King Midas in the Post-Modern Age: Sales of Indulgences in Academia
“Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? —for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers?” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
The Latin etymology of the word “religion” emphasizes the act of bringing the community together. In almost all European languages, the word that translates to English as “religion” derived from Latin ligare which meant to bind . As early as 1200 B.C, this word commonly described a sacred lifestyle, commending obedience to divine authority . Above all, religiosity centered on a paternalistic covenant between mankind and God where the former prided themselves on their capacity for total surrender to the higher power. Such circumstances immediately prompted the question of how such a supernatural force can be identified, and more importantly, who can guide mankind to its relationship with God. Although prophets such as Abraham or Moses were revered for having reported to encounter God directly, the mortal sinners were expected to interact with God through a vicar.
In the Catholic tradition, the pope was deemed to be God’s direct representative and in the Eastern Orthodoxy, the tsar served a similar purpose. Under these circumstances, it was presumed that to defy the patriarch of the church was to rebel against the Almighty Himself.
Indeed, Christians deem Lucifer to be the most nefarious of all villains not because he committed transgressions that were obviously deplorable, but because he disobeyed the ultimate authority. Moral iniquities such as murder, rape and pedophilia tend to evoke a reaction of natural reprobation from us because societies that allow such acts tend to have limited prospects of surviving. For this reason, most people have been evolutionarily hardwired to disapprove of those who display blatantly anti-social behavioral tendencies.
Yet, by all reasonable accounts, few cultures regard disobedience as the cardinal sin in the same respect it was perceived as such in the Old Testament. Most parents would much rather have their youngster rebel against authority than become a mass murderer. While disobedience is generally regarded as less morally problematic than murder, the instinct to obey remains deeply embedded in the genetic predispositions of all mankind. That is why conservatives and progressives alike continue to revere their political heroes, despite the exhumation of their venality and ignobility. Documenting this fact about human nature, the Stanley Milgram experiment evinced that people tend to obey authority figures, even when their orders are morally untenable.
Since time immemorial, religious institutions represented the interface between the divine and the mere mortals. While the original leaders of religious traditions were often revered for their piety and wholehearted devotion to the divine will, the same can rarely be said about their successors. That is why the differences in character between Moses and Emperor Constantine are glaring. Constantine and the early leaders of the church set a precedent for papal corruption and as religious institutions gained political power, an enormous gap emerged between the reputations of their leaders and their probity. As a matter of general principle, the rectitude of religious leaders tends to stand in inverse proportion to the degree of power their institutions hold.
Despite the public’s seemingly unshakable trust in authority figures, the clergy’s depravity came to light in the tradition of the sales of the indulgences. In principle, the priests were to exhort people to be virtuous and evaluate their progress in this endeavor. Following the tradition of Plato, they viewed virtue as an abstract ideal that one can grasp through exertions of the intellect and conscience. If anyone had the power to turn a reprobate into a saint, it was God and reportedly; this was achieved through the Holy Ghost’s spiritual cleansing. Yet, the priests have taken it upon themselves to do God’s work by bestowing salvation upon all paying customers.
These developments echoed the theme of Plato’s Ring of Gyges, where the church patrons were more interested in preserving their reputation in the religious community than in living virtuously. In other words, convincing others that they were saved was more important than displaying godly traits associated with salvation. For good reasons, Martin Luther vehemently opposed such institutional corruption, yet the religious tradition he bequeathed to his followers has begotten a similar practice. Less than a century after the Declaration of Independence, the American Calvinists have come to believe that God predestined only a select few individuals to be saved and membership within that group manifests through a display of piety. In this instance, the line between what Throstein Veblen regarded as conspicuous consumption and what the Calvinists saw as “electness” has been blurred to the point of invisibility . Therein, it was presumed that wealth could be obtained only through industriousness, an ostensible reflection of godly virtue.
Just as the priests bestowed salvation upon their clients, the elites of the American business and government had the putative power to induct ordinary Americans into sainthood simply by accepting them into their inner circle. That is why the Horatio Alger narrative extols the “rags to riches” journey of young men whose moral fortitude made them deserving of being taken under the wing of a tycoon . Toward the end of the 19th century, the nascent field of evolutionary biology began to reshape the consciousness of thought leaders and seeds of skepticism about spirituality were planted into the American collective worldview. Consistently with Nietzsche’s observation regarding the death God, the general public’s faith in the Church began to attenuate. The politico-economic landscape of the 19th century America has been profoundly influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Industrious and self-reliant immigrants flooded the shores of North America, strengthening the individualistic underpinnings of the colonial culture. As such, the American character was being reshaped in a way that increased the public’s immunity to subjugation and indoctrination by the church. These developments have convinced the elites that society was in need of a new civil religion.
