Soft Despotism vs. The Cosmos

Last evening, I ate dinner with a student at a department store food court. At one point in the conversation, while talking about the kind of attitudes and responses that pass for “normal” today, I suddenly had an odd thought. Looking around the large, moderately crowded but “socially-distanced” court, I mused aloud, “If someone from the government walked in here right now and announced that from this moment on, everyone in the room would be a slave, and would no longer have ultimate control over his own life — but the government would ensure that all of them would continue to have the best smartphones, plenty of entertainment, good cars, and so on — all the people around us would feel confused for a moment, but then, comforted by the reassurance that their daily pleasures would be protected, they would simply nod their heads and carry on with their dinners.”

“Soft despotism,” said my student matter-of-factly, applying an old lesson well.

“Exactly right,” I replied, “except that it’s getting ‘harder’ all the time.” 

The truth is that the government — every government throughout the so-called advanced world — has already long-since announced that very proposition to its subjects, many times over, and the people, everywhere, have developed an unbreakable habit of nodding their heads in acquiescence, which they now do without a hint of hesitation or self-reproach, every time, even as the calls to enslavement have recently become shockingly brazen and merciless.

And yet they cannot see it in themselves. They have bifurcated their minds so brilliantly that not only can they live with their slavish cowardice, but in general they actually fail to notice it. Instead, they have learned to restrict their conscious thought to the comfortable room on the other side of the wall in their minds, the room full of money and cars and a never-ending parade of pop songs and action movies and news cycles and easy sex and technological gadgets and pages and pages of memorized moral slogans fed to them all their lives, and all their parents’ lives too, through the propagandizing mechanisms of that all-encompassing apparatus of state control that John Dewey dreamily dubbed “the social center,” and that Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, called “hypnopedia.”

Meanwhile, you and I feel, so often these days, that we are wandering among the morally sedated, the spiritually dead. We search for someone who will hear and understand us, but repeatedly meet the dull, uncomprehending eyes of the normal, in whose view everything is fine and everyone is happy — except you, whom they increasingly hate for standing in the way of their comforting fantasy.

The good news, as usual in such moments, lies partly in reminding ourselves that mass humanity, even at its most suffocating and inescapable, is always, in the end, more accident than essence, more trivial than tyrannical, from the perspective of Time and Nature. Progressive authoritarians, with their dreams of artificial structures that will supplant Nature forever, despise this thought, and try to deny it. But at last it is Nature that will deny and supplant them. In fact, she does so every day, with ease, grace, painfully perfect beauty, and the inevitability of the changing seasons, even as her most tyrannical victims-to-be enact their ambitious but cosmically futile schemes for earthly power and permanence. 

Nature will triumph, because reality always asserts itself in the end, and the cunning experts and schemers and controllers will all complete their grand adventures as bird food and garden soil.

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