Modern Times Revised Edition: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties
a book by Paul Johnson
(our site's book review)
Johnson starts out with an overview of the modern world, looking at some of the sources of moral guidance and some of the most well-known thinkers, such as Freud, Marx, Einstein and Nietzsche. Each seemed to probe beneath the surface of a specific area of life and prove that things are not really the way they seem. Freud showed that human’s underlying motivations are unknown and not what we thought they were (they turn out to be not quite what he thought they were either, in several areas). Marx showed (or thought he did—many of us didn’t buy it) that the central dynamic of life was economic interest even if we don’t like to think that way because it makes us feel selfish.
Freud showed that human’s underlying motivations are unknown and not what we thought they were
Einstein destroyed the empirical justification for absolutism by proving that physics, time, reality itself was all relative—it all depended on one’s perspective. Nietzsche was the most prescient of the bunch, predicting that when absolutes (such as goodness or God) die, what will rush in to fill the vacuum would be the Will to Power. And, of course, that latter sums up much of what the 20th century was about: people obsessed with power over other people trying to control as many people as they could, and they had no religious or other moral sanctions to regulate their behavior, so excess became the rule.
The author seems to assume that the Will to Power—acting as it does in a relativistic universe in which God is dead and morals are relative so anything goes—is necessarily going to be about negative power (coercion, threatening, killing, etc.) and not positive power (empathy, influence, understanding, nurturing, empowering, wisdom, benevolence). Either one bows to the orthodox powers of the supernatural and authorities in general in an absolutist universe, or one tries to become a progressive power oneself in a relativistic universe. He feels it’s a short step from this latter to a morally bankrupt Will to Power where anything goes.
Johnson sees the evil nature of mankind in which we're puppets run by our Will to Power or a leader's Will to Power
Only "authorities" can hold back the intrinsically evil nature of mankind (a word which contains an oxymoron, in Johnson-think) from devastating us all. Of course, he seems to have forgotten what the "authorities" of the orthodoxy did in the Dark Ages and the Inquisition and what some of them are still attempting to do to this day.
He shows little understanding of the way the Enlightenment gave humanity a new hope for freedom, growth, wisdom and happiness. He shows no grasp of the profound significance of the difference between being led by the Frommian humanistic conscience rather than the authoritarian conscience—probably because he studied only historical facts, but little about the internal nature of mankind.
The Culture War still ongoing is one where you choose: You either bow humbly to the authoritarians and believe everything’s being run by the supernatural and we’re mere puppets, or you emerge from the masses of Dostoevskian sheep. (This is referring to The Grand Inquisitor who does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them—they'd rather have comfort and the security of being taken care of as sheep than to actually take responsibility for themselves via freedom.) The non-puppets are those who emerge from the masses as citizens of the Enlightenment, believing in the natural (whether or not you are a church-goer), in progress, in human beings’ ability to improve the lot of mankind, and in secular contexts wherein there is the separation of church and state. We opt for the non-puppet perspective. Johnson opts for the sheepish former.
We opt for the non-puppet perspective; Johnson opts for the sheepish authoritarian view
The polarized nature of this pro-Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment dichotomy is the essence of the Culture War of the late 20th and early 21st century, wherein there are progressive forces coming from a Nurturing Parent context and authoritarian forces coming from a Strict Father context (see our comments about George Lakoff’s Moral Politics).
Without submission to authorities or to the will of God or whatever, morality can never be, or so authoritarian thinking goes. But the more Enlightenment citizens evolve from the stagnant and oppressive strictures of the negative-power past (all of which aptly describes what the Founders of the United States of America did a couple of centuries ago, solidifying their newfound freedom and liberty in the form of a Constitution and a new republic of the free) and find that morality can derive from human culture as a byproduct of an upbringing in a nurturing environment that empowers self-actualization and a compassionate moral stance towards life, the less authoritarians will see symptoms in our culture that convince them that morality must be beaten into our young and stuffed down the unwilling throats of our citizens by authoritarians (and elected “stealth” candidates) whose view of morality only partially coincides with the views of the rest of us anyway.
