to find shocking facts to jolt people's minds free of it.

As for original thought -- which is overrated anyway, given that most true thoughts have probably been thought by someone else first -- some people go their entire lives without having one.

Most people's minds are narrowly occupied in dealing with the circumstances of their daily lives, their families, their professions. Outside this small circle, within which thinking actually benefits them, they expend almost no mental effort. And yet democracy presupposes meaningful choices being made by ordinary people, who can't possibly be making them if they won't even think about the issues. Sometimes I'm amazed that it seems to work anyway.

I sometimes think this is part of why it works, because it makes people shut up and not make trouble.

#3: Life is basically material.

America comes closer than most cultures to admitting this fact, which accounts in part for our national success. But I still find people get antsy when I ask them to face it, and it's not just people who have genuinely dedicated their lives to some non-material spiritual ideal. The Declaration of Independence originally read "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property," but obvious discomfort with stating it so baldly turned this into the pursuit of happiness in the final draft.

Ideals, without which a community cannot be voluntarily organized to a common purpose, have an innate tendency, being ideas, to veer away from the material. More fundamentally, we sense that man is in essence a sentient, not a physical, being; that, as Camille Paglia puts it, "it is outrageous" that human beings are incorporated in flesh. Flesh is so unfair, in many ways. But here we are.

Those who deny that life is basically material, I still observe organizing most of their lives around the satisfaction of material needs and desires. Tocqueville said it was hard in some American churches to tell whether the objective was salvation in the next world or success in this one. And how many of you would really say no if I offered you $100,000 in exchange for never voting again?

People tell me that "justice" is more important than material things, but every example of injustice they give is somebody's deprivation of material things. I never hear the world is unjust because people are being deprived of spiritual enlightenment. Or almost never, because I did hear this just once, and as an agnostic, I am willing to concede that it may be true.

5% of the time.

#4: Some People Are Worth More Than Others.

If Christian theology is true, this is not so in the eyes of God. But we on earth are not God and shouldn’t play God. Even if we try, we can’t. It is probably no accident that the most extreme egalitarian ideology, which seeks to usurp His perspective on man, jealously rejects any place for Him.

If one admits that human achievements – broadly defined – have value, one must confront the fact that some people bring about more of these achievements than others. Therefore these people have more value. It is also an uncomfortable fact, considered impolite to mention today even on the Right, that this principle extends itself, as a matter of pure logic, to groups of people. Terribly sorry, but this clearly has to include racial, sexual, and ethnic groups.

That people are unequal in value does not imply, as leftist caricature would have it, that those of lesser value are worthless and deserve to be exterminated. This is the bogey-man that is always trundled out whenever one wants to admit that people differ in value. Inequality does not even imply that the inferior have lesser rights in the civic sense. That the rights of all citizens are equal, does not mean that all citizens have the same worth. It speaks only to their being qua citizen, not to their existence as such.

#5: Most People Are Proles.

When one talks or thinks about mankind in general, as in “All men are endowed with inalienable rights,” one naturally thinks of people similar to oneself. But for most readers of these words, this is inappropriate.

The hard fact is that in this world of 6,500,000,000 people, a very small percentage are educated middle-class white Americans. The vast majority of human beings, even today, are illiterate or barely literate farmers or menial workers. There are more Untouchables in India than there are people in the United States. China has more peasants than Western Europe has people.

And this is today, after 500 years of modern economic growth. For most of history and pre-history, 99% of the human race was, shall we say, unsalonfahig. You would not enjoy having them over for dinner.

And let’s face it: they wish they were here, in a rich country where life amounts to more than menial labor for a few bowls of rice a day. And it is in our objective interests to keep this country for ourselves, not give it away to the rest of the world. Sentimentalists, ignore this at your peril

#6: Nothing Can Be Done About History.

History is unfair, but it is unfair in two ways, one hurtful to us and one beneficial. It is hurtful in that the past historical sufferings of human beings cannot now be undone, even if the pain persists into the present through the collective memory of the world’s ethnic groups.

