World In the Grip of an Idea: 21. The United States: The Thrust to Transformation

In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.

The occasion was a civilized one, very nearly formal, and certainly decorous. Military personnel in their dress uniforms presented the colors. The well dressed audience, many of the women in full-length evening dresses, stood for the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. A multi-coursed dinner was served by male waiters, well trained in those flourishes which add to the decor of an occasion. A goodly number of prominent people were present, and the main speaker was the lieutenant-governor of the state. The audience was well mannered, polite, and conscious of doing the right thing by applauding at all the places where it seemed to be indicated. Civility was an unannounced guest of honor at the occasion.

For a brief span of time in the midst of the proceedings, two men entered the room. Their attire was only a slight improvement over that of ranch hands returning from a long cattle drive. One of the men wore a cap which remained on his head for the whole time they were there. One man was a photographer, and the other was his lighting assist‑ant. They went about their picture taking with no apparent regard for the audience or participants, standing between some of the audience and the dais, moving about at will, shining bright lights here and there, and making it difficult for all others there at the high point of the proceedings.

Undoubtedly, the photographers were invited to come to take pictures. Undoubtedly, too, they were going about doing so in the most direct way. My point, however, is that they were an alien element in our midst. Their attire and manner would have been little different if they had been photographing hogs wallowing in their mire. Our manners, our customs, and our purposes could hardly have concerned them less if they were invaders from Mars.

My larger point is this. There is an alien force in our midst, a force (or pervasive influence) which is alien to our manners, customs, traditions, morality, and institutions. We are all familiar with it in its most obtrusive form, that of the newsman or reporter. We have all seen such reporters, at least on television, crowding about some person, pushing for attention, shoving microphones in his face, blinding him with flashbulbs, and insistently demanding answers to questions which are none of their business. It is a good analogy to think of them as wolves, baying at some prey they have surrounded, preparing to strip his garments away and render him helpless before them.

The Communications Industry

Reporters are, however, only the most colorful of a much more extensive alien element. It holds sway in a whole vast industry, or, more precisely, a congeries of industries. In its lesser dimension, it is often referred to as the communications industry, the opinion industry, or, simply, the media. In its broader dimensions, however, it embraces much more: the entertainment industry, the information and education industry, and a vast assortment of other businesses which lie on the periphery of these. It includes records, tapes, books, magazines, movies, radio, television, newspapers, much of live entertainment, schools, a portion of organized religion, the world of fashion—clothing, hair styling, adornment—and so on. In terms of impact, it might best be called the Lifestyle Industry. In terms of its thrust, it should be called the Transformation Industry.

If it be considered a single industry, it is a huge industry, and much of it is highly profitable. The publishing industry alone is so vast and profitable that large corporations have bought old houses in order to diversify and become more profitable. The ownership of a television station is the nearest thing there is to a franchise to print money in the United States. Although the Lifestyle or Transformation Industry includes activities that are generally not profitmakers, such as schools, those who work in them are often well rewarded.

Despite the size, sway, and profitability of much of this industry, a strange and apparently contradictory development has been taking place over the last decade. As business in general has been ever more closely regulated and controlled, as much of business has been turned into an instrument of government, the Lifestyle or Transformation Industry has been breaking loose from such regulations and controls over it as there have been. An ever wider arena of freedom from either social or political control for those in this industry is being carved out. The tendency is for the Lifestyle Industry neither to be controlled by government nor to be an instrument of government. Its thrust is rather toward the control and use of government and to assume for itself the role of society.

Much of the great tradition of liberty in the United States has been pre-empted by the Transformation Industry and instrumented for its specialized purposes. The industry relies mainly on the First Amendment to the Constitution to expand the boundaries of its uncontrolled activities. The Amendment reads, in part: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; . . ." It has long since been stretched far beyond the meaning which could be deduced from its language to include all governments and is widely used to inhibit any criticism of things spoken or written. The battle cries of "censorship" and "academic freedom" are employed to deter any control over the press and schools.

Liberty into License

Freedom, it has been said, is like a seamless cloth. Those who point this out have been most often inclined to argue that you cannot have freedom of speech, press, religion, and political activity without the corresponding freedoms entailed in private property, trade, enterprise, and managing your own affairs. The theory supporting this view is well established, and much historical evidence can be adduced which tends to prove it. But there is another aspect of this principle which is not usually noticed. It is that partial liberty tends to degenerate into license.