As long as environments are relatively non-nurturing and as long as parenting continues to be authoritarian or permissive—both thoroughly discredited methods—rather than authoritative (which has been scientifically validated as best by far), and as long as parenting continues to be steep-gradient and intrinsically win-lose, rather then flat-gradient and intrinsically win-win, the culture will continue to symptomize and polarize, the authoritarians will continue to radicalize and overreact, and the progressives will continue to feel the ugly canine teeth of Dark Ages forces nipping at their heels—which they’ll continue to spurn as furiously as the Founders repudiated their former European “authorities.”
It is a fact that Maslow and others showed many decades ago that the Frommian Humanitarian Conscience—rather than the Authoritarian Conscience of the authoritarians—is a better compass to guide the moral actions of mankind, and that when a person is helped to fully mature and become an autonomous creature of being, rather than a needful, neurotic creature of deficiency and need, he can and will reflect a deeper and more natural moral sense than the fear-based moral sense so endemic to authoritarian character.
What this means is that—in spite of Johnson’s protestations to the contrary—the Will to Power merely puts an exponent on the essence of any individual. If that essence is mature, compassionate, self-actualized, win-win and autonomous as Fromm/Maslow/Riesman (and hundreds of others of our best thinkers) idealized, you’ll exponentially compound that goodness of human nature. If that essence is immature, neurotic, win-lose, angry, fearful, unactualized, confused, and bereft of intrinsically good character because it has been tainted by normally deficient, chaotic, inconsistent and inadequate authoritarian or permissive parenting, then you’ll exponentially compound the tendencies this individual has to act out his character flaws—hello Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, and Kim Jong-un, who is the supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea.
Kim Jong-un: Fear me please—I am crazy—I have bombs!
No one needs progressive-relativist Supermen to socially engineer and lead us with their all-knowing glory. We’ve had them. They weren’t so super. They represent, in spite of Johnson’s ideas, nothing very different from the authoritarian-absolutist Dark Ages’ inquisitors who were the ultimate authoritarian Supermen, but fully believing in the orthodox and the absolute and fully willing to stuff their ideas down the throats of anyone on Earth, whether they liked it or not. In fact, when those of flawed character are given too powerful and too pivotal a position, they always exploit it and us concomitantly, and become monstrous, and it matters not a whit whether they are from the progressive-relativist or the authoritarian-absolutist camp.
No one needs progressive-relativist Supermen to socially engineer and lead us with their all-knowing glory
Johnson takes the two-dimensional view that we need to regress to Judeo-Christian values of absolutist authoritarianism because there is no moral basis that is not absolute, and the germinating seeds of 20th century evils were the relativist-progressive ideals of the Enlightenment. But he is in error; he misreads history. He understands the facts but not their overall meaning.
A three-dimensional historical reading would have a systems configuration with many continuums intersecting in space in a variety of ways. The evil-good continuum would not parallel the relativist-absolute continuum nor would it parallel the progressive-authoritarian continuum. The continuum most parallel to the evil-good continuum would be the negative power-positive power continuum, in which force, threats, killing and oppression by authoritarians (with either absolutist or relativist ideals—it doesn’t matter which) bring pain and disempowerment to the weaker at one end and progressives or absolutists bring compassion and empowerment to the weaker at the other end.
Note that religion has done the most harm when it’s been at its most authoritarian and the most good when its been at its most progressive-compassionate. Christ did the most for humanity as a compassionate moral compass for mankind, and the twisted concept of Christ—centuries after Christ’s death—did the most harm when applied in an ugly, authoritarian context. Christ was a great humanist, and yet today's fundamentalists think of humanists as Satan, which is kind of pathetic, since humanists act 100 times more like good humans than any Bible-thumping fundamentalist.
