George Scilabba reviews “The Wreck of Western Culture” by the Australian sociologist, John Carroll.
It’s been true for a while that you want to consult more than just American ‘scholarship’ these days. Political Correctness has taken its toll, along with the extremist bi-polarity that has infected American thought and culture since the Revolutions of the Identities began long decades ago. Some credentialed authors have come to the conclusion that there’s a better chance of ‘sales’ and enhancing one’s creds and stature if one addresses a selected ‘base’; “Democracy, Incorporated”, a work by Sheldon Wolin, an American professor with an established record of respectable professional achievements, recently won a Lannan Award (and 75K) for sharing – just before the elections – his considered illuminations to the effect that ‘everything’ is the Republicans’ fault. Mussolini’s last excuse – “The Germans are responsible for the whole thing!” – comes to mind (Benito, We hardly knew ye).
Or a professor with an eye to keeping the union card and his publishability might pull punches, coming up with insights but not following-up on them, for fear of alienating the book-buying ‘consumer’ and bringing down the wrath of the punditry of the Left or the Right ‘base’, as well as the obloquy of numerous professional colleagues. Thus Thomas Sugrue and Clay Risen (the latter a journalist, but there’s always think-tank and ‘commentator’ slots to be had – if you’re on the appropriate approved ‘list’), both of whom have put out books mentioned in Posts on this site recently: ‘Sweet Land of Liberty’ (Nov.26, 2008) and ‘When Did It Go Wrong?(Jan.24, 2009).
And of course, there is the unsleeping ‘weather eye’ to be kept on which Party is now in power, since you or your university would very much like to remain on such ‘lists’ as the current Beltway ownership might keep. The current edition of the magazine “First Things” has an article by one R.R. Reno, opining that the American people love to be governed by “elites” and that it’s not a bad thing at all. As I had mentioned in my recent Post on the death of that magazine’s guiding light, Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, it’s apparently time for that publication to start re-ingratiating itself with the Democrats, if not the Left’s ‘base’, in compensation for its decades-long friendliness to the Republicans and the Right in the culture wars and – ach! – the current debacle on the Eastern Front. It will do so, apparently, by burbling all praise to the governing “elites”, to Our own intellectual nomenklatura and Party vanguard cadres.
Nor can it any longer be denied that the American media’s uniformly happy-face and upbeat ‘take’ on the blood-soaked misadventures of the Israeli realm leaves Us woefully under-informed, especially in comparison to the rest of the planet’s thinking folks.
So We have this book by John Carroll and this review by George Scialabba.
Dostoevsky’s insight is highlighted: “Man was created a rebel” but that only a very few human beings are capable of truly fulfilling that stance, sustaining the journey along the genuine rebel’s darkling path.
A couple of thoughts.
It’s nice to see the use of “created”. Before Feminism of the Second Wave decided that “God” was getting in the way of ‘women’, their ‘equality’, their ‘progress’, and their ‘right’ to abortion whenever they feel it’s the thing to do; before that Feminism added its energies to the forces of rationalism, materialism and consumerism that had been dragging American culture, society, and civilization toward a lonely and windswept precipice of ‘utter freedom’; before all that, both Left and Right, as then understood, accepted more or less without question that human beings were indeed “created”. That ‘creation’ provided the Star-Tekkian ‘prime coordinates’ without which the marvelous starship vessels could not navigate in the trackless expanse of deep space; it provided - depending on how one construed ‘God’ and ‘God’s Plan’ and God’s ‘will’ and how God acted or did not act in and on ‘the world’ and ‘life – a Trellis of some sort.
Hobbes, not so theologically interested as politically concerned, went so far as to assert that the nature of the human is to be utterly ‘free’, to “feel no sides” whatsoever, no limits, rather than to be contained as water is in a water-bag. Of course, the fact is that water so ‘contained’ is of more use than water simply ‘loose’, that some sort of ‘containment’ provides not simply ‘obstruction’ but also ‘shape’ (it’s important enough a concept that I am here taking the liberty of capitalizing it – Shape). Water will tend to simply spread itself all over the place unless it is given a Shape. As will vines, no matter how vigorous, run all over the place unless they have some sort of Trellis (the capitalization ditto again).