Contemporaneously, the Massachusetts senator Horace Mann observed that the aristocratic methods of preserving social order were losing their capacity to impose discipline upon the masses. Therein, he arrived at the realization that the traditional religion of Christianity must be replaced by the secularized civil religion. Although Senator Mann arrived at a general understanding as to how the masses were to be controlled, he turned to the Prussian state for concrete prescriptions as to how this was to be achieved. With that perspective in consideration, he championed the cause of simultaneously creating the institution of public education in the United States and importing the Prussian paradigm for how the public mind was to be molded. The system that Mann championed served the purpose not of enlightening the masses, but that of rendering them docile, obedient to authority and above all; likely to endorse the ideology of the ruling class with little forethought.
In the ensuing decades, the Prussian ideology has been entrenched into the American collective consciousness. In part, the Progressive Era constituted the logical implication of the Industrial Revolution. With public opinion under tight institutional control, the elites created an abundance of not only compliant workers for the transforming economy, but also a plethora of simpletons willing to endorse virtually any reform that may serve the interests of the political class. Partly for this reason, the presiding leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Taft unabashedly emulated Otto Von-Bismarck’s authoritarian method of statecraft, empowering the government to intervene in the economy in unprecedented ways. Under their auspices, the Federal Reserve was instituted and the practice of collective income tax has become a permanent fixture in American economic life. Most significantly, the government began an extensive collaboration with the private sector to mold the public opinion in ways favorable to the elites.
Reflecting the diminishing role of religion in controlling the public opinion, the elites utilized increasingly more secular methods of achieving the objectives than those the Catholic Church pursued for centuries. The paradigm of Taylorism emerged, postulating that industries can be shaped in a scientific manner with the purpose of maximizing efficiency of production. The Progressive era presidents took that argument a step further, tacitly evoking the Philosopher King thesis which held that governing is a craft that should be pursued by the most capable of individuals. Although Wilson, Roosevelt and Taft did not openly endorse Plato’s position that democracy was to be abolished in favor of governance by the enlightened elites, their actions conveyed a firm belief in the fundamental premises of Plato’s argument.
Instead of using the promise of salvation to entice the public to endorse the views of the elites, the ideological leaders pursued a secular equivalent of spiritual enlightenment. That is, the multitude was not only to do the bidding of their thought leaders at the threat of perishing in the eternal flames of perdition, but they were to also enjoy their servitude. Toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, the unionized work-force demanded better working conditions from employers and higher degree of social responsibility from politicians. Therefore, it was no longer possible for the ruling class to preserve the traditional state of relations between classes. Consequently, the new civil religion had to compel compliance from the masses through covert rather than overt coercion.
With these developments in consideration, Edward Bernays launched his career as an architect of strategies for elites to achieve their goals. Following the footsteps of Plato, Bernays firmly believed that a truly democratic society is not sustainable and the developments toward self-governance had to be curtailed. Hence, the public should not be allowed to form views of their own and instead, the views of masses were to be manufactured by the political elites. The promising youngster articulated these views in “Crystallizing Public Opinion” which was published in 1923 and further consolidated his position in Propaganda, which came out in print just five years later. It is a remarkable coincidence of history that the latter publication by Edward Bernays was released during the same year the Stock Market crashed and the U.S economy entered the Great Depression. These developments empowered the political elites to justify greater government intervention in the economy.
Today, Bernays is widely regarded as the pioneering figure of the field of public relations and these historical circumstances empowered him to actualize his full potential. Under FDR’s skillful leadership, the government collaborated with big business to impute the blame for the economic crisis on the free-market. Such an explanation ignores the role the Smoot Hawley Tariff played in restricting international trade. Moreover, claims of this nature tend to overlook how the NIRA Act created a massive collusion between government and business to the detriment of the public. With jobs in short supply, legislators attempted to preserve profitable work opportunities for Americans who remained employed. Consequently, the pivotal leaders of private and public sectors reached an agreement that companies were to charge high prices.