Some of our nation's founders were humanists and some of the best heroes of sociological thought (like Erich Fromm) were humanists. Many well-known people today or in recent history are or were humanists: Steve Wozniak, Albert Einstein, R. Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan, Lester R. Brown, Leonard Bernstein, Niels Bohr, Steve Allen, Isaac Asimov, Jacob Bronowski, Noam Chomsky, Arthur C. Clarke, Roger Ebert, Albert Ellis, Richard Feynman, Sigmund Freud, Betty Friedan, John Kenneth Galbraith, Jack Kevorkian, Norman Lear, John Lennon, Bill Maher, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Gene Roddenberry, Carl Rogers, Bertrand Russell, Jonas Salk, Rod Serling, B.F. Skinner, Benjamin Spock, Gloria Steinem, Ted Turner, Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Walt Whitman, to name just a few of thousands.
Rod Serling, humanist
Leaders that had power in history did not all turn into raving maniacs like Hitler and Stalin. Some had positive character that was reflected in the way they converted the power of their positions into positive power for the people. Consider Gandhi, Washington, Lincoln, FDR, or Martin Luther King. They empowered, expressed positive power, and were powerful the way love and wisdom are powerful. They could have been mere instruments of negative power. But their character manifested itself and they acted with compassion and wisdom. Authoritarianism didn’t seduce them. They fought against evils in wise and human ways. Force was a very last resort.
The author is entirely correct that the social engineering of the 20th century was the source of much of its evil. Hitler and Stalin and Mao Tse-tung get the prizes here, but another example—besides the obvious case of Western welfare states that undermined personal responsibility with their big government social programs—is the Shah of Iran, who “fell because he tried to be a Persian Stalin.” Johnson points to a hopeful sign that the lesson has been learned: In the 90s the liberals began to speak of the state as an enabler/empowerer: “the state was there . . . not to do things itself, so much as to make it possible for people to do things on their own behalf.” Amen! Conservatives agreed and the makings of a politically unifying force was born. And yet, since Newt Gingriches' pseudo-revolution and the birth of the Culture War, there's been nothing but shameful political gridlock and partisan politics in Congress.
The pushmi-pullyu: a perfect symbol of U.S. political gridlock
The author brings up the questions of why the promise of the 19th century was dashed in the 20th century, what went wrong with humanity, and why have the modern times released so much evil? He says that the social sciences that were supposed to provide the answer to this failed to do so, but he notes that this isn’t surprising since they’re part of the problem. They’d invented the specifics of social engineering. He looks at how these sciences were discredited but concomitantly the hard sciences produced wonders in technology and DNA research and biology, etc. Johnson looks at the mischief that untestable, unscientific theories like those of Marx, Freud and others have done, and proposes by implication that such people should do real science in the future, not mislead us with wild theories. (And of course it doesn't help anything that the sciences have become the whores of politicians and special interests and the public has become more skeptical of the "objectivity" of scientific findings. Medical science even sold out our young when Big Pharma began mass 1984-like drugging programs on kids, laughing all the way to the bank.)
This is your child's brain. This is your child's brain on Big Pharma's drugs. Any questions?
Big Pharma spreading "good health via medicine" across the land
The sciences have become the whores of politicians and special interests and the public has become more skeptical of the "objectivity" of scientific findings
After having said that the proper study of mankind is man, and man as a social being is plainly in need of radical improvement, he takes shots at both birth control and pro-choice abortion options, once again displaying his right-wing colors. But more importantly, after having indicated a need for humans to scientifically learn to truly understand humans and social science, he points at not a single accomplishment in the areas of psychology, sociology, child development, parenting, nurturing, learning, attachment, or social psychology.
These things happened, in our 20th century. Apparently they didn’t, in his 20th century. (Are we operating in two parallel universes or what?) He implies that there is no knowledge, and there are no valuable discoveries or accomplishments in these areas. He gets so enthused at justly exposing the social engineering collaborators, he erroneously sees nothing else worth mentioning about the profoundly important contributions social/psychological scientists have made. We now know how to nurture good character and morals and win-win, bright, eager, creative, inspired citizens who help the world work and we can do all this without the slightest bit of that ugly thing called social engineering, and it is social and psychological science that has gotten us to this place AND JOHNSON SAYS THEY HAVEN’T ACCOMPLISHED ANYTHING! One gets the feeling that his nose was so buried in history books that he solipsistically decided that that’s the only thing that was/is real.