When does liberty become license? Or, when does the exercise of liberty become licentious? One way to answer the question is to say that liberty becomes license when its exercise intrudes upon the realm of other people and becomes abusive.

Another way is to note that liberty tends to become license when it is cut loose from that to which in its proper exercise it is responsible. The principle can be stated more directly: Unrestrained liberty tends to become license. Partial liberty, enjoyed by some portion of the populace only, that is unrestrained not only becomes licentious but tyrannical. Freedom without responsibility is indistinguishable from tyranny.

Those who claim that everything must be regulated are correct. (The fact that we have come to identify regulation with something that government does in our day should not mislead us on this point.) The principle may be most readily grasped by a mechanical illustration of it. Every automobile is equipped with a generator or alternator and battery. The battery is for storing electricity, and the generator is for replenishing the supply. However, the electricity cannot go directly from the generator to the battery. Between the two is a voltage regulator, a device which keeps the voltage entering the battery within a tolerable range and prevents the battery from being overcharged and destroyed. All transmitted electricity requires similar regulation.

In a like manner the amount of fuel going into an engine must be regulated. The driver of an automobile regulates the fuel by depressing or releasing pressure on the accelerator. It is impractical, however, to regulate the amount of fuel going into all engines this way. For example, power mowers need more or less fuel depending on the height, thickness and toughness of the grass that is being cut. Lawn mowers are equipped with governors to provide regulation in ordinary circumstances. Without them, lawn mower engines would either be continually stalled or run dangerously fast most of the time.

Market Pricing

Price is regulated in the free market by supply and demand. The demand is kept within the confines of supply by variations in the price. Price is held down and supply is kept up by competition. It happens, too, that so far as the quality of material goods and physical services is concerned, better quality generally sells for a higher price and poorer quality at a lower price, other things being equal. (With fruit and vegetables, the time of year or season must be taken into account, of course. High quality tomatoes are usually less expensive in summer than are the poorest quality in winter.)

But the laws of economics are almost entirely ineffective in regulating quality by price in the intellectual and spiritual realm. It costs no more to reproduce the words in the Bible than it does those in the most scabrous pornographic novel. Once the recording has been made, it costs no more to make copies of Mozart’s harmonic symphonies on records or tapes than it does of the outrageous noise of the Sex Pistols. Supply, demand, and competition still regulate price, but the market has’ no device for registering spiritual and intellectual quality.

The market, as the late Ludwig von Mises was fond of pointing out, is democratic in tendency. It tends to provide the greatest number and variety of goods to the greatest number of people. It responds to the most widespread and urgent demands. The market, as such, has no values, no standards, no morality, except such as are fed into it by buyers and sellers. The market is, let us face it, a potential monster, catering to the most debased taste, the most depraved yearnings, and ready to provide the perverted with the means for practicing their perversion.

There is, normally, a corrective to and inhibitor of this monstrous potentiality of the market. Normally, the free market does not exist and function alone and in splendid isolation; it is an integral aspect of freedom and responsibility within the society generally. The free market is a part of the seamless cloth of the free society.

The market may be democratic, but society is, by nature, aristocratic. The market, as such, may be value free, but society is value laden, ever sifting in a timeless way the wheat from the chaff. The market is a mechanism of society. Society is the normal regulator of the market, insisting upon quality as well as quantity, inhibiting what may be bought and sold there, bringing standards, values, taste, judgment, and morality to bear on what takes place there.

Regulations Abound

This brings us to what has happened and what is happening in the United States. There should be no doubt that the fabric of liberty is torn. There is not a free market in general. The market is hampered, restrained, controlled, planned, and intervened in by government. Meanwhile, a limited aspect of the market, that which offers fare for the soul and mind, is being given ever freer rein. It is not possible to buy an automobile without seat belts, but every sort of depravity is luridly described in books and magazines readily available. Diabetics may not be able to buy substitutes for sugar, but there is none so depraved that his tastes are not freely pandered to in the market.

More, society cannot effectively maintain its taboos today. It cannot bring to bear a discriminatory taste, judgment, the weight of custom and tradition, and morality upon what is sold in the market. Its prescriptive powers have been largely deactivated. Society is wounded and crippled where it is not entirely disabled. The regulator has been removed from that portion of the market that is free.

