Robber Barons and Moral Busybodies

Control Through Distraction

“Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.  It may be better to live under robber barons than under the omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” CS Lewis


The other night, I heard the above quote from CS Lewis by a speaker on a live, streaming event from Washington DC. It was one of those observations that escape through the protective “safe” shield of things the populace is allowed to hear. Rather than offer the usual distraction of entertainment, it provides insight into a different perspective on the workings of power.

It’s a quote that has lingered in my mind much longer than the thousands of words that come and go in the daily traffic of media. It’s an unusual and powerful quote for a few reasons it seems to me.

One is that it is from the past and not from the present daily battle between the two parties and therefore subject to quick classification and subjugation in the minds of most. In effect, it is outside the current political debate in its observation of two character types in American history: the Immoral, cruel Robber Barons and the Moral Busybodies. In this way it remains difficult to classify in the current political debate.

CS Lewis

Unable to classify the quote and assign it a side in the current political debates and cultural wars, it exists outside the destructive weaponry of the nation’s controllers. Not defined and subjugated, the quote seems to float a little off the main stage of cultural attention like the hand tricks of a magician.

It is one of those observations that pull back the Wizard’s screen, revealing the little old man behind the great media voice of culture. Within its words exist the potential to bring together various types, classes and races of people. But bringing people together offers a dangerous threat to those in control who continue to work keeping the populace apart and fighting each other and accepting the diversity meme issued by culture’s controllers.

It is a dangerous threat to the side-shows and distractions manufactured by the controllers. It is something that needs to be watched in that it has the potential for unification rather than a continuing break-up into more and more smaller pieces of diversity.

Yet its lack of definition by the cultural controller/gatekeepers places it outside their visual spectrum making the quote impossible to really monitor. Like the best belief systems, it is one full of  satire and humor revealing a deeper truth. It is a truth bursting out of party definitions and labels. It cannot be captured by a slogan or bumper sticker or a candidate’s yard sign. It is something beyond a sign or message. It is something that approaching that invisible power of an environment or a medium.

The Robber Barons – Seated on Bags of Millions on a Heavy Raft Carried by Workers.

The quote offers up two sources of power that have controlled America over the years. Both are related to technology. The Robber Barons symbolize control based largely around the hard power of money and economics. It is the zenith of the power of America’s industrial age represented by the great icons of industrial wealth. At one time, the “cruel” American financial system under the old Robber Barons was the controlling power in America. The methods of the controlling power of their age was the hard, direct power of American capitalism.

But Lewis talks of another type of power he fears even more than that of the Robber Barons. It is a power that rules not by the hard, direct power of industrial capitalism, but rather the soft, indirect power of pleasure and entertainment. Not via confrontation but rather distraction. It sees itself as a benevolent power.

Lewis (1898-1963) saw the beginnings of the rise of a new soft power during the rise of propaganda during his life. It was only beginning during his years,  this takeover of the hard force and replacement by a soft distraction. It was contained in the new industry of public relations and the propaganda of advertising creating by people like Edward Bernays.

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In many ways, the Lewis quote relates to the paradoxical founding symbols of America in the symbols of Freedom and Equality … the great masculine and feminine archetypes. The Robber Barons represent a personification of the symbol of the masculine power of freedom. On the other hand, the Moral Busybodies represent the personification of a new type of feminine control over Americans. This new control is not via direct confrontation via hard symbols (the use of force more like economics and military) but rather by soft symbols (via the distraction of entertainment and social media).

Yet it the two types of power go beyond groups of persons to also suggest types of technologies and media. The Robber Baron type of control was based on the linear, mechanical technology of the industrial age. It was represented by a mass culture of mass communication, consumption and production. It was a one-way broadcast communication of early network television, radio and newspapers.

The Moral Busybody type of power is based on the non-linear, interactive communication. It is the feminine “omnipotent” technology of electricity which never sleeps. It is not like the “cruel” power of the Robber Barons which become satiated at times and goes to sleep. In the emerging world of electricity and propaganda that Lewis saw, Americans would no longer be controlled by the direct force of the great masculine industrialists. Rather they would be controlled by the  never-sleeping soft power of the moral busybodies, the propaganda of these busybodies.

