Russell Kirk, who may have been the only conservative in the post-war American conservative movement, forbad the importation of television sets into his ancestral manse, Piety Hill. One day, in his absence, his wife and daughters smuggled one in. Dr. Kirk discovered it, and they in turn soon discovered him, high in the tower with television in hand, pitching it off the roof.
Television, like all virtual realities, comes from Hell. (The author of this piece, having hosted several television programs, knows how difficult it is to use the medium for good; in effect, one has to do bad television.) Earlier generations of conservatives knew instinctively that machines could be Hellish, and they regarded innovative technologies with distrust.
It is perhaps a measure of how much conservatism has withered away that most American conservatives now welcome any new technology that comes along. They love cell phones, which destroy what little is left of the public space. They gush over genetic engineering, which will create weapons that bring back the Black Death. Most of all, they embrace computers and all their progeny even though, all around us, our fellow subjects of Heaven are using them to create virtual realities they can inhabit almost full-time. (Fortunately, they still have to eat.)
The first Christian principle, and the first principle of Western civilization, is that there is and can be only one reality. If there can be multiple realities, we lose both Jerusalem and Athens. If there can be more than one reality, there can be more than one God; so falls Jerusalem and monotheism. If there can be more than one reality, what is logical in one means nothing in others, where logic itself may not hold; so falls Athens and reason. All things are indeed relative where realities proliferate.
Hell has always hated reality, for in the real world, Christ is King. Old Screwtape’s problem, for millennia, was that philosophy made a poor weapon against reality. Even Hell’s most sophisticated philosophical device, ideology, fell sure prey to reality, seldom lasting more than a couple of generations. His Wormship knew that he needed a more powerful and enduring weapon than philosophy could provide. He needed convincing but false images of the true: virtual realities.
Virtual realities existed, to be sure. Nero’s Domus Aurea was one; Marie Antoinette’s life as a shepherdess another. Military headquarters were often wonderful generators of virtual reality. (We now flood ours with computers, making the problem worse.) But these took great power and vast resources to create and were also impossible to sustain.
If Hell were to triumph over reality and make it stick—which comes very close to triumphing over God—it needed to find a mechanism that could create powerful, compelling virtual realities, proliferate them widely, and enable people to live in them, self-convincingly, most of the time. And then, brilliantly, Hell’s workshops begat the cathode ray tube and the video screen.
It is clear that many modern people live lives where the video screen, in all its many variants, is the dominating reality. (Perhaps we should borrow here from Derrida and write reality.) Televisions are on and squawking throughout the house, from rising through going to bed. The children spend countless hours with their video games; sunny days are irrelevant. The adults’ version is the Internet, whose most common use is for pornography. All offer alternate realities, an ever growing variety of them, all getting better and better in their ability to seem real. First they are alluring, then satisfying, and finally compulsive. Snap! Go the jaws of Hell.
If most conservatives were still conservative, they would find this troubling. Some do find the content of many virtual realities discomfiting; the Roman arena begins to pale in comparison. But few seem to see that the Reality Principle (Marcuse’s old enemy) is itself at stake. Is watching a Mass on television the same as going to Mass? No. Is knowing that it is a fine day in Ouagadougou the same as enjoying a fine day in the park? Again, no. Is watching people on a video screen the same as knowing actual people? No, indeed. But in more and more lives, the virtual is replacing the real.
And the image is substituting itself for the Word, the Logos. The West spent three thousand years struggling to substitute the Word for the image. The war of the Word against the image is perhaps the most basic theme of the Old Testament. Thousands of Christians gave their lives in that fight. Now, thanks to the video screen, history is running backwards because on video screens images are far more powerful than words. Not surprisingly, paganism is on the rise, beyond and within the Church.
If conservatives cannot see the danger in the thing itself, in the substitution of the false for the true, one would expect they would at least, be alarmed that all virtual realities are subject to manipulation. Today, in America, most of them are manipulated, deliberately and systematically, to serve the ideology of cultural Marxism, a.k.a. political correctness. Thus we get endless television programs and video games where men are puny and women strong (they beat up the men), muggers are white and doctors are black, and the only normal-seeming white males are homosexuals. Thanks to virtual realities, the entertainment industry has become the most powerful force in American culture, and it is largely owned by the cultural Marxists. Through it, cultural Marxism does what it is supposed to do, psychologically condition. Soon enough, in any life where virtual realities hold sway, anyone who dares think that maybe Western civilization really is superior looks in the mirror and sees “another Hitler.” Does the prospect of Brave New World not bother conservatives anymore?
The answer to all the above, from many technology-addicted conservatives, is that computers and their ilk provide wonderful sources of information. That is undoubtedly true. But it raises a further, very conservative, question: is information itself all that wonderful?
I often lecture to young people, college grads, usually on military topics. They are adept at the information technologies, having imbibed them as their mother’s milk. The problem, to put it bluntly, is that most of them cannot think. They cannot think because of information, not because of a lack of it.
An Amish friend of mine, David Klein, put it well as we talked under the trees of his Wayne County, Ohio, farmyard this past summer. Using information technologies, he said, is like trying to build a car by reaching blindly into a vast dumpster and using as parts whatever comes to hand. That is how these young minds work. They cannot grasp any sort of intellectual order or framework. All they have ever encountered are bits and pieces of this and that, spewed randomly out of some cosmic, universal vending machine. It is not simply that things do not make sense; these young people have no concept of things making sense. As Ortega warned would happen, they have become technologically competent barbarians.
Again, an earlier generation of conservatives would have understood. When life is, in effect, an endless process of interruption, thought, as we traditionally knew it, becomes impossible. Western thought is linear, but “information” is chaotic. More, thought requires being alone with your thoughts, something the technologically dependent can neither attain nor abide.
Just as intellectual chaos is normal to the information generation, so is their lowly status as humble servants to lumps of beige plastic. I will confess that a year ago, I was browbeaten by my office into putting a fax machine in my summer home in Ohio. It was more demanding than a cat. Unless I met its every beeped and coded wish, and they were many, it refused to work. (Even a neglected cat will still catch mice.) This summer, I realized I was the servant and it the master and resolved this inversion of the natural order in Kirkian fashion, by taking a sledgehammer to it. Its human replacement, a FedEx courier, does the same job with far less trouble.
But rebellion of this sort lies far outside the ken of those who worship the computer and its siblings. They cannot imagine lives without their machines, even though we lived such lives (quite nicely, too) just a few decades ago. No sabot in the gears for them; without their calculators, they cannot even add. Go to the bank some fine day and ask the young teller to do something that “isn’t in the computer,” and she will look at you with great, cow eyes.
Conservatives used to know that information does not equal knowledge and that knowledge does not equal understanding. (T.S. Eliot had something to say on the matter.) The transitions require thought, and computers, in both their informational and virtual reality guises, are enemies of thought. Thought only works if it is unplugged.
In addition to writing on military topics, William S. Lind serves as the Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism of the Free Congress Foundation. His e-mail address is Western Union.