How this has come about is too large a story to tell in all its detail. It is much too complex to do more than call attention to the outlines of the process here. One thing should be clear: It has come about largely as a result of government intervention in and inhibition of society. Society wields its influence and maintains its prescriptions by a great variety of customs, institutions, traditions, and organizations. The most basic institution of society is the family. The basic tasks of the family are the nurture and upbringing of children, the provision for those in their midst who are unable to take care of themselves, and the looking after aged relatives. To accomplish these tasks, authority must be exercised, and divisions of responsibility must be maintained.


Government has now assumed much of the role of the family. Compulsory school attendance and government prescription of what must be taught relieves parents of much of their responsibility for the children and authority over their upbringing. Welfare and Social Security payments eroded dependence upon the family. When dependence is gone much authority is lost as well. The tendency of government intervention has been to reduce the family to an affectional unit, to remove much of its disciplinary authority, and to make it no stronger than the fickle ties of affection.

The authority of employers has been drastically reduced by government intervention. Every government prescription of wages, of hours, of working conditions, and of employer-employee relations reduces the authority of the employer.

A spirit of litigation afflicts Americans today. Patients are suing physicians, students suing teachers, employees suing employers, wives suing husbands, women suing men, blacks suing whites—even children suing parents. What this signifies, when it becomes rampant, is the breakdown of society, the substitution of force for persuasion, and the intrusion of government into every nook and cranny of life. It is a state of covert civil war superintended largely by federal judges. Those who bring suits may not realize it, but every suit invites, even requires, that the force of government be brought to bear to bring the parties into line.

What has all this, and much else of similar character, to do with the largely uninhibited onslaught of the Lifestyle or Transformation Industry upon us? It has everything to do with it. Society enforces its prescriptions mainly by approval or disapproval of acts. Public decorum, morality, and civility is maintained because the individual seeks the approval of others around him. In a similar fashion, good taste and high standards depend upon the desire people have for the good opinion of others.

It seems natural to many of us to wish to be in good standing with those with whom we come in contact. But for the generality it needs to be reinforced by exigent social ties. One seeks the good will of an employer, above all, to keep a job. Children obey parents, in the final analysis, because their livelihood depends on them. Men have a care to their language, observe the taboos, behave themselves not only because they wish to be well thought of but also because their well-being in general depends upon it. When these financial and familial supports are cut away, social prescriptions lose their bite.

The stage has been set, then, for the transformation of society. The social regulator which links freedom to responsibility has been disconnected. Business, in general, is ever more severely controlled and regulated. The Transformation Industry, by contrast, is enlarging its arena for freedom of action divorced from responsibility for the consequences.

The media has assumed much of the prescriptive authority once exercised by society. It proclaims, often subtly, approved attitudes, rewarding those who conform and ignoring or punishing those who do not. Generals cower before the lash of enraged media-men, resign their positions, and retire to obscurity. But the media is not society; it is, instead, one of the alien elements thrusting toward social transformation.

The Urge to Transform

The Lifestyle or Transformation Industry is alien to American society in so far as and to the extent that it is bent upon transforming it. Some qualification is in order here. There is nothing inherent in journalism, in book publishing, in music making, or any other of these undertakings that would bend them toward transformation of society. Magazines may as readily defend as attack the existing social order. Education is, by nature, a conservative process whose main purpose has usually been imbuing the young with their culture and heritage. Undoubtedly, too, there are magazines and schools that have as no part of their purpose obstructing or transforming the social order. Almost any newspaper will have a considerable variety of material in it, much of which will have little or nothing to do with social transformation. Some television programs may lovingly portray aspects of our culture and heritage.

Be that as it may, for a considerable while now a major thrust of the media, education, the information industries, and entertainment has been toward social transformation. Intellectual fashion has prescribed social transformation as a desirable goal. The idea that has the world in its grip has held sway in the United States as elsewhere. Intellectuals bent on transforming have often pictured and thought of themselves as being an embattled minority. That is a misconstruction of the actual situation. They are a majority, or at least determine much of the course of things, in the intellectual realm. But they are alien to the society and, as such, do occupy a potentially precarious position. The fact that they are continually attacking and undermining the received social arrangements makes them aliens.

To grasp what has been happening it will be helpful to get in mind as clearly as can be what a society is. A society begins to be formed when two or more people begin to interact on a regular basis. What we speak of as society emerges from the modes that are tacitly agreed upon and accepted for interacting with one another. The society consists of those who accept these modes of behavior. The modes consist of manners, morals, conventions, customs, taboos, and traditions. Amongst civilized peoples, social prescriptions not only facilitate intercourse but tend to protect individuals in the enjoyment and use of what is theirs. (Those prescriptions that are amenable to it are often formalized as law.)

