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Don’t Mess With Our Roots


“But the special function of certain Newspeak words, of which OLDTHINK was one, was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.” – George Orwell, from 1984

When two climate-change activists went into a London museum and tossed tomato soup all over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, they didn’t do their movement any favors.

The act struck most people as petty terrorism, like something from the Cultural Revolution. One suspects this is just the sort of antics that have driven thinkers such as traditionalist Paul Kingsnorth away from the environmental movement. More on him later.

Recall that the Chinese Red Guard had been encouraged to destroy the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits. Mao had prompted the Red Guard student movement to shore up Chinese Communism, which, at the time, the party viewed as the end of history. The Red Guard wanted to destroy anything that might remind people of society before Mao. So they destroyed art, burned books, and toppled statues.

We are witnessing the return of the Red Guard. But this time, the call for the destruction of the Four Olds issues not from the CCP, but rather from Western universities. It’s no secret the academy is the beating heart of radical social justice ideology, which, today, extends its tendrils into corporations, primary schools, athletics programs, and modern media.

As European intellectuals sympathetic to Marx understood, Mao knew that to indoctrinate a people, you have to destroy their roots. I call these roots the substrata. We find a significant portion of our self-concept in these layers of rootedness. But radical social justice activists view healthy self-concept as a demonic force to be exorcized. To exorcize people’s self-concept, radical social justice activists attack sources of meaning that might challenge their doctrine.

Much of the so-called “meaning crisis” comes from the mass deployment of radical social justice mind viruses that originate in postmodernism and critical theory. The result is an insidious mob psychology that spreads like a contagion. The layers of humanity upon which we understand ourselves and derive meaning can resist change, but radical social justice activists want to obliterate all resistance to change. It matters not that such changes can leave people sick, poor, depressed, or physically altered.

Substrata: Liberalism and Traditionalism

Educational entrepreneur Michael Strong refers to academia as “The World’s Leading Social Problem.” To make his case, Strong points out that nineteenth-century liberals believed in two basic ideas:

  • An economic system consisting of property rights, rule of law, and freedom of contract led to ‘the wealth of nations’ and was a sound foundation for peace between nations.

  • Personal virtues such as hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, initiative, self-discipline, personal responsibility, good manners, and wholesome living could put any individual on the path to a life in which he or she could become ‘healthy, wealthy, and wise.’

Strong says these two basic points had been mainstream thinking in the United States and Britain. But, “for the next hundred years, most of the intellectual and pedagogical activity of university professors in the humanities and social sciences was dedicated to undermining respect for those ideas.”

Such undermining persists to this day.

Academics became various flavors of socialist, and many continue to be. Whether Maoists, Marxists, or mendicants of subtler shades of radical social justice, their MO is to undermine liberalism. As critical race theorists Delgado and Stefancic write:

Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-​by-​step progress, critical theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

These “foundations” are the substrata—part of our American roots.

But activists can read between the lines. Step One is to question those foundations. Step Two is to dismantle them. Those rushing to strike at the roots of the liberal order know full well that behind the veneer of concern for marginalized groups lies a will to power. Yet they are the first to refer to everything they loathe as fascist.

Some might argue that true liberalism—a doctrine that holds people ought to live in peace, pluralism, and freedom by rule of law—is wholly at odds with so-called traditional values. Some self-styled classical liberals argue that, when it comes to radical social justice, there’s nothing to see here. Others actively seek to sever the connections among these value systems. But that would be a terrible mistake. At best, it would mean turning a blind eye to the destructive nature of radical social justice. At worst, it would mean people who claim to cherish freedom are hacking at its roots.

Liberals, traditionalists, and practitioners of ancient wisdom clash from time to time. But as the petty terrorists of social justice continue their vandalous march through the institutions, sometimes literally as in the BLM damage of 2020, many will find a common cause in pushing back. As an anarchistic liberal with a techno-optimist streak, I thought I’d never find myself nodding along with Paul Kingsnorth, a reformed climate activist turned Orthodox Christian who occasionally flings holy water at the Technium.

Kingsnorth writes:

Back in America – now ground-zero for the abolition of biology – thousands of girls are undergoing double mastectomies, and teenage boys are being given ‘puberty-blocking’ drugs designed to chemically castrate rapists. Eleven year old girls are taught that ‘if you feel uncomfortable in your body, it means you are transgender’ – which may explain why, in some classrooms, a quarter of the children identify as precisely that. The concept of ‘trans kids’ – a notion that would have been inconceivably baffling to most people even a few years back, and for many still is – is now being pushed so hard that it starts to look less like the liberation of an oppressed minority than an agenda to reprogramme society with an entirely new conception of the human body – and thus of nature itself.

Radical social justice activists are destroying the biological substrate, much like American iconoclasts are toppling statues of Thomas Jefferson—symbols of our liberal substrate.

Attempts to dismantle our shared historical substrate are one thing. It would be quite another to mess with the family. But Lily Sánchez, writing in Current Affairs, says hold my beer:

The family must be abolished, which means a “breaking open of the family to free and unleash what’s good in it and to generalize that into the social body as a whole. To make the necessary forms of care available to everyone unconditionally.”

See? To unleash what is good about the family, you have to destroy the family; just as to unleash what is good about being a girl, you have to destroy the very concept of a girl as well as girls’ and boys’ bodies. To make a postmodern omelet, you have to break a few…. According to radical social justice activists, these substrata are merely contingent. Chesterton’s useless old fences stand in the way of progress.

But what if I told you that this urge to destroy the substrata might be predictable?

The Integral Heuristic

In Spiral Dynamics—a framework of psychosocial values development first advanced by psychologist Clare Graves—the basic idea is that individuals and groups change over time according to certain life conditions. Some will prefer other stage theories, such as those of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan. All such theories share the basic idea that human psychosocial development changes according to levels of complexity.

Still, let’s use the Spiral Dynamics framework as a heuristic, along with a sketch of social complexity through time.


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