The Bear’s Lair: The world needs a period of iconoclasm

Iconoclasm, whether in 8th century Byzantium or as the Reformation in 16th century Europe, was a response to a religious order that had become dogmatic, corrupt and detached from the real needs of its flock. It was more than mere reform, because it involved breaking the sacred objects of the establishment’s veneration. Economically, socially and institutionally, we have a quasi-religious “woke” establishment whose dogma has become detached from reality. Iconoclasm, not mere reform, is needed to combat it.

Iconoclasm occurs when a religion that has been enthusiastically adopted by the majority of the populace becomes ossified, corrupt and oppressive. The classic example is the First Byzantine iconoclasm of 726-787AD (there was a lesser Second Byzantine Iconoclasm in the following century). This was set off by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (ruled 717-741) banning the making of religious images in 726 – speaking fluent Arabic, he had possibly been influenced by a similar decree by the Umayyad Caliph Yazid II in 721. (The iconoclast movement later deepened to involve the destruction of religious images that had already been made.)

The iconoclast movement was motivated by an Old Covenant version of the Ten Commandments, which had forbidden the making and worshipping of “graven images,” which version had also become engrained in the Islamic faith, thus influencing Yazid II. A prolonged struggle occurred with the Church hierarchy under Popes Gregory II (715-731) and Gregory III (731-741) bitterly opposing the iconoclasts, until eventually the hierarchy regained control and the “iconodule” icon-worshippers triumphed.

The second relevant burst of iconoclasm was the Reformation. Again, the Catholic Church had grown corrupt and bloated, and unresponsive to rising literacy among the lay population – the invention of printing was an important technological factor here. Martin Luther initially was no more than a strong-willed reformist, but other early Protestant leaders, notably John Calvin, were far more radical and opposed to the Church’s physical trappings as well as its vices. Consequently, not only were the monasteries dissolved, but there was considerable destruction of Catholic churches, their ornaments and libraries. Again, the Church resisted strongly, producing a Counter-Reformation that adjusted to printing and literacy and lessened corruption, but this time the dispute ended up in schism rather than victory.

In normal political discourse, iconoclasm should be avoided. Where it occurs, as in the French and Russian Revolutions, it frequently does far more harm than good. In normal life, political beliefs are not religions; they do not dominate the thought processes of ordinary people, even those with strong views; in such circumstances iconoclasm is unnecessary and undesirable.

That was not the case in the struggle to remove Communism from Eastern Europe. Iconoclasm, in the destruction of the Berlin Wall, was immensely powerful in its symbolism, enabling freedom to be restored to that region. Now in the West, certain belief systems have taken on the characteristics of a religion, with dissent suppressed, often violently, and institutions increasingly taking on the persona of the medieval Catholic Church: dogmatic, corrupt and indifferent to those with whom they come in contact. Against such institutions, iconoclasm is essential; mere opposition is insufficient because it will be quelled.

The most important institution to be subjected to iconoclasm is higher education. The mania for sending ever higher proportions of the populace to 4-year colleges has been thoroughly pernicious. It has been reinforced by employers requiring 4-year degrees for jobs that were adequately carried out by high school graduates, and for requiring expensive and pointless masters’ degrees for higher-level positions. Contrary to the propaganda we were fed, this does NOT increase the productivity of the economy – if an employee is forced to undergo close to a decade of unnecessary indoctrination before obtaining a middle-level job, his lifetime output is correspondingly reduced. If in addition he is forced to take on hundreds of thousands in student debt, postponing reproduction and the normal “settling down” of middle life because of its burden, his life satisfaction is likely to be considerably impaired, or even catastrophically impaired if the college debt nonsense makes the difference between having a family and remaining single.

The problem of unnecessary college education is compounded by the indoctrination now found in most colleges, especially those with top-class international reputations. Classes become not means of instilling intellectual excellence, but means of indoctrinating Critical Race Theory and extreme climate change environmentalism, both utterly destructive doctrines for what is left of our civilization. The forcible indoctrination in most colleges is now such that a conservative or even politically moderate student finds themselves very uncomfortable, while those students with little intellectual curiosity are brainwashed into accepting every brain-dead excrescence of leftist thought.

The result has been an appalling dumbing down of intellectual standards, among the students but more particularly among the faculty and administration. My own alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge, is now administered by a politically correct health czar who had been promoted through the state bureaucracy – surely not an appropriate Master for the home of Bacon, Newton, Babbage, Tennyson, Bertrand Russell and 33 other Nobel prize winners. Its capacity to instill excellence has been correspondingly shriveled, as has the value of its education.

The economic and social value of college education is being reduced still further by technology. Khan Academy, Coursera, and other online education systems provide decent college courses at a small fraction of the cost of a regular college, thus forming an excellent alternative for the kind of self-motivating, intelligent individuals who can benefit most from a college education.

For the drones, who represent about nine tenths of the excessive percentage of the population that is currently forced through college, there is an even more seductive alternative: ChatGPT an artificial intelligence system that can produce a perfectly adequate essay on Thomas Jefferson with subtle wording differences from a million other essays on Jefferson thus ensuring it will not be caught by plagiarism detection systems. With such a tool, drones can graduate while devoting 100% of their attention to partying, rather than the normal 90%.

(Disclosure: In case you are wondering, this column’s digressions into irrelevances like 8th Century Byzantium, its snottiness and its taste for dreadful one-liners ensure that it is unlikely to be written by artificial intelligence in the foreseeable future, although if anyone invents artificial stupidity we may have a problem!)

It will not surprise long-term readers of this column to discover that it believes another ossified and corrupt church is that of climate change, whose dogmas have become as entrenched as those of any mediaeval schoolman. An iconoclastic Reformation would be most desirable here, but even without that, it could benefit from an input of intelligent rationalism, from a Thomas Aquinas or a William of Ockham, whose Razor could cut through many “solutions” to the climate change problem to eliminate those that destroy the most value.

Economically, likewise, the belief system of capitalism, that brought us the Industrial Revolution, was destroyed by Keynesianism, and the attempt in the 1980s to restore it was undermined by its enemies and false friends. Now we have an entrenched belief in Keynesian socialism, with private property rendered irrelevant, as demonstrated by the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” and the monetary policies of Bernankeism, which have retreated only temporarily. To destroy the WEF iconodules and their worship of regulation, iconoclasm is essential.

Icons need to be broken. This column wrote in January 2020 that one of President Trump’s great advantages was his iconoclasm. We have now lost President Trump, sadly, but any Republican nominee in 2024 needs to share Trump’s iconoclastic spirit. In Britain, likewise, Liz Truss’s feeble attempt to dent a few icons was ill-thought-out and abandoned far too quickly when the Bank of England’s iconodules undermined it. Britain’s problems will only be solved by an iconoclast of intelligence and strength – Boris Johnson with some principles and without the left-wing wife. Margaret Thatcher, bless her, was an iconoclast against the icons of her day, although even she lacked Trump’s ability to ignore conventional wisdom on second-tier subjects – thus her utterly misguided “reform” of the City of London.

When an “establishment” belief system has become so engrained that it is destroying society altogether, iconoclasm becomes not merely desirable but essential. In the United States, Britain and throughout the West, that is the position we have reached.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)