He goes on to work out what he sees are the consequences of this ‘utter freedom’: a jungle world where life is “nasty, sharp, brutish and short”. Though, as is well known, Hobbes did not have the concept of Original Sinfulness to somehow then help explain how and why it is that humans, when largely or utterly unconstrained, demonstrate so consistently the darker potentials of that freedom, violating the rights of others and even perhaps their own best possibilities (or ‘natures’) with stunning vitality and depravity.
A world like that, populated with such competently voracious animals, requires a Leviathan, a government power (whether Monarch, Tyrant, or Parliament was not his immediate concern) that would function – and far more ‘efficiently’ than God – as an arbiter of justice, or at least retain a monopoly on violence.
It was Locke who wanted to put together a government that would prevent Leviathan from running roughshod over the best political and societal potentials of the citizenry. Suffering and evil there would always be, but Locke envisioned a limited and constrained government, answerable to its citizens, that would permit them the freedom to realize the potentials at the higher end of their range (if you don’t mind a little social-work-speak here) while providing such constraints as would be judged necessary to contain the darker potentials. Locke, it could well be said, ‘accentuated the positive’ in human nature. Hobbes took a darker view.
I can’t help but think that a dynamic factor of regression and of decline was introduced in the formative years of the Revolutions of the Identities. Each Identity required its constitutive ‘outrage’ and its constitutive ‘enemy’; according to the Goebbelsian playbook borrowed from the waxing Israeli State by the nascent Identities, such an ‘enemy’ had to be monstrous indeed, and had to create a certain class of ‘victims’, i.e. the member-class of whichever Identity was running the play.
With numerous Identities, each reporting (thanks to ‘advocacy scholarship’ and ‘advocacy journalism’) huge and outrageous numbers of truly depraved actions being perpetrated against its members, there was a veritable orgy of demonization as each Identity’s advocacy-apparatus swung into action against this and that suddenly-identified ‘monster’ and ‘enemy’. The country’s public life became a maelstrom of demonizations, sometimes conflicting, sometimes creating a toxic synergy, always creating the impression – if not outright asserting – that America was indeed a Hobbesian nightmare.
Can it be any surprise at all that the government – eager to maintain electoral viability and to distract attention from the fact that it had no workable plan to sustain or maintain America’s fading broad postwar gains after about 1970 – became more and more a Leviathan? And this is before We take into account the National Security State’s 1948 birth-certificate (the ominous document “NSC-68”)that required public ‘fear’ as a nutrient to its flourishing as indispensable as mother’s-milk.
Nicely, in light of Our present privacy concerns in regard to government snooping on citizens’ communications, the recently-released Hollywood film “Milk”, relating the rise to influence in the 1970s of the ‘out’ gay politician Harvey Milk, has its Milk-character opine (in an accurate quote) that “Privacy is the enemy” in these burly times. Leviathan heard – and obeyed. The feminists’ insistence on bringing government police power into the hearths and bedrooms of all American homes is another, larger, contributor.
Surely neither Milk nor – one can only hope – the feminist Advocacy actually sought to regress the entire country to a Hobbesian condition, Leviathan and all. But then again, who’s to say how many Advocates wouldn’t at all mind having such a Leviathan, so long as their own favored cadres were the “elites” who ran the whole thing? Power, like Truth, is a heady wine – but most activists/Advocacies don’t realize it until it’s reached the stage of a debauchery of repression and – ach! – ‘prevention’. And who then is going to re-chain the beast of Leviathan? Is there another Founding generation among Us? Could such gentlefolk ever be elected now?
Scialabba continues: “The burden of freedom, the responsibility of finding – or creating – one’s own purpose and meaning without the guidance of authoritative, inherited creeds and values, is too heavy for all but a few”.
“Freedom” is indeed a burden – “strenuous Liberty” as one 17th century English thinker put it. And not simply ‘fighting’ for it – either with arms or ideas. Rather, the burden of living a life constantly under the weight of such a purpose and such a task: to struggle toward the widest possible distribution of a genuine Freedom and Liberty – not simply politically, but morally and ethically. “To ensure a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations” as Lincoln put it.
It was a task that aged Lincoln tremendously before Our very eyes, as the succession of Lincoln images clearly reveals. And warns.
And Lincoln believed in some form of guidance and support from the Beyond. Whether he could have managed to bear up under the strain – simply as an individual human adult – without his sure and certain belief (however vaguely he allowed himself to limn it in his imagination) in such Assistance, is a profound matter for consideration.
