What’s Wrong with the World

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National Review responds

Well, both Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Ponnuru, both of National Review (the latter a co-author of the original Exceptionalism essay, the former of National Review Online) have indicated clearly that they are not Mills’ men, and that it is unreasonable for me to treat them as such. Meanwhile, a long-time What’s Wrong with the World reader accuses me of the device of a straw man for that treatment.

Let me just say that no one is happier with my error than me. I welcome any and all who see the truth about Mills’ monomania, and join the defense of the partially-closed society. That, as Goldberg puts it, “Cella might be overreading the phrase ‘open society’” in the case of the authors of the NR essay, is a definite possibility.

Goldberg adds a brilliant point as well. The Declaration of Independence is itself a great and solemn act of closing questions. Who can question what is self-evident, after all?

He goes on, now really pressing it, “There cannot be a true open society where all questions are open questions because some questions will always be closed. What’s interesting is to ask which ones, because what is closed and what is open does change — a lot . . . In other words, where are the self-evident truths today?”

Now that is question worth keeping open. But part IV will not, I assure you, neglect to consider the Declaration of Independence.

Comments (11)

Jonah Goldberg wrote:

... because what is closed and what is open does change ...
So certain questions are closed, but which questions are closed changes?

Is that even coherent?

Certain questions are closed and certain ones are open. Then time has its way, and this pattern changes. That's what I took him to be saying.

I think we have an ambiguity on "closed" as between "objectively closed in the minds of all right-thinking men" and "sociologically closed in society as a whole."

Lydia, maybe that's true, but perceiving the difference at any given time might well be impossible, speaking broadly. For example, in the year 1750 in Virginia, virtually nobody considered that the inappropriateness of holding slaves was an objectively "closed question" for all right-thinking men - including those who thought that holding slaves was bad. But it is now a closed question, and closed both sociologically and "objectively for all right-thinking men."

Sociologically, of course it is true that which questions are closed changes over time. Just ask the Harvard brights who thought that it was an open question whether women's and men's intelligence were genetically distinct.

Right. I was just pointing out the distinction to defend Goldberg against the charge of incoherence.

It all strikes me as a rather unsettled notion of settled truth. The difference between a completely open society and a "partially closed" society where what is "closed" is always left open, plus three bucks, might get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks. At least today; but that remains an open question for the future, I suppose. Maybe incoherent is too strong. I'd settle for vacuous as an alternate.

Zippy, perhaps the notion of "closed issue" is an insufficiently determinate notion to do any better. Take my example of the inappropriateness of slavery. It is certainly a "closed question" in some sense. But it is not a closed question when I teach my kids. They HAVE to take it as a theoretically open question while they wrap their brains around the necessary issues, and while they gradually come to the conclusions that lead them to see first WHAT is true, and eventually see that it could be nothing else, so that they too formulate the attitude that adults have: it is a closed question.

I get the feeling that this is almost exactly where the "greatest generation" and the "me generation" feel apart: the wedge landed right on this matter of some things being closed questions. I am piecing this together as I go along, so it might not be coherent, but it seems like before the 20th century, everyone who was not a scholar and had little education (i.e. 96% of population) was taught to be content to accept from their elders which questions are closed and which are open. For the scholars, a different rule applied - they were taught to hold a "closed question" AS IF tentatively open, so that they could work out the reasons for and against and eventually come to agreement that the question was rightly a closed one, and could hand on to the next generation that solid truth.

With the development of mass production, mass wealth, mass leisure time, and mass-produced education, we came to have a new model: everyone gets "educated", if that's what you want to call it. And being educated, they were taught to take on closed questions and test them. But somewhere along the way, they were not taught to treat the tested question only AS IF open, but as really an open question, treating it rather as if there really is no received wisdom about the question at all. Which leaves the student working out the issues without standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past who really had worked out much of the truth. Not surprisingly, with high frequency, the mass-produced so-called scholars who have not been taught any respect for the received wisdom, end up not thinking along the lines of the received wisdom. The result: out goes tradition. And what had formerly been a closed question all of a sudden becomes open, and highly debatable at that.

I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, Tony. The further question, I suppose, is whether this narcissistic approach to knowledge is part of what makes America exceptional, where "exceptional" is supposed to have a positive connotation.

It seems to me that it is possible to be completely off the rails on the "open society" question while at the same time disavowing, with some truth in the disavowel, Millsian monomania. Which is to say that I don't think the disavowel of Millsian monomania, while perhaps true, carries much water as a defense against the Cella critique. There are concepts of partially open societies and concepts of partially open societies; and some of them are like being partially pregnant.


Tony's scholar-citizen cleavage is a fascinating one to examine. Certainly it was not unknown to the ancients. I even gestured toward it as an example of a permanent problem of human community in the first part of this series:

there is the problem of education or instilling virtue, that is, conveying wisdom gained by experience into learning that is lively and applicable to youth who have not gained the experience for themselves.

We could modify this suitable to encompass what Tony mentioned.

Zippy: "it is possible to be completely off the rails on the "open society" question while at the same time disavowing, with some truth in the disavowal, Millsian monomania." I fully agree with that, and my view is that the Millsian error is deeper than some folks want to admit. There was a book some years back (Maximos knows it) that showed pretty vividly how subtle, deliberate and cunning a subversive of the Christian order Mills really was. James Burnham makes some brief remarks somewhere (Suicide of the West maybe) about how libertarian-minded men so often neglect to recall the context of Mills' strictures against the intervention of the state -- namely his profound hostility toward any state which evidenced some remnant of Christian hierarchy. With this context ever in mind, it is much easier to see how the apparent libertarianism is Mills' doctrine was folded so easily into the architecture of technocratic and secular socialism. Mills' himself may have known better than today's right-liberals why this is so.

I would like to add here that I think our present-day "scholars" often specialize in telling young people that questions are open which the young people would instinctively, as non-scholars, regard rightly as closed. In particular, philosophy ethics classes often specialize in teaching utilitarianism and opposing any sort of deontologism as if this is some sort of discovery of the experts. Young people are deliberately pushed by examples that are old hat to us--"If the entire village is going to be killed unless you kill one innocent man, wouldn't it be better to agree to kill the one innocent man"--to get them to accept consequentialism. Or "If you could make a world in which there were fewer people with a better quality of life, wouldn't that be better than making a world in which there were more people with a lower quality of life"--of course in the context of population control. (I want to interject here that my high-school daughter, when told of this latter example by a very nice graduate student friend, immediately responded, "What's the point of this? Where is this all going in practical terms?" The graduate student insisted, naively, that it was _just_ a theoretical question, but Eldest Daughter was not taken in.)

I say all this merely to say that almost nobody among the scholars today regards the horrific things they discuss as merely being "as if-open" questions. They really regard infanticide, murder of the disabled and useless elderly, and the like, as truly open questions.

We're probably better off without most of the scholars, anymore, and we definitely don't want to teach the common man to accept his opinions on closed and open questions from them. The days when the scholars could be trusted are gone forever.

I guess maybe I should go even farther: I think the elite scholars were pushing the rot nigh on a hundred years ago, maybe more. So I would challenge any historical thesis according to which it's only in recent generations and by way of mass education that people began taking the wrong questions to be open.

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