Without meaning we are all just brutes.

By “meaning” I’m referring to a broad set of mythologies and shared cultural values that collectively drive both individuals and their nations.  Societies with shared cultural reference points, like Japan, (family honor, fear of shame, thriftiness, self-denial, bravery) tend to be the kind that can turn a mountain of Tsunami wreckage into a short term survival village and then a livable city within a few years.  Societies without meaning produce teenage boy-soldiers with automatic weapons, charred villages, and fatherless children in their wake.

“Meaning” can be temporary and poisonous, as in the short-lived Third Reich, or it can span centuries, Pax Romana style.  A single bad idea (the pill, abortion, sex-as-purely-amusement) can jeopardize all the cultural wealth built by a tribe’s more time-tested values.  Japan, for example, and many western countries, are going to find out whether societies can survive without producing enough children.  For most of recorded history, children were perceived as blessings.  We’ve only endured a few decades of seeing them as liabilities.  If sterility is part of our new “meaning,” we’re going to see how that works out.

America’s mythology includes political representation, inalienable rights, rule of law, personal liberty, and freedom of expression.  Our history is full of stirring homages to these values — Plymouth Plantation, Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, Selma.  These transcendent values don’t just “feel good.”  If people think the playing field is equal, if they believe hard work and innovation can be rewarded, if they believe their day in court is about truth and not bribery, these ideas produce both a sense of personal freedom and enormous collective wealth. If you are free to publicly criticize, and even ridicule, political leadership, you hold that leadership to account, and, over time, leadership becomes more competent. If merchants have to compete for your business, without enjoying state inspired mandates and monopolies, your phones get smarter and your lawns get greener.

I’m surprised, sometimes, I have to explain this, but if a remorseless thief moves into a neighborhood full of prosperous professionals and thriving merchants, he can make a short term killing, relieving that population of their jewels and power tools, but if the neighborhood is chock full of people who believe thievery is a cultural virtue, then you wind up thirsty and impoverished.  The copper has all been stripped from the power lines, and the water can’t be pumped.

I sense that most reasonable people understand all of this, and that is why, for decades, our ruling elites have worked hard to sustain the notion (myth?) that our judges are impartial, our government cares about the First Amendment, and civil servants are there to “serve” the people. If people really believe the race is taking place on level ground, with objective referees, they will run very hard indeed.  If you think you can manage a prosperous coffee shop, all other things being equal, it’s better to choose a location where you don’t have to pay surprise extortion to a mob boss.  The governing authorities, at least in Western countries, have always known this — that people just won’t work, and pay taxes, if they think the odds are stacked against them.

After the whole Covid debacle, however, courtesy of intense citizen journalism, I am coming to believe our common sense of meaning is getting harder to sustain.  I first became suspicious of “official speak,” when the triple-jabbed mRNA crowd began ridiculing any critique of the new technology as lowbrow “YouTube scholarship.”  A friend who dutifully got all of his Covid inoculations told me his University-affiliated doctor smiled at his first booster approvingly, and left the examination room with these words: “glad to see you aren’t in the tinfoil hat crowd.” (My friend has had two ambulance trips to the emergency room since then — hypertension, cold-sweats, dizziness. Are they related?  It’s not even kosher to ask such questions.)

The idea that the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (one Oxford, one Stanford, one Harvard) are mere “YouTube scholars” strikes me as not just a lie, but the sort of lie you tell when you are desperate.  If you followed the Covid debate, you found smart people arguing with smart people, with this ominous wrinkle: anyone who took a contrary position to lockdowns, masks, and mRNA “vaccines,” was professionally threatened, and culturally ostracized. Even the federal government used its massive power (Twitter files) to stifle the debate.

