The Nature of the Threat

J. S. ScifoUndesignated Leave a Comment


Below is an excerpt from “Fragments,” my book of essays available at J.S. Scifo on Substack | Substack.  This was written in December 2022 and January-February 2023.

These are dark times indeed.  From pot smoking to cross dressing, behaviors that would once have been considered aberrant have been normalized.  Perversity is so commonplace that the word has almost lost any meaning.  Despite the recent decision to overturn Roe, the culture of death—from abortion to a suicide—continues to deepen.  In pop culture, where a certain amount of debauchery is to be expected even in the most staid of times, the envelope has been pushed to oblivion.  A good portion of those in child bearing years are abstaining from family formation.  Patriotism is a forgotten concept to anyone under 50.  And no one fights over God or religion anymore because no one knows the first thing about either.  This does not mean that we’ve stopped fighting, only that we’ve found new things to fight about.

And all of that might be tolerable if America’s constitutional order still held.  Instead, we are witnessing the final act of the (power) play to replace the federal system with a national one.  Thus, every problem now has one solution to be imposed by the know-it-alls and do-gooders in the Capital City.  The national security establishment now regularly inserts itself into elections.  From global warming to trade to war, it is international organizations that decide the fate of America, not Americans.

What are we up against?  And by “we” I mean conservatives, traditionalists, and libertarians of one stripe of another.  First, we must answer the question “What is progressivism?”  By that I mean the broad social and intellectual movement that began with the French Revolution continued in the Russian Revolution and lives on to this day in the form of progressivism.

Next, we must consider what is progress?  Once it was ending segregation. Now it is reparations.  Once it was decriminalizing homosexuality.  Now it is enshrining gay marriage.  Once it was making abortion safe and legal.  Now it is making abortion pervasive.  Once it was treating animals humanely.  Now it is treating animals as equals.  Once it was tolerating difference.  Now it is suppressing “misinformation.”  Once it was clean air and water.  Now it is stopping weather.  Who decides?  From whence do these directives emanate?  And what is the final destination?  There is none, because, as the above examples show, the goal is only just the beginning, to be replaced by another goal that is the TRUE victory.  The struggle is perpetual.

The greatest strength of progressivism is its pliability, its endless shape shifting:  A gay person was made that way by God, and God doesn’t make mistakes.  But a woman born with the anatomy of a male wasn’t made that way by God, it was a mistake.  The cosmic system for assigning sex sometimes goes on the blink.  There is no way both can be true.  We hear this kind of double talk continuously.  The war to defend people from Godless communism was bad (Vietnam).  The war to defend people from a ruthless dictator (Iraq) was the greatest crime in modern times.  But the war to defend Western Civilization—a concept which I had always understood the Left to abhor—against Putin is the most righteous cause in the history of the world.  The list of contradictions is endless.

It is commonplace today to say that such and such “has become a religion”:  global warming, wokeness, all the genuflections to the sacraments of race and gender (sometimes literally in the case of “taking a knee” as a form of protest against “injustice”).  And that is true, but it misses the larger point that mythology—religion—has always been at the heart of what it meant to be a radical.  It was often noted that communism—with its saints (Lenin) and martyrs (the proletariat), dogma (dialectical materialism) and heretics (Trotsky)—resembled a religion as much as the secular ideology it purported to be.

We see that today in the telling of the civil rights movement, which is so fundamental to progressive ideology in America:  After centuries of oppression, God’s chosen people rose up.  From their ranks emerged a holy prophet (Martin Luther King) who was martyred by the purveyors of worldly power.  Since then, others have risen up only to be beaten down (Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, George Floyd).  The oppressed wander the world looking for justice but are always thwarted from total and complete emancipation by the machinations of the comfortable and privileged.  Only when humanity returns to its natural state—free from the social constructs that have for millennia punished the “Other”—can perfect justice and equality be achieved.  Until then, take up your cross; the struggle continues.

