Our Tragic State of Confusion
MAY 01, 1960 by WILLIAM C. MULLENDORE
Mr. Mullendore recently retired as Board Chairman of the Southern California Edison Company. This article first appeared in Modern Age: A Conservative Review, Winter 19591960; copyright by the Institute for Philosophical and Historical Studies, Inc.
For the past three decades, as an executive of a large utility, a private citizen, and an active participant in the discussion of many of the issues and trends in American life, I have "viewed with alarm," because I have been convinced that we have been on the wrong road—a road that will lead to a disaster—and my concern has increased each year, particularly in the "era of prosperity" since 1946. During this time I have repeatedly warned stockholders of the company of which I was president, and all others who would listen, that this is a period not of prosperity and progress, but of liquidation of our free institutions and real assets—a period of retrogression in American life.
I submit that every responsible citizen who is awake and aware should protest against these things: that American leadership should be constantly proclaiming this as a period of sound, enduring, unprecedented prosperity; that the American people should be indulging in a spending and speculative spree, going ever more deeply into debt and feeding the fires of a ruinous inflation; and that we should be boasting of our high standard of living, growth, and progress, in face of the stark facts which show a worsening situation on every major front.
Consider that situation: Our nation of 170 million people is called upon to bear the awful burden and responsibility of leadership of the forces of freedom in a war for survival of modern civilization. Our military forces are deployed throughout the world in more than forty countries and on the high seas, equipped with modern implements of war, including missiles, submarines, and supersonic airplanes capable of handling atomic weapons. Some two million of our men are under arms in the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, and various branches of the Army. The war which we call a "Cold War" dominates our life, and we are today essentially a military nation, whether we mean to be or want to be. The cost to us per annum, in man-years, in attrition of freedom, and in tangible wealth, is greater than in any previous war except World War II. And our unprecedented and incalculable debt accumulated in World War II has not been reduced but has been increased in our time of "greatest prosperity."
Because of advances in technology, automation, and the unprecedented abuse of credit, coupled with all but unlimited supplies of inanimate energy, we have produced and are producing volumes of physical equipment—tools, machinery, transportation, and communication devices, structures and buildings for all purposes—beyond the powers of comprehension or imagination. As a result, we live and are entrapped in the most artificial, interdependent, complicated, and complex system of human society which has ever existed. With it all, we have the largest debt, the biggest burden of taxes, the most advanced and dangerous inflation, the largest crime and juvenile delinquency rate, and the highest percentage of mental patients in our history.
The Nature of the Crisis
These aspects of our "prosperity and progress" and the threats arising there from are some of the surface manifestations of our crisis. And we need to remember always that this crisis of ours, and of civilization, did not start with the Communists, however eagerly they have seized the opportunity to stimulate trouble, confusion, and disorder wherever it exists. The roots of the crisis lie much deeper—in revolutions and revolutionary changes, in wars and lesser evil destructive forces, which are always at work within human societies and institutions.
Abler observers than I have written countless volumes about the crisis and the events which led up to it. Two of these have summarized its nature more powerfully and comprehensively than I could. Pitirim A. Sorokin, of Harvard, who has devoted much of his life to an intimate and informed study and interpretation of many phases of the crisis, tells us:
We live amidst one of the greatest crises in human history. Not only war, famine, pestilence, and revolution, but a legion of other calamities are rampant over the whole world. All values are unsettled; all norms are broken. Mental, moral, aesthetic and social anarchy reigns supreme. 1
Whittaker Chambers writes similarly in his penetrating and moving "Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children," in Witness:
Few men are so dull that they do not know that the crisis exists and that it threatens their lives at every point. It is popular to call it a social crisis. It is in fact a total crisis—religious, moral, intellectual, social, political, economic. It is popular to call it a crisis of the Western world. It is in fact a crisis of the whole world. Communism, which claims to be a solution of the crisis, is itself a symptom and an irritant of the crisis. 2
It is not, however, with the objective nature of the crisis, but with our subjective reaction to it, that I am primarily concerned in this essay. In one respect I cannot agree with Whittaker Chambers: I can find little evidence in the activities and attitudes of the American people that they are aware that the crisis "threatens their lives at every point." I believe that one of the greatest sources of danger is the generally prevalent unawareness of our truly appalling human situation. I also believe that this unawareness is primarily due to a lack of understanding, which in turn is due to a "failure of nerve" and refusal to face facts on the part of our people. I believe further that this "failure of nerve," with resultant fantasies of wishful thinking and "hoping for the best," is fundamentally grounded in one thing: confusion.