Johnson says they haven’t accomplished anything in psychology, sociology, child development, parenting, nurturing, learning, attachment, or social psychology!
He rightly criticizes the anti-Western position taken in the UN, which, instead of admitting that the high living standards in the West are the result of hard work and a more efficient economic system, has gone along with the victim philosophy promoted by the Have-nots and the fundamentalist extremists whereby the West’s wages are the immoral result of the deliberate and systematic impoverishment of the rest of the world. Johnson’s criticism seems reasonable, and he also states that: “the Big Bang . . . was no more demonstrable than the [explanation in] Genesis” (in the Bible). His entire book is conservative and somewhat right-wing—hence the holy book reference. Most of Johnson’s book is very knowledgeable but this is naïve: how do you "demonstrate" a past event that may or may not have happened? As established above, Johnson’s Achilles’ heel is definitely his understanding of science. Scientists have several pieces of evidence for their Big Bang theory and mathematic demonstrations that, in their opinion, it probably occurred even though of course it's not demonstrable. It seems to convince most scientists, but he finds it unconvincing. Actually, we concur. We don't believe it either—it's too farfetched. (Scientists only accept it because it fits the scant bit of evidence they've collected.)
For a better theory than the Big Bang theory that actually observes—rather than ignores—Occam's Razor, see our comments on Wrinkles In Time. Our theory is simpler, more natural, and even more fun! It's the best explanation for how the universe works you'll find.
Johnson has produced a well-written and comprehensive historical overview of the contemporary world, including new facts and surprising perspectives that get one thinking. He touts the famous conservative leaders such as Thatcher and Reagan, and thoroughly chastises the social engineers such as Mao Tse-tung, Stalin and Hitler as evil and irresponsible. (Ronald Reagan frequently emphasized Judeo-Christian values as necessary ingredients in the fight against Communism. He argued that the Bible contains "all the answers to the problems that face us." Oops . . . )
Johnson rightly criticizes liberals who succumbed to the temptations of Big Government (and anti-business perspectives) in various countries (e.g., President Lyndon B. Johnson), and advocates personal responsibility rather than government as caretaker. He deplores moral decay, and implies that conservative policies and a small government rather than a big entitlement-happy government would go a long way to help this. (In this he’s partially right, since this should be part of an overall solution, but it would be a disastrous step to take with things the way they are in today’s America unless it was accompanied by a much more important step: the MC movement. Unless one can empower responsibility and good character, serious diminishing of entitlements would only backfire and create social chaos.) A good quote to summarize Johnson’s overall position is:
[We often find in this century] “. . . the modern state in a characteristic twentieth-century posture—trying to do collectively what the sensible and morally educated person did individually.” The evils of liberalism, fascism, communism, socialism and collectivism can all be summed up in two words: social engineering. Having social science theorists design Utopias and politicians implement their construction was simply irresponsible social experimentation.
In the first place, people such as Marx who thought they had good theories about human social reality were unable to prove, but merely able to persuade. But many people liked Marx’s words so they tried out his ideas (actually they tried out twisted versions of his ideas whereby leaders exploited the led—which wasn’t in his plan at all). But should social reality get molded to the specifications of whoever speaks loudest, longest, and most convincingly? In the second place, when people like Darwin did have good ideas that were proven by an abundance of incontrovertible evidence, sociopaths came along and applied his ideas to spheres in which they did not properly belong (e.g., Social Darwinism), as a way of supporting their bizarre social engineering experiments. More Johnson:
“. . . in 1919, most intelligent people believed that an enlarged state could increase the sum total of human happiness, [but] by the 1990s this view was held by no one outside a small, diminishing and dispirited band of zealots, most of them academics. The experiment had been tried in innumerable ways; and it had failed in nearly all of them. The state had proven itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster and polluter. It had also proved itself the greatest killer of all time.” He goes on to blame Rousseau for coming up with the idea that humans could be transformed for the better by the political process, with the state as the agency of change, led by benefactors who controlled it for the good of all.
