The media has been one of those institutions that in the past in the past was referred to as the “Fourth Estate” presumably because it was hold holding political and other institutions accountable. Many now accuse the press, Hollywood and academia of complacency in this regard; of having lost their way, and being on the “left.”
In one of his essays, George Bernard Shaw gave a completely different take on such a turn of events where he raised the question: “Have you ever wondered why I am a Communist?” His answer was: “Well, it is largely because of my sense of the great importance of leisure in civilized society.”
At first reading this may not sound strange: True, people need time to read books, be they about literature or science; watch movies; theatre performances, surf the internet or go to Church, political gatherings and demonstrations – and get instructed in Marx, Mao and G.B Shaw himself. But Shaw neither raised the question who will finance the increased leisure or just how you induce the now leisured classes to do what he thought necessary for having a better society.
He did write that for leisure to be effective in building this utopian society, people must be “informed, trained and disciplined.” If not, then, according to Shaw, the result is just the opposite: With “too much leisure” a society emerges that will be wholly sterilized “for cultural purposes as if you brought them up to work as slaves to the limit of human endurance without any effective leisure at all.” The outcome of such misuse of leisure is “that the little religion and art, literature and science we can obtain, are frightfully corrupt.” How much the Covid episode-imposed “leisure” contributed to the present state of the arts and even sciences – considering the recent MIT cancel-scientific lecture – one not in humanities or social science – future historians will debate.
Shaw indicated that with “too much leisure” people actually become too tired. At which point the “idlers” – Shaw’s term for the members of the “cultural and academic” sectors – after having been educated, come “to loathe education, culture, literature and everything suggestive of intellect,” and “use their freedom from toil to cultivate the art of amusing themselves or letting other people amuse them.” As a result, people end up not being uplifted at all, with accountability and discipline gone.
It appears that Shaw anticipated, inadvertently perhaps, features of both communist countries as well as these days’ declining education in Western schools and universities, where “dead white men,” himself included, got pushed to footnotes at best. The “idlers” (think students) get credentials for – to just mention two extremes – walking around with mattresses on their back (at Columbia University), or awarded PhDs for a Dadaist joke: a 52,438-word essay on architecture, with no periods, no commas, no semi-colons, no upper case and no paragraphs (at University of British Columbia).
What Shaw, the idealist forgot, or perhaps never understood, was that even if his “great men” have the power to pass laws and regulations fitting his “communist ideal” and require people to live by them, their passing does not imply that people would do so. Although Shaw was obviously wrong about his rationalization for being a “communist” – ideas are one thing, human nature another – his views shed light on why a majority of actors, singers, academics, authors, journalists and non-secular priesthoods – Shaw’s “idlers” – happen to be on the “left,” no longer filling that role of fourth power.
There is no contradiction between being multi-millionaire actors, artists, and other rich members of the “idlers’ industries” in the West and their recommendations to limit options of the hoi-polloi when testifying in favor of raising taxes, of redistributing wealth, and advocating a never ending list of government programs filled with bureaucrats remedying all society’s ills. For all I know, they may even believe sincerely in the success of such programs – as Shaw apparently did – and not only because their customers need time for the time-consuming stuff they’re selling.
After all, being born with a rare feature – be it voice, glorious looks, unusual feel for rhythm, eyes, hand, feet co-ordination, talent for writing plays – is a genetic accident that can bring great rewards at young age with, occasionally, not even much discipline. It’s nature’s lottery. Those possessing these rare DNAs, and having become rich, may be inferring that they would be having the same careers even if their rewards were not in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, but just half or even a quarter of them. After all, their distant second best options, unless rewarded for their genes, luck and some discipline, they may be aerobic trainers, hairdressers, waiters or practicing another lower rewarded occupation. Being severely taxed does not appear to impact their own career paths. So why would severe taxes impact others? Logical inference: But then logic knows nothing: it just disciplines the mind for consistency.
Thus it is not surprising to find now a close relationship between flaky politics and flaky culture. There is a meeting of minds, self-interest (acknowledged or not), and being in the digital company of gorgeous DNAs – facilitated by the echo chambers of “influencers” – that brings about undisciplined frenzies of fame. Statisticians may measure them as contributing to prosperity – but they don’t. It is a myopic view.
What’s the remedy?
It is easy for political and legal authorities to pass laws and regulations. It is far more difficult to follow them and be held accountable. The most difficult thing is to impose laws upon ourselves, being open to debates, open to correct mistakes, negotiate and compromise, be disciplined and tolerant. By the time kids are in their later teens, it is too late to acquire these predispositions as by then the lack of discipline is no longer viewed as a problem but becomes rationalized by new jargons of Shaw’s “idlers.”
Yet, drawing on lessons of history these “laws” are the only ones upon which one can build a successful society. Recall: It took 40 years, roughly two generations to get rid of slave mentality in the Sinai desert, though we may be optimistic that it can be done now more quickly. After all, the number “40” often repeated in the Old Testament, is symbolic, always related to the emergence of something “new.” The choice of this number probably came from observation of the 40 weeks of pregnancy – creation of something new indeed. It may take less time these days – and the failure – bankruptcy – of today’s still so-called “educational institutions” could precipitate the change.
Reuven Brenner is governor at the MEI and on the Editorial Board of American Affairs. The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.