The "Disease of Confusion"
For the remainder of these pages, I shall examine the thesis that a major element in the present-day crisis is a "sickness of society" brought on by the "disease of confusion." And, indeed, "confusion" is a medical term. Blakiston’s New Gould Medical Dictionary defines it as: "1. State of mental bewilderment. 2. A mixing or confusing." And in Webster’s New International, we find these pertinent definitions: "State of being confused, or disordered; disorder, as of ideas, persons or things . . . . A mental state characterized by unstable attention, poor perception of present reality, disorientation, and inability to act coherently."
The disease of confusion manifests itself in a human society by disorder, disunity, the disintegration of unifying value-systems, and the abandonment of those principles which are the foundation and elements of the established order.
Russell Kirk, in his article in the University of Detroit Law Journal on "Our Reawakened Consciousness of Order," writes of the preeminent position of order as "the principle and the process by which the peace and harmony of society are maintained," and quotes Richard Hooker to show the reverse side of the coin: "Without order, there is no living in public society, because the want thereof is the mother of confusion." The ultimate in disorder is anarchy—the absence of all order—confusion complete.
With the foregoing definitions before us and having in mind that disorder and confusion are, in the context of this discussion, very closely related, we may venture this more specific definition of the disease of confusion as it affects the individual in society: Confusion is an infection which attacks the individual human being in his consciousness, character, and conduct. It tends to destroy his anchorage in principle; to weaken his powers of perception, discrimination, choice, and decision; and to corrupt, retard, or halt his moral and spiritual development. An epidemic of confusion is particularly destructive of the capacity for self-government and freedom upon which the structure of a free society depends.
A Time of Testing
In the great tragedy of history now being enacted on the world stage, the
Our Changing World
As has been so often remarked, great as was the foresight of the Founding Fathers, no one in the eighteenth century could have conceived of the
The prophets of the eighteenth century failed to realize particularly the enormous acceleration in the rate of change which would result once men were free of the restraints imposed by older regimes, had succeeded in harnessing unlimited quantities of energy, and had devised the means for conquering barriers of time and space. Of even greater significance was the failure to foresee that the vast number of individual minds could not keep pace in awareness and understanding with the sum total of changes affecting their lives. The discoveries, inventions, and far-reaching innovations in human relationships were initiated by individual human beings; but, once launched in the world, they affected and complicated the lives of all far beyond the intention, to say nothing of the control, of any one man or group.
More Changes than Men Can Comprehend
Herein lies the great dilemma of freedom: Ideas originating in the minds of individuals are launched upon society as a whole, and their adoption and implementation bring about widespread and accelerating changes, both good and bad, in human relations and in the natural as well as the human environment. Thus perplexing difficulties confront the individuals and groups of organized society, in their attempts to adjust to the constantly changing order of things.
Since the political and economic forms and institutions of a free society are based upon the assumption that the individual has the ability to respond, it follows that his failure to meet the test may jeopardize his free institutions. This is the basis for the assertion that confusion is a disease which endangers a free society, and when, as now, it endangers the life of a civilization, it rises to the level of high tragedy. Hence the title of this essay.
The word "free" is misleading, and hence a breeder of confusion, as applied to our constitutional system of limited government, the very essence and foundation principle of which is that the individual citizens must bear the burden of responsibility for the maintenance of much of that order of human relations which distinguishes and differentiates this system. A more accurate name for such a system would be "responsible individualism," because it is the responsibility of the individual rather than his freedom, which should be emphasized as the leading characteristic of such an order of society.
There can be no organized and ordered society in the absence of intelligent restraint of the individual, either from within the individual himself or from without. Edmund Burke, stated the point with his usual clarity of insight and expression:
Society cannot exist unless a controlling power of will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Under communism, and other forms of government which enslave the individual, the responsibility for restraint and direction of human relationships is largely vested in those exercising unlimited powers of government. The radical difference, therefore, for the individual citizen, between the free system and its opposite, lies not in freedom from restraint, but in the degree and purpose of restraint, and whether that restraint is self-generated and self-imposed (voluntary in this sense), or imposed from without and enforced by the power of coercion used at the ruler’s sole discretion.
If Self-Government Fails
Self-government, then, essentially means self-reliance, self-restraint, self-control, self-discipline, self-denial, and self-direction, as contrasted with the systems of government which make no such assumption and place unlimited power in the government to restrain, to control and direct and hence completely to enslave and regiment the individual. It follows that, insofar as the American people have abandoned or refused to obey the laws or rules for self-government—that is, insofar as individuals have failed and are failing or refusing to restrain themselves, to discipline themselves, and in general to perform the affirmative obligations of self-reliance upon the performance of which the health and the wholeness of their country is dependent—to that degree we are abandoning our free system. Or, to spell it out more bluntly, this also means that the trend is strongly toward a government of unlimited powers, and the consequent disintegration of all of our free institutions which are dependent upon the maintenance of responsible individualism.