The engineering of society as the moral activity that would improve humanity is a concept that “. . . would have struck an earlier age as fantastic, even insane . . . zealots marched across the decades and hemispheres: mountebanks, charismatics, exaltes, secular saints, mass murderers, all united by their belief that politics was the cure for human ills . . .” Johnson’s book leaves us very sure about what the cure for human ills is not. As far as what the cure is, he vaguely points towards personal responsibility, Judeo-Christian values, the dropping of moral relativism and the adoption of moral absolutism. In other words, drop the progressive and adopt the authoritarian-absolutist. Go to church and ignore science which is impotent anyway.
It’s a mystery why he can’t see the seesaw picture of history that suggests itself so clearly when we include the sixteen centuries that came before the twentieth century. A continuum is the seesaw’s plank; our position (standing and walking) on the continuum-plank is variable, the seesaw’s pivot support is always in the center. When we walk toward the absolutism-authoritarian end, that end of the plank crashes to earth with a bloody splat and we fall and break our nose on the plank (the Dark Ages and Inquisition periods), and then when we get back on the plank at the center and walk towards the relativism-progressive end, that end of the plank crashes to earth with a bloody splat and we fall and break our nose again on the plank (the twentieth century’s fascism, communism, socialism and liberalism periods). The lesson here is so simple and unequivocal that it’s amazing that anyone could miss it:
Keep the absolutism and relativism of a society in balance or prepare for lots of bloodshed
Like every other system in the universe, we avoid chaos by keeping things in balance, and this applies in the political and social realms as well as the physical realm. We can have absolute values of what is good and right without bowing to the authoritarians to do it. We can have morality without having it imposed by those who think they “know what’s best for us.” We can have human betterment without resorting to politics, programs and social engineering by theorists whose definition of truth is inappropriately in bed with the concept of hitting upon a sentiment that sells. We can have lives that nurture others so well that these others find themselves empowered in mind, heart, spirit and character and naturally choose to help the world work better and become part of the solution, not part of the problem. We can happily survive some relativistic social truths, in our physically relativistic universe, as long as they’re not used to support social engineering and as long as they’re balanced by recognized universal verities.
If mankind cannot individually and collectively agree to increase positive power and decrease negative power, he can expect only conflict, tragedy and devastation in his future
If mankind cannot individually and collectively agree to increase positive power and decrease negative power, to increase love and decrease hate, to increase knowledge and decrease superstition, and to increase personal responsibility, compassion, and morality and decrease irresponsibility, cold-heartedness, and immorality, then he can expect only conflict, tragedy and devastation in his future. The 21st century is off to a scary start, mostly dumping science in favor of religious dogma. This does not bode well.
Humans are regressing toward pre-Enlightenment thinking that depends upon "authorities" to guide them, rather than reason, logic, and knowledge. So life will be about two things: tyrants and religion. It's almost as though civilization is stuck in reverse and along with that it would seem that human evolution is stuck in reverse. Think about it: brains that cease thinking for themselves and instead let authorities do it for them are unused organs that will degenerate. Thinking takes lots of effort and energy, but replaying tired old religious dogma in one's head takes hardly any energy. Sort of like watching a movie compared to writing a movie or using an app compared to programming an app. Humans are more evolved than apes because they think. Nonthinking humans are like apes without body hair—not much else is different. There are sayings that point out that if something isn't growing it's dying, and a flowing river stays healthy, while a stagnant pool generates diseases and smells bad. A mind replaying tired old religious dogma in place of thinking and being closed to new experiences and ideas does not flow, grow, or create. It stagnates, degenerates, and is unproductive.
The 21st century Dark Ages (a.k.a. Dark Ages 2.0) will be ripe for exploitation by tyrants, demagogues, and psychotics. Narcissistic political performers will fill leadership positions—they will be people out to gain power and wealth not for the people but for themselves—to stroke their egos and improve their lot in life. Sometimes their goal will be to try to make up for the fact they dislike themselves by getting others to admire them.