Our Tragic State of Confusion

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 United States is the protagonist of the forces of free­dom; and upon our awareness, alertness, moral and spiritual strength and integrity, depends the survival of civilization. Our fitness for leadership is being tested. Are we meeting the test, or are we exhibiting alarming symptoms of confusion and disorder in our re­action to the challenge of our time? During our country’s greatest crisis previous to this one, Abra­ham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, said: "We are now en­gaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation, or any na­tion so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." In this sentence Lincoln with his genius for defini­tion of principle used the word which characterizes the essence of crisis—testing. A crisis is a testing period, whether it occurs in the life of a single human being, nation, or civilization. And in this testing period, as in school, ques­tions are asked which may deter­mine whether the questioned one is qualified to proceed. That is to say, a crisis in the life of a coun­try or a civilization imposes ques­tions, upon whose answers the continued existence of the country or civilization may depend.

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 United States and the world in the last half of the twentieth century. Expansion and growth in population, technology, and in development of the poten­tialities of human beings for ex­ploration and discovery, for change of and control over their environ­ment were predicted; but the wild­est prediction fell far short of the total achievement. No wonder we are confused! In every field of human activity there is much to be confused about.

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 Russia. These reporters include not only "run of the mine" American tour­ists but, more importantly, news­paper editors, prominent state and federal officials, business leaders, and members of other official and nonofficial parties who have been admitted to Russia to observe (un­der surveillance and guidance of Communists) and report to their fellow-Americans upon the com­munist system, how it is working, and how the Russians themselves seem to feel about it.

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 Russia nor to have Russian communist leaders come to this country to learn that!

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 Rus­sia in a competitive race with us toward a common goal, is shocking beyond expression. To the Ameri­can, "progress" is a good word, and it conveys the idea of advance toward a desirable and laudable goal. Now, we can be sure that re­sponsible, intelligent, and repre­sentative Americans, such as those who made the reports above re­ferred to, would not have made such favorable reports as to the progress and success of the Russian system, had they comprehended the total situation upon which they were reporting, and foreseen the implications and inferences which their fellow-Americans, as well as anxious peoples in other countries, would derive from their state­ments. We must, therefore, in charity and in a spirit of forgive­ness, conclude that these reports are but another symptom, albeit a most alarming one, of the mental bewilderment, disorientation, and disintegration of their judgment and value-system, which we call confusion, and which afflicts, in its many disguises, the vast majority of our population.

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?


Foot Notes

1 Sorokin, Pitirim A. Man and Society in Calamity. New York: Dutton, 1943. p. 308.

2 Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. New York: Random House, 1952.

3 Morley, Felix. The Power in the Peo­ple. New York: Van Nostrand, 1949. p. 14.

4 Voegelin, Eric. The World of the Polis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957. p. 2




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 Paradise itself, where the lion of capitalism can lie with the proletariat lamb. But if we turn into that splendid room, mankind with the Same Old Heart, "deceitful and desperately wicked," we may expect to clean house again not many days hence. What we need is a "peace confer­ence" with the Prince of Peace!


Related Articles


{{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{relArticle.author}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}
{{article.Topic.Topic}} {{article.Topic.Topic}}