February 2021
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An Outline Toward Turning the Tide

What I am about to say will be of little interest to most readers. I post it here nonetheless, because it might be of interest to some, and because I could not stomach the prospect of typing out something this long in a Facebook comment. If you do happen to find yourself among the few who will find what follows interesting, please keep in mind that it is nothing more than an overgrown Facebook comment, and should not be mistaken for more than that.

Recently I was asked what I suggest ought to be done about the impending collapse of what I have variously called “Western,” “Aristotelian,” and “American” civilization. This is what I suggest: I think sensible people ought to gather together, in a formal, purposeful, organized and disciplined way, to catalog and assess the assets of the enemy, to find ways to disable or minimize those assets, to catalog, asses, and develop our own assets, and to find ways to deploy them to maximum effect. This project should be undertaken on the premise that it is possible to save our civilization, because it is, in fact, possible. I have in mind not a discussion circle, but an intellectual militia, volunteers planning and carrying out, on their own authority, attacks on only those targets of full-spectrum warfare that can be captured and controlled without violence or the threat of it. But this is speaking so broadly that it conveys little, and I could only expect what I have said so far to be shrugged off, if I stopped here.

Before I go any further, however, it is necessary to define “sensible people.” Sensible people are Aristotelians (usually: careful readers of Ayn Rand), especially those who already understand that their civilization is collapsing and who would be willing to act strenuously to prevent this. I think it is fairly obvious that if sensible people as I have described them exist in any numbers, they must believe that there is now little they can do to halt the collapse of their civilization, or else they believe, also incorrectly, that some efforts already underway will prevent this collapse. Otherwise, signs of their work would be more evident.

If this analysis is correct, then it is incumbent upon me to explain why anyone who has seen it coming, especially sensible people, should believe that the collapse of civilization is not inevitable after all. And so I shall. But what follows, a gloss of an argument for rejecting fatalism, is in a kind of shorthand. If you’re not well versed in Objectivism, it will make little sense to you. Fix that if you like.

Objectivism recognizes that ideas move history:

Contrary to the prevalent views of today’s alleged scholars, history is not an unintelligible chaos ruled by chance and whim—historical trends can be predicted, and changed—men are not helpless, blind, doomed creatures carried to destruction by incomprehensible forces beyond their control.

There is only one power that determines the course of history, just as it determines the course of every individual life: the power of man’s rational faculty—the power of ideas. If you know a man’s convictions, you can predict his actions. If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course. But convictions and philosophy are matters open to man’s choice.

There is no fatalistic, predetermined historical necessity. Atlas Shrugged is not a prophecy of our unavoidable destruction, but a manifesto of our power to avoid it, if we choose to change our course.

This integration can seem at odds with some salient features of contemporary life. For one, the vast majority of people might seem to be impervious to ideas. They don’t understand them, can’t articulate them, and show no interest in them. And yet, if Rand was right, the masses are no less moved by ideas than elite intellectuals are. How can this be?

The standard Objectivist answer is that the masses follow the ideas of their local leaders, and those leaders follow the ideas of their own leaders, and those of theirs, and so on and so on, until the hierarchy terminates at a pyramid’s apex, with Plato, or some other philosopher (but probably Plato). As impervious to ideas as John Q. Public may at first seem, he is, in fact, as permeable, and as indiscriminate, as a sponge. He sucks up whatever ideas are nearby. If the ideas are good, he will repeat them, in his attenuated, sometimes garbled way. If they are bad, he will repeat them just the same. He will live his life by them either way.

Therefore, according to Objectivism, it’s not the hand that rocks the cradle that rules the world, but the hand guiding the Op-Ed pen, drafting the party platform, writing the academic paper, and, ultimately, the hand writing Atlas Shrugged. Unless it is the hand behind the Republic.

After Ayn Rand’s death, Leonard Peikoff attempted to put this theory of history into practice. Through the Ayn Rand Institute, he attempted to change the course of history. He followed Ayn Rand’s implicit advice:

History is made by minorities—or, more precisely, history is made by intellectual movements, which are created by minorities. Who belongs to these minorities? Anyone who is able and willing actively to concern himself with intellectual issues. Here, it is not quantity, but quality that counts (the quality—and consistency—of the ideas one is advocating).

The strategy that ARI settled on was simple. If ideas move history, and if ideas in contemporary culture are disseminated downward from the university system, then a movement may change the course of our culture simply by capturing the commanding heights of academe. Therefore, ARI set out to do just that. Their goal became to fight an intellectual war of attrition against the entrenched forces of Plato, Kant, Mill, Dewey, Foucault, Rawls, and Derrida, to gradually replace academics loyal to these masters with academics learned in Objectivism. The last time I checked, ARI was calling their strategy the “Funnel.”

A sober person could have taken the Funnel seriously in 1985, possibly even in early September of 2001. But the pace of this thing, the collapse of American civilization toward civil war and ultimate implosion, has been picking up for some time. I won’t argue the point here, but I don’t think a sober person, let alone a sober and sensible person, can reasonably take the Funnel seriously today. Time is just too short. The Objectivists’ plodding, Quixotic conquest of academe cannot possibly succeed in time.