To be a progressive is to believe that any institution or custom that has stood the test of time must be destroyed precisely because it has stood the test of time.  Oppression is the fruit of institutions and customs (or rules, mores, pre-judice—pick your term) and therefore institutions and customs must be pulled up by the root.  Longevity is simply a sign of a practice’s success at keeping people down.  Progressivism is also to believe that only you and your compatriots act from motives that are honest and defensible.  Everyone else is motivated by self-interest, or greed, or—worst of all—HATE!  In short, to be progressive is to be more highly evolved.  It may once have been possible to believe in God and taboo and reproduction, but we now have science and reason and technology which has made all of that obsolete.  More importantly, we have social criticism—self-awareness—that allows us to see that everything that came before was a manifestation of social control in one form or another.  To be something other than progressive is to ignore all of that.  It is to admit to oneself that one is no better than the earliest humans motivated by the most elemental forces of nature.  That’s a pretty big step down, and probably why we are now seeing some evidence that the ancient idea of people becoming more conservative (i.e. more wise, more accepting of the limits of life) as they age has stopped to be the natural course of things[1].

The above ideas miss two fundamental points. The first is that all of the supposedly useless customs do have a purpose—a purpose which will not be realized until they are eradicated.  Or as the economist Frederich Hayek wrote “those rules which are common values serve the maintenance of an order of whose existence those who apply them [or seek to destroy them] are often not aware”[2] ). Exhibit A is the traditional, nuclear family.  It is only too late before that realization registers in the popular mind.  Then civilization must embark on a decades- (centuries?) long effort to rebuild that order.  The second is that we humans, despite our technological achievements, are essentially still hunters and gatherers, if not exactly cavemen.  We are still wired to survive in harsh conditions by using the most basic instincts of propagation, defense, and predation in conjunction with other people (family and friends) who share our needs—and our genes.  What follows—beliefs and customs—is called culture.  That does not mean that we should not try to resist our most base instincts, only that we should recognize them and devise sensible diversions and alternatives (which is what religion does).

In other words, progressivism is the tragic loss of the sense of tragedy.  In pre-modern times, people understood that the human condition was marked by disappointment in one form or another.  It was commonly understood that the world we inhabit is slightly off-kilter: that good does not always triumph; that hard work and sacrifice are not always rewarded; and, that the arc of history most definitely does not bend towards justice.  The ambitions of Man were for not.  To be human was to suffer.  And the crowning achievement of all our exertions, even for the fortunate few, was Death, which until Christianity held no promise of resurrection and an eternity of bliss.  This insight was the touchstone that bound every person, living or dead, past and present since the beginning of time.  Even Moses was barred from reaching the Promised Land.  The conceit of the radical is that this condition is unfair.  Whereas the pre-moderns accepted that the gods, or fate, or fortune, or Karma, or unknowable forces beyond the ken of Man were responsible for the world’s sorry state, the radical cannot.  To begin with, God could not be responsible for injustice because there is no God.  Instead, there must be some other reason.  That reason is the corruption of society.  Undoing that corruption through social action and “right-thinking”—primarily by gaining control of the levers of government power—is the essence of progressivism.

But there is a problem. The progressive loves society.  She, just as anyone else, values the stability and conveniences that society provides. In fact, the greatest effort to remake America in the image of the radicals was called “The Great Society.”  Since, in the eyes of the radical, all values of the “good” were manufactured in some distant past, it is simply a matter of replacing the bad, old “good” values with new truly good good, even great, values.  To put it another way, all values are local, specific to a time and place, and become conventional (or common, as in “commonsense”) only because of usage over time.  If people can be conditioned to do “bad,” then they can just as easily be conditioned to do good using the same process of education that was used to perpetuate bad, and in time this will become the new good, the new commonsense.  Coincidental to this process is the effort to create rituals, social proscriptions, and taboos around the new values to give them a certain sanctity.  Not to put too fine a point on it, the Progressive is using the same atavistic tactics (one’s not based solely on rational thought) they claim to abhor in order to remake society in their own image.

Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard describes a process where the scientific, rational way of knowing resorts to narrative—the traditional way of knowing—to gain legitimacy.  As he puts it, “The name of hero is the people, the sign of legitimacy is the people’s consensus…the notion of progress is a necessary outgrowth of this.”  This search for legitimacy is exactly what the Left means when it talks about “reclaiming the narrative”[3] It is the realization that the “scientific attitude” alone cannot achieve the goals of progress.  And so scientists (meaning all rationalists) must create an epic story of knowledge, i.e., a myth, to excite the people.  This science-based myth-making goes hand in hand with empowerment of the state, another goal of the progressives.  “The State’s own credibility is based on that epic, which it uses to obtain the public consent its decision makers need”.  Think here, in a more benign form, of the space program and space travel generally.  Or, more perniciously, the fight against global warming.  At the same time, however, the scientific attitude is trying to destroy the traditional knowledge of the people, “who are perceived…as minorities or potential separatist movements destined only to spread obscurantism” (30). Hence, the current crusade against “the MAGA crowd” and “misinformation.”

So what, exactly, is my beef?  As Jeremy Bentham argued, yesterday’s innovation is today’s custom.  Is not the progressive doing exactly what has been done throughout history?  Once absolutism was the rule in governance.  Then the West had a Reformation and an Enlightenment that replaced tyranny with democracy and individual rights.  Surely, I am not arguing that we go back to those Dark Ages.  In fact, wouldn’t I, if transported, 200 years into the future, be making the same arguments about the necessity of protecting transsexualism or free-form family formation or satanism simply because they had stood the test of time?  My answer to that is three-fold:

  1. There is a natural law, a Platonic ideal, written on the hearts of men. We know inherently that certain things are wrong.  The very fact that progressives invest so much effort trying to reprogram people to believe that white is now black and up is now down is an acknowledgement of this truth.  People have to be taught to believe, despite their natural inclinations, that misgivings about the latest social innovation are really a remnant of patriarchy or racism or misogyny operating deep in our psyches that must be eradicated (just as the Christian believes that sin is a remnant of our fallen human nature that must be washed away).  In this vein, progressives are always perplexed that certain “pre-judices” persist despite their legal and political successes in overcoming them.

In reference to the above challenge, I would not argue that tyranny is right.  But that does not mean that authority is wrong.  In all the wayward follies of humanity there is a kernel of truth that must be wrestled with.

The example that comes most readily to mind is marriage.  For millennia, arranged—or even forced—marriage was the norm.  Then Christianity introduced the idea that people should choose their mates, and romantic love was born.  Both served the same purpose of satisfying sexual urges and perpetuating the species, but one was more humane and conducive to healthy unions.  People, especially women, were not forced into what we now call traditional marriages because of some agenda to dominate; they chose them as the better alternative.

  1. Which leads me to my next point: What is, is good.  That is not to say that all things under the sun are good only that they exist for a reason and that reason must be accounted for.  Wisdom, a value that progressives soundly reject, is the ability to discern what is truly good and necessary from what is not.  Or just how much of a bad thing should be allowed.  The conservative does not resist change for its own sake but seeks organic, measured change over time in way that recognizes history (including a given society’s constitution), practicality, and the realities of human nature.  Most importantly, it is not the custom’s longevity but its outcomes that are the true measure of its worthiness.  In contrast, the progressives have made an idol of Progress.
  2. Finally, and emphatically, assuming I could transport myself 200 years into the future, I would not be forced to argue in favor of the inanities of the progressives simply because they have become the new norm because I am confident that these transgressions of morality and good sense will not stand the test of time. They are fashions not foundations.  We are very quicky approaching the moment when the inconsistencies and false truths of the progressives are about to collapse under their own weight.  I hesitate to say that I am looking forward to that moment because it will be one of violence and disruption.

So to return to the original query, what exactly is progressivism?  What is this now two century old effort to set humanity on a new course free from the irrationality and injustice that has plagued man since the dawn of time.  It has come under many names—sans-culottism, materialism, rationalism, socialism, Fabianism, Bolshevism, humanism, internationalism.  In its more benign forms it was called liberalism, which even conservatives could claim, and which does not in the least capture the true spirt of contemporary progressives.  I will tell you what Progressivism is…Read the rest at  The Nature of the Threat – J.S. Scifo on Substack

J.S. Scifo is a North County resident who has worked in national and state politics.

[1] John Burn-Murdoch “Millennials are shattering the oldest rule in politics.”  Financial Times, December 29, 2022.

[2] Mirage of Social Justice

[3] The Post-Modern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.