Social Conventions

Man was made for society, wise men have said, and there is no end to the advantages which follow from social cooperation. Indeed, the advantages of association and cooperation are so obvious and great that societies will continue to be formed so long as there are people. Social arrangements exist for the purpose of enabling people the better to enrich themselves by interacting with one another.

However, there is a nether side to the relations between people. All interaction between people is potentially abrasive, fraught with dangers of abuse of some persons by others, and sets the stage for every harmful act that can occur. Society exists for the specific purpose of providing means for keeping relations among people smooth. The more intimate the relations among people the more potentially dangerous the situation.

Taboos take shape especially to govern and restrain intimate relations. Since sexual relations are the most intimate of all relations, it is not surprising that taboos often are strenuously applied in this area. There is, for example, a near universal taboo against incest—a taboo which serves not only to abate the dangers of inbreeding but to protect the close family unit from the conflicts that would arise within it from sexual rivalries.

Social conventions tend to change with the passage of time. Sometimes, society gets religion, so to speak, professes very high standards, and is purified somewhat of its dross of accretions over the years. Social prescriptions change to deal with new conditions and new opportunities and dangers. Positive law often arises from social prescription, as well it should, but law is frequently too gross, precise, and inflexible for the complex and shifting shades of social prescription. But social change must be gradual, otherwise it is disruptive and confusing, thus failing to facilitate interaction or to protect individuals within it. A certain comfort within and accord with the rules of society is essential to the working of society.

Breaking Tradition

Socialists regard the received social arrangements as a major detriment to their undertakings. Revolutionaries require that they be destroyed. Evolutionary socialists attempt to change them gradually by law so as to merge government with society. At any rate, both agree that the whole complex of distinctions which society maintains must be broken down before man can be collectivized, communized or socialized. The received institutions, customs, and traditions provide a protective shield for the individual, a shield which must be broken before he can be melded into a mass.

The most drastic experiments with forced collectivization did not occur in Stalin’s attempt to collectivize agriculture. They occurred in Soviet forced labor camps and in Nazi concentration camps. They were alluded to earlier in this work. They involved especially the uninhibited use of obscenities, profanity, and inducing the individual to violate various taboos. Alexander Dolgun, an American who spent years in Soviet prisons and labor camps, tells how when he was first put in prison he was subjected to a physical examination by a woman doctor who gave special attention to his private parts. This surely was not accidental, for it fit the general pattern of trying to break him down by removing the normal expectation of observing the social mores.

The most dramatic thrust of the Transformation Industry in recent years has been to break down or through the social prescriptions that have to do with the use of language and sex. Rampant public expression of obscenities became commonplace in the 1960′s. Novelists began to lard their works with just about every vulgar expression imaginable. Underground newspapers printed the theretofore unprintable. Magazines, even some of general circulation, began to do likewise. Even more profound in its impact was the use of obscenities in the speech of characters in movies. After all, reading is usually a private undertaking. But movies have public showings as a rule, and are usually made for that purpose. Nowadays, profanity and obscenities are regular fare in movies designated PG (meaning acceptable for the admission of children but parental guidance suggested).

Many sexual taboos have been ignored and violated with impunity. The most intimate matters are now publicly discussed, written about, and portrayed in picture magazines and movies. Many restrictions are still observed in family newspapers, television, and radio, but they are being broken down there as well. Explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse were only available in brown covers to discreet patrons a generation ago. What was not then conceived as properly printable is now shown in technicolor on wide screens in movies. If present trends continue, in a few years the family can gather round to watch vivid portrayals of bestiality, necrophilia, and incest, with some orgies thrown in, on their home television sets. Such fare is already available on closed circuit television in hotels and motels.

Human Dignity Denied

Decorum is the condition of peaceful public assembly. Good manners are the clothes the civilization wears. By the clothes we wear we signify our respect for the sensibilities of others as well as our own dignity. Propriety in the use of language preserves the communion involved in communication. Custom, tradition, and morality are not merely the ornaments, they are the lineaments of society.