Much of what has been said above is clearly and succinctly summed up in Felix Morley’s The Power in the People:
When the American people have been self-reliant, mutually helpful and considerate, determined in their mistrust of political authority, this nation has been "in form"; its tradition alive; its contributions to civilization outstanding. Confusion has arisen as form has been neglected. The restoration will require, for all of us, at least as arduous an effort, and as rigorous self-discipline, as the athlete consciously applies to himself in order to remedy physical deterioration. 3
Confusion Regarding Communism
Thus far we have considered some of the causes and general symptoms of confusion as manifested within our own American system of society; and we have noted a trend toward abandonment or loss of traits of character, which if lost, will greatly weaken, if not destroy, the former structure of our free institutions by radically changing our relations to one another.
The foregoing is only one area of our confusion in the world crisis in which we are so deeply involved. Let us now examine certain alarming symptoms of confusion in American understanding of the basic issue in the great conflict which precipitated the crisis. This conflict, as we are only too well aware, is with the aggressive tyrants of communism who have acquired unlimited power over, and have mobilized and are training (but not educating), for their wholly evil purposes, hundreds of millions of imprisoned people.
The symptoms of confusion here under examination are those revealed by reports on the communist system made during recent months and years by American visitors returning from
Words Without Meaning
The basic importance of the impressions thus gained and reported to the American public lies in the fact that the questions as to what the Communists are "up to," what they intend doing to "change the world," and just how they threaten us, are questions upon which most Americans are quite uninformed and upon which they are eager to obtain information couched in language which they can understand. Generally, we understand that the Russians are threatening us with physical violence, especially with missiles carrying atomic warheads, in order to keep us from interfering with their attempt to conquer the world for communism; but we have only the vaguest understanding of the real meaning of communism, and consequently of the true definition of the issue which is at the heart of the world conflict. And it is this issue which our reporting tourists are confusing for us.
One of the most prominent and official of our reporting observers was recently quoted, on the front page of all large metropolitan daily papers, as saying that the "essence of the conflict" between the Russians and ourselves is whether "our concept of progress with freedom" will prevail over their "concept of progress without freedom." The emphasis here is upon the conflict between the means by which "progress" shall be achieved—not upon the real issue, which is the end aimed at, or the meaning of progress, as respectively defined in the American and communist systems of society. The word "progress" is used as if it had a common meaning in both systems. It does not.
Essentially the same confusing idea appears in other reports, wherein there is much talk of how much better the Russians are "succeeding" with their system in "competition" with ours, than had been anticipated by the observer before his visit. Repeatedly appearing in the reports are such assertions as the following: "The Russian people are happy with the progress they are making." One reporter grows ecstatic in saying, "They are contented with and proud of their system because it stresses equality, education, science, culture, more leisure and a shorter work week, the dignity of labor, free medical and dental care, and other cradle-to-grave services." This same reporter, who is the editor of a large daily newspaper, warns that we had better quit brainwashing ourselves by circulating the idea that the Russians are not succeeding with this system, because it was obvious to him that they are making "progress" in their endeavor to improve the lot of their people, far beyond anything we had predicted.
Progress Toward Slavery
The communist concept of progress is advancement toward the realization of a dehumanized, depersonalized, and despiritualized society, to be attained by destroying what they call the "myths of religion and other superstitions which teach that there is a God or any Power in the Universe higher than man." The Russian goal is to build a world communist society by conquering and enslaving the peoples of the world. The purpose of the Russian "competition" with us will have been achieved if and when they have "buried us." The means to their goals are any and all which will serve to crush the spiritual life of individual human beings and transform them into highly trained animals, conditioned to exist as mere replaceable units and having no significance except as tools to be used in the perfection of the communist ideal of a society of enslaved beings deprived of all individuality. This is the "death camp" into which Communists are trying to lure and to drive the world; and this is the "essence of the conflict between the Communist Powers’ concept of progress without freedom and our concept of progress with freedom." Now really, we do not need to go to
That the communist masters of the Russian people are indeed making a real and ominous advance toward their goal of building their slave society is undoubtedly true. But for Americans to speak of this as progress, and as a gain for
The Problem Summarized
As I stated at the outset, what I have attempted here is an examination of some of the leading symptoms or manifestations of confusion in the minds of the American people. The urge and hope motivating my effort have been that we might thus derive a better understanding of the mess we are in.