It has long been my habit to suss out interesting questions that aren’t getting asked, and ask them, ask them, ask them, and ask them, until they get answered. Now here’s an interesting question that doesn’t get asked enough: If the Objectivist theory of history is true, and if the Funnel is a terribly ineffectual implementation of this theory’s principles, what is it that Leonard Peikoff, the Ayn Rand Institute, and all orthodox Objectivists have missed?

Ironically, the answer is: Ellsworth Toohey. In Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, arch-villain Ellsworth Toohey, a pathetic husk of a human being, is able to wield considerable power by the cunning application of a certain kind of leverage. Toohey possesses a subtle understanding of how social institutions work, from cocktail parties, to newspaper offices, to his own ad hoc, invitation-only pseudo-professional organizations. These institutions become his fulcrum, his Archimedean point. He applies his understanding to amplify his ideas through these institutions, thereby reaching and manipulating thousands or millions of minds. Toohey carefully chooses not only what to say, but when to say it, to whom, and under what circumstances. If Toohey wanted to take control of a respected university, he would never be satisfied with anything so one-dimensional and crude as setting up his own graduate training program, like the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center. He would not meekly hope that his trainees could secure influential academic positions through their own merit and hard work. Nothing of the kind!

Instead, Toohey might find some doddering septuagenarian multimillionaire who had been frustrated, fifty years ago, in his own academic ambitions. Through a series of subtle manipulations, Toohey would convince the old fool to endow a foundation. The foundation would be chartered as a grant-giving organization. Toohey would, of course, insinuate himself into total control of the foundation’s board. After several careful interventions, giving grants to just the right up-and-comers at just the right times, Toohey would have captured key positions at his target university. He would have simultaneously infiltrated student organizations, and would have used them to agitate for more university resources to be diverted to his pet programs. Before long, provosts and deans would be dancing to his tune. Not long after that, other major donors. Not long after that, the university would be his. His investment in time and resources would have been minimal, compared to the scope of the resources he had captured. That’s leverage.

The key thing about Toohey, and the thing that Peikoff and ARI seem to have missed, is that he’s not pure fiction, not merely Ayn Rand’s invention. He’s real.

The Funnel strategy, which ignores Toohey and learns nothing from his methods, is the kind of plan a half-reformed cargo cultist might come up with. The cargo cultist sees power emanating from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. He determines to capture that power. He doesn’t bother to ask himself how that power came to be in the first place, or precisely how those who currently hold it got where they are, or whether displacing them is the optimal way to transfer their power to himself. He simply sees power in a particular place, and tries to put himself into to that place, by whatever means is most obvious at the moment.

But power in the Western world did not come to rest in Harvard, Princeton, and Yale by accident or happenstance. Universities have a history. And that history is rife with Tooheys setting up foundations, and councils, and astroturfing organizations, and generally worming around with levers, sniffing out fulcrums. And the same turns out to be true when every cultural power center is examined. The Federal Reserve isn’t an accident of history; Toohey made it. The mass media aren’t an accident of history; Toohey made them. Public education isn’t an accident of history; Toohey made it.

The significance of this for the future of our civilization becomes very clear as soon as one notices two peculiar facts about Toohey. One: he is still hard at work. Two: he works unopposed.

It is significant that Toohey is still hard at work because a clever fellow like Toohey does only as much work as is necessary to accomplish his goals. The fact that he is still hard at work implies that hard work is necessary, that cultural forces will fly out of his control if he does not keep constant pressure on his levers. In turn, this implies that if someone were to kick the levers out of his hands, then cultural forces would fly out of his control.

It is significant that Toohey works unopposed because it means all the terrifying progress that American collectivism has made so far has been made under ideal conditions. (Conservatives and libertarians, among others, have played the Washington Generals to the Left’s Harlem Globetrotters. They are not now, and never have been, real opposition.) But what if the conditions Toohey works under were suddenly made less than ideal? It seems obvious that this could upset his plans. Toohey’s works are a hothouse flower. Bust up the hothouse walls, expose them to the elements, and watch them wilt.

Ayn Rand’s theory of history is right. But she was a philosopher, not a strategist, and certainly not a tactician. Even a cursory look at ARI’s Funnel, the only serious attempt to apply her theory to the problem of Leftism, reveals how clumsy, ham-fisted, and inapt it is. What is needed, since the Funnel shows it has never been tried, is for sensible people to get together, organize, plot, scheme, and get to work at beating Toohey at his own game.

It can be done.

Now, it would be very helpful to my case here, I’m sure, to offer some specifics. But I won’t do that, for a number of good reasons. First among these is that I don’t understand why the argument I have just made has not independently occurred to hundreds of other sensible people, and inspired them to action. I do not believe that the observations upon which it is based require extraordinary subtlety or skill. Rather, something — some belief or assumption — seems to be holding most sensible people in the grip of fatalistic passivity. I have what I think are very good guesses as to what these incapacitating beliefs and assumptions might be. But I need to know for sure.

I need to know for sure because the third step in turning the tide of collectivism back is for those who are equipped to oppose it to organize themselves effectively. And before we can do that, we must recognize the same pertinent facts. The facts are there, plainly to be seen. And yet sensible people act as though they were invisible. So the first thing any sensible person should do about the impending collapse of our civilization is to find other sensible people, point out the facts they have overlooked, and find out why they have overlooked them. And here we are.

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