Opinions

The Relationship between Ideas and Power

      Why did protesters threaten such violence that armed law enforcement with riot gear were needed as protection detail for conservative Ben Shapiro when he spoke at UC Berkeley on Sept. 25? Why did students at Middlebury College assault a speaker and a professor, sending the latter to a hospital in March? Why did students demand a lecturer at Yale be fired last year after she questioned administrators giving students a dress code for Halloween?

      There is a reason for the growing antagonism against liberty on campuses across the nation: Karl Marx didn’t believe in the power of ideas and neither do his Leftist worshippers. Marx, in his essay “The German Ideology,” claimed that “when reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence:” Marx is an empiricist, and his claim (one that is itself, ironically, philosophical) is that only that which is material is real. Ideas, says Marx, are just the theories of the rich and powerful used to justify their power and to perpetuate (your) subjugation. Marx can’t prove that claim, because that requires philosophical argument, the very thing he eschews, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be convinced that Marx is right. Black Lives Matter protests demand, whereas MLK convinced and inspired: the world of MLK is one where words have power, the world of BLM is largely one where the only power is physical power.  And so a vast majority of students on campuses today do, in fact, believe Marx is right: not because they have deeply wrestled with his assumptions and find them to be rigorous and compelling, but rather because they have been taught that power is the only reality. Seize the means, says Marx, and so we do.

      To the precise extent that students have been born and raised in the milieu of cultural marxism, those students aren’t interested in dialogue and argument: they don’t champion free speech as the tried-and-trued method for changing minds. In other words, today’s liberal students aren’t actually interested in being liberal. It’s classical liberalism, the child of Enlightenment liberals like Voltaire, that tells us that the free play of ideas can lead to human flourishing. The founding of America surely rested on that liberalism. What was the process of drafting the Constitution if not a long, wearisome debate on what forms of government our new nation should take? What are The Federalist Papers if not Hamilton, Madison, and Jay trying to convince the fledgling nation of the merits of a strong executive branch by means of polished argumentation? Liberal students of today have been taught that liberalism is a lie, that the only reality is power, that the best way to overcome a commentator who says things you don’t like is to drown out his voice or fight him with fists rather than words.

       The Athenians killed Socrates but we still read his philosophy today. As that great liberal comic book writer Alan Moore shows us in “V for Vendetta,” you can kill a man but an idea can live forever. I mention Moore because he helps us formulate a response to cultural marxism. The contemporary conundrum is, how do you talk to a student who doesn’t believe in talking? Marx said all art is false consciousness produced by the bourgeoisie: but even if we believe him (and I’m not convinced most of us do), we still go to see “Wonder Woman” in the theaters. Art, then, might very well become the last bastion of liberty, the last place we can defend ideas against the maxims of those who believe only in power. But however we go about convincing others that cultural marxism is a lie, it is important that we do indeed expose that lie. There might be steep costs in making that argument to an increasingly angry populace, but we must have courage, for what we are arguing for is nothing less than the preservation of our increasingly fragile liberal democracy. Let us not succumb to cultural marxism: we are Americans, after all, and the very existence of our nation is a reminder that ideas have consequences, and reasoned speech really can change the world.

      Sources: New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Marx-Engels Reader

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