Imagine if one undertook such a task – lifelong – without such assurance (or Assistance). Into what deformities would a human spirit be pressed under the titanic pressures of human weakness and human folly and human evil?
The Grand Inquisitor sees it clearly. ‘Religion’ – an overloaded concept meant to describe an organization that would mediate and channel that Assistance and assurance to vast numbers of human beings too limited to sustain the task, the course, the mission, on their own – and the conformity to religion are his only solution.
Dostoevsky somehow senses that ‘organized religion’, especially in the form of the Orthodox Church of the Tsarist Russia he knew, had become too enmeshed in the very this-worldliness that it had originally been formed to temper with the Grace of God. Human beings have a capacity for freedom and for governing themselves and their own affairs, he insisted.
True enough. If enough human beings can ‘platform’ that awesome and awefull mission. Most, at any given time, do not, as best as anyone can tell.
The Founders sensed that. It was not simply the ‘economics’ of a ‘ruling elite’ preserving its social power and position (as Charles Beard thought) that drove them to distrust broad democracy as much as they distrusted tyranny and monarchy.
But not all ‘elites’, alas, were the compleat human being – well-rounded, well-educated and informed, morally and emotionally mature, societally responsible, primarily concerned for the common weal. “Elites”, as the Russian people were to discover after 1917, were themselves far too liable to start carrying-on as if they were an aristocracy, and every ‘aristocracy’ requires its ‘peasantry, and every revolutionary vanguard requires its Lumpenvolk, those who would and could never ‘get it’ and were to be kept in a state of productive repression.
Jefferson hoped for an American “natural aristocracy”, gentlefolk who would be greatly talented yet morally committed to subordinating at all times the exercise of their gifts to the needs of the common weal, with no slippage into ambition, self-enrichment, or the darker potentials of the human self. He might have been thinking of angels, but then again the Enlightenment didn’t really believe in them; human beings, it was hoped, could do it.
Or – later on – there was the ‘existentialist’ gambit: human individuals come from ‘nowhere’ nor are they headed toward nor supported by any ‘Beyond’; each individual must shape and fuel his or her own life in this dimension (the only dimension), realizing ‘freedom’ however s/he sees fit, and that’s about it. The ones that don’t ‘get it’ are not the existentialist’s concern: they are the doomed background extras in a plague city, and if they have drawn the short-end of the stick, well the existentialist individual can’t assume the burden of their fate. At least the existentialists didn’t pose the threat of creating and administering a Leviathan. But they were no friends of ‘democracy’. If the ship went down and you couldn’t swim or you couldn’t get to a lifeboat, well – that’s life.
“Modernity” dispensed with any functioning acceptance of ‘limits’ by other-worldly or non-material factors or forces. There is no Beyond, there is no reality to ‘ideals’ except insofar as this individual or that group accepts them, and human beings are ‘in this life’ pretty much ‘on their own’. They can band together, they can make common cause, they can subordinate themselves to Leviathan, with any combination of military, political, or – after the Industrial Revolution really got rolling – corporate powers imparting whatever shape and – ach! – purpose and meaning that there was to be had.
“Modernity” collapses what I say is a complex and layered reality – human existence as it was created by that ‘Beyond’ – into a Flattened ‘world’ where only Leviathan can shape the many bright and many dark potentials of human being, individual and communal.
And the fight for control of Leviathan is all that is left to Our politics, increasingly controlled only by the “elites”. And that ain’t good. It represents a profound decline, a regression, from the Founding vision (as imperfectly as it was first embodied) that itself was seen as the culmination of the gifts of Western civilization.
The last 40 years – seeing the embrace of Leviathan by the Left as well as the Right – have been, whatever their accomplishments, a dangerously comprehensive falling-away.
To bray that the West’s vision was no-good or ‘quaint’ or such betrays an ignorance – willful or otherwise – of what a unique human treasure has been so gravely damaged. To bray that whatever happens ‘next’ is bound to be ‘better’ is childish if not also ‘barbarian’ – those folk whose unwitting destruction of the very Roman culture and society they invaded in order to enjoy led to almost 1,500 years of European and Western struggle to recover the quality of life enjoyed by Roman citizens at the height of the Empire.
Are We going to set the planet up for a replay of that on an even larger scale?