The symptoms which have been noted indicate that our "disease of confusion" is a well-developed and serious case. The following summary seems justified:
1. We are failing in our highest responsibility, which is to maintain, preserve and improve our moral environment—the self-reliance, independence, mutual trustand confidence, and capacity for self-government required of us as American citizens. For a quarter of a century, we have been continuously, and at an increasing rate, shifting more and more functions and responsibilities, and hence ever-increasing power and authority, from ourselves as individuals and from our formerly free, private institutions, to government and government institutions. We have sought to escape consciousness of our failure and neglect by concentrating on our physical environment—production, scientific investigation, technology, automation, leisure, comfort, and physical health. That is, we have devoted more and more of our efforts to the means of living, and we have neglected the ultimate ends, aims, and objectives for which we live.
2. We say we believe in freedom, but we are quite "fuzzy-minded" about the meaning of freedom. We tend to think first of freedom as meaning freedom from obligations and responsibilities, and as a birthright of the American to receive something free. While we readily join in any protest against infringement of personal rights of freedom of speech and religion, to many of us such phrases as "freedom of the spirit" mean nothing. Neither do we appear to be very sensitive about freedom of choice or association; nor do we seem really to care about oppression of the minority by the majority, particularly if the oppression appears to be in our favor. Definitely, the prevailing trend is toward modifying the American way of life whenever we are persuaded that the change will assist "myself and my group" to make "progress" toward the attainment of our own economic advantages and "happiness."
3. We are tending to retreat from the higher dimensions of life, from the inner and the spiritual, and to spend our time and energy in pursuits which contribute only to the physical. Thus by neglect, as well as by positive action, we are contributing to the disintegration of the free system of this Republic—Responsible Individualism. By the same token, we are contributing to the growth of its opposite number—a government of unlimited powers, dominating, controlling, directing, dictating, and restricting the freedom of development of those citizens who, under this trend, may soon become "subjects."
As Professor Wilhelm Roepke stated in last summer’s issue of Modern Age:
The nidus of the malady from which our civilization suffers lies in the individual soul and is only to be overcome within the individual soul. For more than a century, we have made the hopeless effort, more and more baldly proclaimed, to get along without God and vaingloriously to put man, his science, his art, his political contrivances, in God’s place. I am convinced that the insane futility of this effort, now evident only to a few, will one day break on most men like a tidal wave. . . .
The Crisis Is Spiritual
Our crisis is spiritual, not economic. We have suffered a failure of nerve and are wandering, lost and bewildered, amidst a multitude of troubles and anxieties, "lacking wisdom and even common sense," because we are seeking the answer in the wrong dimension and the wrong direction.
"Human existence in society has history," says Eric Voegelin in his introduction to The World of the Polis, "because it has a dimension of spirit and freedom beyond mere animal existence, because social order is an attunement of man with the order of being . . . that has its origin in world-transcendent divine Being."4 The pragmatists, many scientists, and intellectual liberals deride this as mysticism and demand something definite which can be tested in the laboratory so that we may know where we are going. In reply we must ask: "Do you now know where you are going? Or why?" Those who do not now know what to hold by, nor where they want to go have deserted our "old system" for a hybrid system which has no unifying philosophy or design for living. So long as we lack guiding principles and a coherent system, we will be in danger of repeating the humiliating blunder of accepting the communist challenge to "compete with" their system.
But, What of the Individual?
Those who have thoughtlessly praised the superiority of the Russian system of education, merely because it has been turning out "trained" scientists and engineers in greater numbers than our system, have lost sight of the goal in their admiration of a particular means. They fail to note what the Russian system does to the individual; and under any system, it is what happens to the individual that is all important. I close with a favorite quotation on this vital point from the Journal of Amiel, the nineteenth-century Swiss philosopher and teacher. Writing on June 17, 1852, Amiel said:
The test of every religious, political, or educational system, is the man which it forms. If a system injures the intelligence, it is bad. If it injures the character, it is vicious. If it injures the conscience, it is criminal.
We know that the system we are fighting fails on every point in the test. What shall we say about our own?
1 Sorokin, Pitirim A. Man and Society in Calamity.
2 Chambers, Whittaker. Witness.
3 Morley, Felix. The Power in the People.
4 Voegelin, Eric. The World of the Polis.
Ideas on Liberty
For Peace Among Men
We may sweep the world clean of materialism. We may scrub the earth white of autocracy. We may carpet it with democracy, and drape it with the flags of republicanism. We may hang on the walls the thrilling pictures of freedom … we may spend effort and energy to make the world a