Paradise Now

The Coercive Utopians: Social Deception by America’s Power Players.
by Rael Jean Isaac and Erich Isaac.
Regnery. 325 pp. $19.95.

Who are the coercive utopians? According to Rael Jean and Erich Isaac in this valuable book, they are the people in present-day America who hold the view that man is by nature both innocent and perfectible; that man’s innate decency is tormented by the forces of industry, technology, and the needs of national defense; and that therefore extraordinary, even coercive, tactics are required for his redemption.

As prime examples of the coercive utopians, the Isaacs adduce the following: those elements in the hierarchy of the World and National Council of Churches who, against the views of the vast majority of members of these churches, do not hesitate to make financial and other donations to “the Palestine Liberation Organization, the governments of Cuba and Vietnam, the pro-Soviet totalitarian movements in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and several violence-prone fringe groups in this country”; those environmentalists whose belief in the myth of a once immaculate continent leads them to assail the industrial and technological systems which over the past two centuries have made the American standard of living, and also of international generosity, one of the wonders of history; those “counterfeit peacemakers” who, indifferent to the threat posed by the Soviet Union, press upon the United States a nuclear freeze, one that could not but greatly erode the pattern of deterrence that has thus far protected the world from nuclear catastrophe; those members and camp followers of left-wing groups that posit honor and decency and incorruptibility in the Marxist sectors of the Third World, but hardly ever in the United States; finally, those who, shrinking from overtly revolutionary careers, enter schools of journalism, law, and theology to pursue through these professions the weakening of bourgeois democracy.

The Coercive utopians is a compact and readable account of the influence exerted upon major institutions in America by this entire array of left-leaning bureaucrats, lawyers, theologians, journalists, professors, and the like. The reseach that underlies the book is impressive, and is distinguished by an eye for trenchant detail and for diversity of evidence.

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The authors properly devote a good deal of attention to the environmentalist movement. They certainly do not fault the great majority of Americans who happen to believe in preserving parts of the wilderness for human recreation, or in making our air, water, and earth as free from pollutants as possible. But they do show how highly ideological and generally leftist intellectuals have assumed dominant positions in the environmentalist movement and helped lead it toward increasingly activist politics. The history of the Sierra Club in California epitomizes this effort at a gradual radicalization of goals and tactics.

As the Isaacs point out, this development began shortly after World War II. But it was not until the late 1960’s, when the New Left made its way to some of the environmental organizations, including old and long-respected ones, that the nature of environmentalist action changed markedly. In retrospect it is easy to see why the New Left should have flocked to environmentalism just at that moment, when the revolution it had initiated on university campuses had finally come to seem doomed. Environmentalism had a respectability that went back to Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot at the turn of the century. Few if any sane Americans exulted in spoliation of the environment; to the contrary, polls gave evidence of the high priority (among the relatively well-off middle and upper classes, at any rate) placed on a clean environment. In short, environmentalism enjoyed a nearly universal acceptance that many social-reform causes lacked, and that the New Left on campus had forfeited by its nihilism and its espousal of violence.

To the new breed of militant political activists, the achievement of environmentalist goals promised a benefit unseen by their tens of millions of sympathizers—namely, a degree of social reconstruction as radical as any dreamed of by old-fashioned socialists. How better to carry on the old war against capitalism, free private enterprise, private property, and bourgeois democracy than to press, under the name of a pollution-free environment, for massive regulatory measures that would amount in the end to a thorough transformation of economy, society, and government?

There is an aspect of today’s environmentalism which the Isaacs do not significantly touch upon but which gives it, I believe, an importance lacking in other contemporary movements. Friedrich Engels, in his essay, “On the Early History of Christianity,” noted the power of that religion in its infancy to attract a variety of crackpots and quacks who found it to be a kind of umbrella for their own interests, no matter how far these may have been from the primitive Christian gospel. Engels likened the socialism of his own day to early Christianity in this respect. Almost without number, he wrote, were the nature healers, advocates of free love, antivivisectionists, vegetarians, anti-inoculationists, and others who were already seeking to hitch their causes to the great movement of the century, namely, the movement of the working class. A similar point can be made, I believe, about the environmentalist movement today.

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In a thoughtful chapter near the end of this book, the Isaacs, summarizing their research findings in a variety of areas, note the psychological or intellectual affinities that bind together Third World enthusiasts, militant environmentalists, nuclear-freeze fanatics, and the like. What makes of these diverse people a veritable class? The Isaacs are well aware of the truth stated by Joseph Schumpeter that a constantly rising number of intellectuals will become enemies of the capitalist system not despite but because of the prosperity and honor heaped upon them by the system. In part this hatred of capitalism can be explained by two ancient principles derived from the study of human behavior: the principles of rising expectations and relative deprivation. To these factors I would add two more.

The first has to do with the boredom that tends to infect those who live by their brains or at least by their wits. The second is the continuing power of what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid tradition in American history. The old place of the Know-Nothings, the demonologists engrossed by thoughts of conspiracies led by the Pope and/or the Elders of Zion, the free-silver fanatics, the anti-evolutionists, and many others, has in substantial measure been taken—albeit with greater sophistication—by the kinds of people treated in this book.

Still, just as organized paranoids of the past have generally been dispelled by time and an increasingly informed public, so, it is possible to hope, will our current crop. The 1980’s are already a very different decade from their immediate predecessors, and it has not proved so easy—to take just one example—for the hierarchy of the World and National Council of Churches to continue scattering aid to guerrillas and terrorists. This is not to underestimate the continuing influence of the utopians and demonologists, the “honest fools and dishonest promoters” (in Engels’s phrase), especially in the environmentalist movement. But there have been successes in “stemming the utopian tide,” to cite the title of the Isaacs’ final chapter, and these offer deeper grounds for optimism than some of us would have thought possible two decades ago. The Coercive Utopians is bound to play a significant role of its own in further fortifying this sense of hope.

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