It has also been established that employees were to enjoy considerable benefits, irrespective of the affect this had on the economy. As a result, the feedback loop was distorted in ways that benefited employers and employees at the expense of the public. Economic recovery has been stultified in no small part because professionals could thrive through collaboration with the government rather than by providing the public with quality commodities. These developments undermined genuine market competitions and were deprived of incentives to contribute to the economic recovery.
Entrepreneurs who complied often received access to government benefits, yet there is scant evidence to suggest that these developments served the public good. To the contrary, businesses turned a profit not by selling products at a higher price, but by receiving munificent support from the government. Therefore, their competitors were deprived of the incentive to serve the needs of the consumer and begun engaging in rent-seeking practices by entering a similar pact with the government. In large part because of that, commodities that were previously available at quasi-affordable prices have become exorbitant scarcities. Consequently, historians have nearly reached a consensus that NIRA failed to stimulate adequate economic recovery.
Toward the end of the Great Depression, the progressive Civil Religion has been deeply embedded in the ethos of the American worldview. America was no longer an inner-directed country that cherished the values of individual rights, personal autonomy and a free-market economy. As David Reisman observed in his classic of sociology, “The Lonely Crowd”, 1945 marked the time-period when the general culture shifted away from the inner-directed mindset and toward the other-directed mindset. The waning role of religion coincided with the emergence of an increasingly secular conformist attitude. As the mainstream media and PR industries were only in their nascent stages, it was up to the educators to propagate the message of the new national religion.
While the GI Bill is widely framed as an act of government altruism to help the masses of World War II veterans achieve upward mobility, its primary purpose was to carry the message of Horace Mann to the multitude. At that point, it was no longer sufficient for the K-12 system to be based on the Prussian paradigm of indoctrination that emphasized obedience to authority as the cardinal civic virtue, such a paradigm was to be extended to the highest echelons of the nation’s educational institutions. It is not an accident of history that at this juncture in American history, the right-wing elitist universities began to become egalitarian and less achievement driven. However, the seed of the Social Justice Driven educational paradigm has not been planted until the early 60s when campus radicals openly demanded a radically restructuring of an achievement based method of higher education.
Throughout the ensuing decades, the Social Justice ideologues steadily increased their political clout and toward the turn of the millennium, their viewpoint has become part of the collegiate mainstream. As testament to that fact, even the most prestigious universities now confer an increasingly greater emphasis on “passion” as opposed to achievement. In other words, an ideal candidate is to display moral and political commitments to a sundry of leftist causes such as transgender activism, eco-feminism, LGBTQ and so forth. By contrast their peers who do not espouse such causes tend to be branded “immoral” and often banished from the polite society. Instead of sharpening their analytical skills, students are now encouraged to engage in virtue signaling as a way of underscoring their Social Justice credentials.
Instead of being encouraged to learn about medicine and biology to contribute to research on cancer, students are exhorted to “march for colon cancer”. Similarly, ideological milestones of this nature can be reached by simply professing to care about every protected group under the sun. They do this by protesting any number of Halloween costumes that can be construed as even remotely offensive by any number of fringe-groups who stand for outlandish causes such as climate oppression, environmental homophobia, anti-homo sapien-presenting otherkinism, zoophobia, anti-asexualism, trans-exclusionary feminism, TERF-scapegoating, competencyism, anti-prisonerism, anti-aspieism, four eyes anti-autism, anti-farsightedism, and cleanism.
Meanwhile, it is evident that the intrinsic and extrinsic value of formal education has been in steep decline . In effect, a degree is a symbol of status rather than a hallmark of genuine intellectual or professional achievement . Similarly, to the preachers who practiced the sales of the indulgences, it is becoming increasingly evident that universities are charging exorbitant prices for a certificate representing one’s “electness”. Yet, the level of prestige associated with any group is largely a consequence of exclusivity of its membership. The fact that nearly half of all Americans hold a college degree erodes the prestige value of formal credentials .
Today, the Ivory Tower bureaucrats hold the position that has previously been occupied by priests who sold indulgences, secular tycoons depicted in the Horatio Alger’s narratives and the founders of the modern progressive Civil Religion such as Horace Mann and Edward Bernays. Despite the plummeting academic standards, proliferation of ill-conceived majors , a university diploma continues to hold a mystical allure. In the eyes of the mainstream media, the diploma divide separates “the elect” from “the deplorables” . Hence, an academic degree is now deemed to be the philosopher’s stone that turns the least capable of people into gold. The universities have seized the Ring of Gyges by flaunting their religious credentials as elixirs to all of life’s problems.