By Mark Steyn
November 22, 2013
Author C.S. Lewis warned of "men without chests" who lack restraint.
On November 22, 1963, two other notable men died, and got relegated to the foot of page 37 — the British authors C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Lewis endures because of the Narnia books (and films), but there’s a lot more in the back of his wardrobe. In his book The Abolition of Man, he writes of “men without chests” — the chest being “the indispensable liaison” between the head and the gut, between “cerebral man” and “visceral man.” In the chest beat what Lewis calls “the trained emotions.” Without them there is no honor or virtue, but only “intellect” and/or “appetite.”
Speaking of appetite, have you played the “Knockout” game yet? Groups of black youths roam the streets looking for a solitary pedestrian, preferably white (hence the alternate name “polar-bearing”) but Asian or Hispanic will do. The trick is to knock him to the ground with a single punch. There’s a virtually limitless supply of targets: In New York, a 78-year-old woman was selected, and went down nice and easy, as near-octogenarian biddies tend to when sucker-punched. But, when you’re really rockin’, you can not only floor the unsuspecting sucker but kill him: That’s what happened to 46-year-old Ralph Santiago of Hoboken, N.J., whose head was slammed into an iron fence, whereupon he slumped to the sidewalk with his neck broken. And anyway the one-punch rule is flexible: In upstate New York, a 13-year-old boy socked 51-year-old Michael Daniels but with insufficient juice to down him. So his buddy threw a bonus punch, and the guy died from cerebral bleeding. Widely available video exists of almost all Knockout incidents, since the really cool thing is to have your buddies film it and upload it to YouTube. And it’s so simple to do in an age when every moronic savage has his own “smart phone.”
There’s no economic motive. The 78-year-old in New York was laden with bags from department stores, but none were touched. You slug an elderly widow not for the 50 bucks in her purse but for the satisfaction of seeing her hit the pavement. In response, some commentators are calling for these attacks to be recategorized: As things stand, if white youths target a black guy it’s a hate crime, but vice versa is merely common assault. I doubt this would make very much difference. “No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous,” wrote Lewis — and, likewise, no law can prevent a thug punching an old lady to the ground if the thug is minded to. “A society’s first line of defense is not the law but customs, traditions, and moral values,” wrote Professor Walter Williams a few years ago. “They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. Policemen and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct.”
Restraint is an unfashionable concept these day, but it is the indispensable feature of civilized society. To paraphrase my compatriot George Jonas, punching a spinster’s lights out isn’t wrong because it’s illegal, it’s illegal because it’s wrong. But, in a world without restraints, what’s to stop you? If a certain percentage of your population feels no moral revulsion at randomly pulverizing fellow citizens for sport, a million laws will avail you naught: The societal safety lock is off.
That’s “visceral man.” What about Lewis’s “cerebral man”? In free nations, self-restraint is required not only of the underclass but of the rulers, too. Harry Reid is an unlikely gang leader, but, for a furtive little rodent, he landed a knockout punch on America’s governing norms. Like the lil’ old lady, Mitch McConnell never saw it coming. One minute, the time-honored practice that judicial appointments required supermajorities was there; the next, it was lying on the ground dead. Yes, yes, I know Senate procedural rules aren’t quite as gripping as “polar-bearing.” But, as I said, a free society requires self-restraint at all levels. Forget the merits of Reid’s move to simple majority rule, and simply consider how he did it.
As a “continuing body” the Senate’s procedures are supposed to remain in force unless a two-thirds supermajority votes to change them. In this case, a 52–48 all-Democrat majority voted to change the rules, and so the rules have been changed. After all, who’s gonna stop Harry Reid? The Senate pageboys? Legislative majorities are here today and gone tomorrow, but legislative mechanisms are supposed to be here today and here tomorrow and here next year. If a transient party majority can change the rules on a single, sudden, party-line vote, then there are no rules. The rules are simply what today’s rulers say they are. After all, banana republics and dictatorships pass their own rules, too — to deny opposition politicians access to airtime, or extend their terms by another two or three years, or whatever takes their fancy.
As noted last week, the president knows no restraints either. He has always indicated a certain impatience with the “checks and balances” — “I’m not going to wait for Congress” has long been a routine applause line on the Obama ’prompter. From unilaterally suspending the laws of others (such as immigration), he has advanced to unilaterally suspending his own. So, for passing political convenience, he issued his proclamation of temporary amnesty for the millions of health plans he himself rendered illegal. The law is applied according to whim, which means there is no law. Four years ago, polls showed no popular support for anything as transformative as Obamacare. But, through procedural flimflam, lameduck-session legerdemain, threats to “deem” it to have already passed, and votes for a law whose final version was not only unread by legislators but was literally unreadable (in the sense that it had not yet rolled off the photocopier), through all that and more, the Democrats rammed it down the throats of the American people anyway: Yes, we can! Brazen and unrestrained, Obama and Reid are also, in Lewis’s phrase, “men without chests.” Cleverness, unmoored from Lewis’s chestly virtue of honor, has reduced them to mere tricksters and deceivers. So the president lied about his law for four years, and now lies about his lies.
A government that lies to its own citizens should command no respect. To accord them any is to make oneself complicit in their lies, which is unbecoming to a free people.
Which brings us to that other death of November 22: Aldous Huxley. “Don’t you want to be free and men?” rages a dissenting voice. “Don’t you even understand what manhood and freedom are?” Gee, he sounds like a talk-radio guy demanding to know where the outrage is. Written in 1931, Brave New World isn’t as famous a dystopia as Orwell’s 1984 — because it posits tyranny not as “a boot stamping on a human face” but as a soft, beguiling caress of a human face, a land in which enslavement takes the form of round-the-clock sensory gratification: drugs, sex without love, consumer trinkets, sensory distractions . . . Crazy, huh? Like that’d ever happen.
One final anniversary thought: In his novel That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis gives his fictional bureaucracy the acronym NICE — the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments. A few years ago, the British government dusted it off for real — the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. It performs cost-benefit analyses of medical treatment and patient care — i.e., NICE is a euphemism for “death panel.” After January 1, when his victims start getting turned away from pharmacies and doctors, maybe Obama could relaunch the website as Nice.gov.