My point is this. What occurred as concentrated dosage in Soviet prisons and forced labor camps and Nazi concentration camps is now being done in a much less concentrated manner on a national scale by the Lifestyle or Transformation Industry. The defenses of life, liberty, and property are being removed by the hammer blows on our sensibilities. The right to life depends upon the prohibitions against murder. Sensibility for others is the foundation of the taboo against murder. There are religious sanctions against murder, but the acceptance, observance, and appreciation of these depends upon sensibility as well. Obscenity, vulgarity, and depravity publicly displayed are indications of a profound loss of respect for man. Liberty for such a man is no more than opening the gate and turning the beast out to forage at will. Such a man is no more worthy of property than would be a jackal.

The Collectivizing of Man

The Transformation Industry is bent toward collectivizing us. It is stripping away from us our civility, our decorum, our good manners, our taboos, our customs, our traditions, and our individuality. Man must be reduced to be collectivized, his language reduced to guttery curses, his body reduced to its respective and indistinctive parts, and his culture to its meanest remains.

The process may be observed most directly by attending a Disco. What made dancing civilized is almost entirely missing: the breaks from song to song, the dance patterns changing with the number, the couples dancing together. The music, or noise, is continuous at the Disco; colored lights flash in psychedelic fashion; the music is devoid of almost anything except blare and beat; and couples are not easy to discern. It is an orgy of dancing. It is, at once, each individual alone and the whole a collective mass driven to a frenzy directed by the disk jockey.

It is easy enough to believe that many of those in the Transformation Industry know not what they do. Since much of the industry is highly profitable, there is reason to suppose that many of those engaged in the business are not doing anything much but making money, at least so far as they are concerned. There is money to be made in pandering to man’s baser desires, nor is there anything new about it. It is also true, however, that it is not necessary for those under the sway of an idea to know it. There is a kind of demonic urge to the egalitarianism implicit in the idea that has the world in its grip. Women must be the same as men, children the same as adults, all races the same, and each no higher than all others.

And, to prove it, we must all be disrobed. Here is a parable for our time, a parable that is factual, if the columnist, Bob Greene, who reported it, be accepted (Atlanta Constitution, May 19, 1978, p. 7-B). It seems that a photographer has put together a collection of his photographs which he calls "Dallas Nude." Charles R. Collum, the photographer, says that he took three and a half years on the project.

"My idea," he says, "was to show the city through its nude people. Dallas had the reputation as an uptight, conservative, banker religious-middle-of-the-Bible-Belt city. I think that reputation was wrong. My pictures show Dallas being happy, innocent, exuberant, full of freedom." He accomplished this by photographing people from all walks of life—librarians, dental assistants, optometrists, nurses, bank tellers, and so on—in the nude. "The soul of a city," Mr. Collum is quoted as saying, "is in its people. And people without their clothes on are more expressive than people who are dressed."

Mr. Collum is so impressed with what he has done with, or to, Dallas, that he is eager to do the same for other towns and cities in the United States. Indeed, he has in mind an even more ambitious project, Greene reports, and has approached the State Department about it:

I want to go to Russia and do "Moscow Nude." We were brought up to think that the Communists were bad people, were our enemies. But on a one-to-one level, I think the Russians are just as warm and wonderful as the people of Dallas. I think that "Dallas Nude" and "Moscow Nude" would go great together. Together, their message would be "Peace on Earth, good will toward men."

Why would such a notion strike anyone as plausible? Indeed, where would anyone get such an idea? Actually, the antecedents of Mr. Collum’s idea are not difficult to trace. They are the progeny of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the spiritual godfather of our age. Strip away the cultural raiment, and man will emerge as a Noble Savage, Rousseau informed us. Man in the nude will be his natural, good self. This idea has worn a groove into the mind of an era. It is not necessary to read Rousseau to discover it; it is enough to breathe the fumes that emanate from the intellectual climate. The idea that has the world in its grip holds that man is naturally good but that he is deformed by his culture. Divest him of his culture, and the goodness will shine forth.

The Transformation Industry is under the sway of this idea. This is the demonic urge which impels its assault upon society, culture, manners, mores, and civility. There are quite an assortment of ways to go about it. A George Bernard Shaw comedy could go about it with style and verve. Nudity is a relatively innocent approach. The more powerful weapons are profanity, obscenity, vulgarity, and the vivid depiction of perversions. The record thus far shows that when the protective cover of culture has been removed, we are exposed to the more drastic forms of political power. It is a crucial part of the process of collectivization.

Next: 22: The United States: A Bemused People.