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A quote that evades definition by the cultural gatekeepers, can serve as gathering space for off-the-grid members of society and culture. It has the power to pull together individuals and groups never pulled together before by the defining current memes of diversity and identity politics. The quote offers a form of a participatory cool medium rather than a non-participatory hot medium. The reader is invited to participate in the observation of two types of tyranny. Considering non-tyranny is outside the scope of Lewis’ observation as the quote begins with “Of all the tyrannies.” It suggests the danger of sincerity, goodness and morality in creating modern tyranny.

Controllers of culture need to police observations like the Lewis quote. These quotes are somewhat like the juicy worms on fishing hooks. They have a way of hooking thought and pulling people out of the water of cultural distraction. They have a way like advertising headlines of making people interested in the subject product of the headlines. They have a way of making people want to explore more words from the author of these quotes.

CS Lewis is behind the above quote and somewhat outside the range of current cultural discussion. Yet there are other quotes similar to the Lewis quote that lead to the source of the quote in stories, articles, books, speeches, blogs, podcasts. There is the danger for controllers that members of the flock will stray past the gates of the farm, distracted from the controller’s distractions. There is the danger that they will see something new, different by following the quote to its source by inviting people to leave their safe spaces of distraction to journey outside the security of their piece of the diversity landscape.

A source of power of the CS Lewis quote is that it holds back from making a pronouncement of hard, “cruel” facts but rather offers a suggestion. The suggestive nature of the quote begins with its first sentence with the use of the world “may” rather than the word “is.” As Lewis begins, “A tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” (Italics mine)

In other words, the context of the quote, invites reader participation. In terms of the media concepts of Marshall McLuhan, it offers up something “cool” rather than something “hot.” There seems to be something for the reader to participate in offered by the quote. A “cool” type of literary device.

Most consider McLuhan’s terms of cool and hot applying to media. Yet they might also apply to messages within media. In his book Understanding Media, McLuhan refers to one of his favorite scholars, Sir Francis Bacon observing that:

Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting hot and cool prose. Writing in ‘methods’ or complete packages, he contrasted with writing in aphorisms, or single observations such as ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice.’ The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth.

So, not only is there “hot” and “cool” media like the hot industrial technology of the Robber Barons but there is the cool technology of the age of electricity that followed the industrial age.

Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)

In the subtext of the Lewis quote resides a reference to the two famous dystopian novels about future of control and power. One is George Orwell’s 1984. The other is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The world of control envisioned by Orwell is much a continuation of the “cruel” and forceful control from the world of the Robber Barons. It is control through hard, economic power. The world of control envisioned by Huxley is one of soft, cultural control.

The media critic Neil Postman observed that Huxley’s novel is far more relevant than Orwell’s book in identifying the dominant form of control in contemporary America. To Postman, it is a control based on the superficial distraction of entertainment and pleasure rather than the overt modes of policing and strict control over food supplies. In fact, control through distraction does not even need police to enforce laws.

In this sense, it is not surprising there is a call for defunding the police. They are no longer needed to enforce power because the controllers no longer operate by power but by distraction. The omnipotent moral busybodies who control us for our own good, never sleep. They are the only “police” needed in culture. While they work by soft power, Lewis notes, they will “torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”


Full Above Quote of CS Lewis

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

God in the Dock: Essays on Theology

One thought on “Robber Barons and Moral Busybodies

  1. Armed with a decent education and an open mind, I think I have a much better chance against soft power than I do against hard power. The Robber Barons have been picking up traction since the Reagan Era, concentrating wealth and power and the results are devastating. Look at where America ranks now on the various measures of a society’s health. The Barons have mastered the technology and the art of distraction in the form of right-wing media to a degree that the Busy Bodies can only dream of. The fear-mongering, the dumbing down, the gaslighting. The % of voters who picked Trump in 2024 is like a stamp of their success. Contrary to the quote, I don’t see any sign of their cupidity being satiated.

    I don’t think the quote lies outside of the present time. Real tyranny is at the gates and their minions won’t be members of Oprah’s Book Club.

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