But it is also unfair, in the sense of treating us as we do not deserve, in that anyone alive today in the developed or half-developed world is the beneficiary of a revolution in science and industry that came late in world history and has given us a standard of material life beyond the imagination of most of the human beings who have ever lived. You and I did nothing to deserve to be born in the 20th century, after the discovery of pennicillin and before the oil runs out. The benefits this confers on us far outweigh anything we lose from the suffering of our ancestors.

So we should all stop whining. And pace Patton[1], give thanks to the 20th Century.

#7: It’s After 1914. We Are Living in a Broken Civilization.

Before 1914, Western Civilization was under assault by a variety of foolish ideas but was holding its own against them. After 1914, with a brief respite in the 1920’s, things began to unravel. We live in the first civilization known to history in which a systematic assault on the core values of that civilization is institutionalized in the leading sectors of society. Quite apart from our enemies, we are at war with ourselves. This is true in everything that counts: religion, culture, economics, politics, demographics, law.

Members of foreign civilizations, or resentful members of our own, rejoice at the decline of the West at your peril. For Western Civilization has gone global. With greater or lesser success and greater or lesser completeness, all the nations of the world have submitted to it. Science, capitalism, democracy, materialism, and individualism are irresistable. There is no viable alternative, and we have to live within it even if it is broken.

There are viable alternative cultures, of course, and wise nations that make their peace with Western Civilization, like Japan or India, can go on maintaining their national distinctiveness indefinitely.

#8: America is not a high culture.

I realize this will not bother many of my readers. Why, in a time when we worry about thermonuclear religious fanatics and barbarian hordes on our southern border, not to mention the eternal problems of a cyclical economy and a dishonorable opposition, should we care whether America produces refined works of art?

Because, in the long run, high culture is needed to organize a nation’s consciousness of its identity around something of real quality.

America is a Roman, demotic, Alexandrian society. It is our natural mission, given to us by our historical circumstances, to transmit the high culture of others.

It is a tragedy of unspeakable dimensions that the centers of European culture were essentially destroyed by two world wars and that the mantle of world cultural leadership was thrust upon the United States, which is not by nature equipped for the task, being of shallow history and unaristocratic social structure.

Our national genius is for politics and economics, not culture.

#9: We Will Never be Popular for Doing What’s Right.

Well, maybe not never. But it is a fundamental fact that the Left is basically the party of the superficially good, and is therefore destined not only to be popular, but the make the people who espouse its ideas popular.

Everything they say makes sense – at first. It sure sounds good to be nice to everybody, give away the store, to flatter everyone, to believe our enemies are nice people and everyone’s values are OK.

Conservative policies for this country are largely a matter of tough love. They do work, but tough love is seldom requited at the time.

#10: God Will Not Buy You a Mercedes Benz.

I remain astonished at the number of people who cruise through life with the blithe assumption that nice things are just going to happen to them, that someone the world is designed to give them a warm feeling inside and that something has gone wrong when they get screwed.

Grow up. The universe doesn’t even know you’re there.

What’s worse, all the well-grounded theology I have ever read makes quite clear that while God may choose to answer your prayers and does in some sense wish the well-being of his creation Man, He makes no guarantees of happiness on this earth. I don’t mean to pry into people’s religious life, but an awful lot of American Christianity seems to be predicated on the opposite.

#11: You will only really find out the ultimate truth after you die.

Now if you’re a Christian or a Jew (or something else) and think you already know, good for you. Maybe you do. But you don’t find out for sure until you die. Which means the rest of us, who have to govern ourselves on earth, don’t get to know.

This is philosophically important. It means that everything we do on this earth, and all the values we choose, must be done under uncertainty. It suggests to me that there isn’t really knowledge in the hard sense of what we should do with society, which implies that prudence is the best we can hope for.

And that is a profoundly conservative idea.


[1] I refer to his line in the eponymous film: “God, how I hate the 20th Century.” But I can’t fault his disgust at having to spend his career fighting Nazis rather than Napoleon or Cornwallis.




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