They can’t be this shamelessly naked about silencing dissent without creating, in reasonable people, a kind of 1930s “Berlin-shiver.”  The powers that be haven’t just abandoned freedom of expression; they aren’t even trying to maintain its façade.  It’s one thing to fear someone at the top might be insane, but it’s quite another to see the insanity being celebrated.  The fevered claims that Joe Biden’s public confusion is somehow a “cheap-fake” might just be political desperation, but if they really believe what they are saying, then our leadership is beginning to make me wonder if lobotomies are still legal.

The YouTube documentary feed algorithm can read my mood apparently.  I’ve been binge-watching “America’s Untold Stories” with Eric Hunley and Mark Groubert. It’s not what you would call a slick podcast; it’s just Eric serving up slides while Groubert recounts the most salacious, and scandalous, details associated with great American controversies: The Warren Commission, LBJ, the OJ Simpson trial.

Speaking to today’s topic — propping up our sense of collective meaning — I found their discussion of the Warren Commission enlightening and depressing at the same time.  I’ve always found the JFK assassination too complex for both my detective skills and security clearance. All of the theories seemed plausible — Cuba, The Russians, the Mob, CIA, FBI, Secret Service, LBJ — but which expert do you believe?   How do you study evidence the federal government deems you unworthy to see until 2039?

The absurdities revealed in that case were so outrageous, you have to wonder what our government really thinks about us.  At the time, there was no federal assassination law, so the homicide investigation should have taken place in Dallas, but the Secret Service drew automatic weapons on local law enforcement and secreted the president’s body off to Bethesda Naval hospital for an autopsy conducted by someone who was not qualified for the task.  (Think about that: a presidential autopsy.)  The single “magic bullet” — after passing through two bodies, upholstery, and wrist bone somehow remained pristine in its condition.  Evidence was manipulated, depositions changed, witnesses excluded, and at the end of it all, an imperial Lyndon Johnson simply demanded all Americans believe the impossible, for the “good of the country.”  (A single, crazed assassin was considered less provocative than an entire country believing Russia, the CIA, or even Johnson himself had engineered the dirty deed.)

I’ve come to believe the problem with conspiracy theory has nothing to do with the merits of the questions being asked, because conspiracy is as old as history itself.  Not everything is a conspiracy, of course, but history, in the end, reveals enough of these plots to warrant considering their possibility in any given circumstance. The Sanhedrin really was conspiring to kill Jesus.  Thomas Hutchinson really was conspiring with London to curtail American rights.  Dr. Fauci really did fund gain of function research in Communist China.  It all stands to reason:  you would be a fool to believe evil men aren’t capable of conspiring to serve their own ends.

But if we come to to believe bad men don’t even care about appearances, it would be something like LBJ just admitting he killed John Kennedy and then challenging you with: “what are you going to do about it?”  If you have ever watched FBI director Christopher Wray casually avoid answering direct questions about families suffering SWAT raids, in instances of brutal law-enforcement over-kill, you get the feeling some of these folks make no excuse for brutality at all.  Anyone who watches the lawfare taking place against Donald Trump and then characterizes that charade as “rule of law” either has contempt for American ideals, or they are just very bad liars.

Ideally, those American ideals of fair play, rule of law, and freedom of expression would be dear to the hearts of our leaders.  Ideally, that shared meaning would inspire transparency and objective justice.

But, if we must suffer corrupt leaders, they need to pay better attention to the show business side of things.  They don’t even care about propping up the myth and telling good lies anymore.

You see, here’s the odd little secret: false leaders at the top, even baldly corrupt bribe-takers and scoundrels, can still harness the enormous power of a flock that believes in the lie. If the people really think the system has credit, they will keep paying into it. I think this explains the CIA.  They really can’t get away with all of their shenanigans if Americans came to understand it’s all just dirty-laundry extortion.  The CIA needs you to believe your representative is free to vote his conscience.  They don’t want you concluding the administrative state makes all the decisions because they know who has a little wire fraud or lesbian porn in their past.  They want you to believe you actually enjoy representative government.

Because if you don’t believe their lies, you just might insist on the truth.