In light of what I said in my last Post, I’d like to try to get to the nub of it all. I came across a chapter in Clive James’s “Cultural Amnesia”. Although it’s about a European intellectual of the interwar era, Egon Friedell, James manages to wrap a marvelous contextual penumbra around it, much of it having to do with Nazism and Soviet Communism, two monstrosities which bethumped the Austrian Friedell in his lifetime. The page-references are to the W.W. Norton paperback edition of 2007.
Even in the time of Khrushchev there was a movement to bring back the Stalin-era ‘scientist’ Lysenko. Lysenko had tried to force biology into conformity with Communist principles. This, as James rightly asserts, raised Party doctrine and Political Correctness to the level of a ‘religion’ and raised the imposition of that Correctness on genuine science to the level of a “superstition”. Truth and accuracy were tossed overboard in the quest for ‘political’ and doctrinal purity.
The possibility of Lysenko’s comeback engendered dismay in many scientists (though in Stalin’s Russia, most of them had learned to keep their mouths shut, and to ‘go along to get along’).
Except for the amazing Andrei Sakharov, who managed to love his homeland as a true patriot and remain committed to truth and speak up for truth when Political Correctness was threatening any non-conformity to the Party line with professional oblivion, imprisonment, and death – and you don’t run into that type of courage very often in life, not even here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Sakharov wasn’t the first or the last intellectual to face the risk of losing his tenure and his union card as an academic; but he acquitted himself better than most.
Sakharov stood up to Khrushchev and persuaded that earthy but lifelong Communist Party ‘macher’ to put the kaibosh on the plan.
But even though Sakharov was successful in this particular case, James puts his finger on the darkness: “The dreadful truth was that the superstitions had reached so deep into the fabric of the Soviet polity that nothing except a complete collapse could get them out.” (p.247)
I’m wondering whether that’s the deep rot that infects the American polity now, after four decades of the Political Correctness of the radical Left (there was nothing ‘liberal’ about it) and since about 1980 the equally toxic reaction to that Correctness developed and deployed by the radical Right of the Fundamentalists and the neocons.
Whether the dubious or downright untrue ‘science’ deployed by this or that advocacy, replete with fake numbers and ‘research’ that was with-held from peer review or public deliberation (long before Bush tried to put the workings and writings of the government beyond public review), or the demand by this or that Identity’s Advocates that such and such an agenda be implemented without any serious deliberation , or the intellectually childish and barbaric insistence on responding to inconvenient truth by shouting down the truth-speaker … or all of the foregoing, I wonder if the rot is now burrowed so deeply into American popular culture and into the government in all its Branches that it will take a complete collapse – a ‘crash’ of the hard drive, as it were – to ‘reboot’ Our culture and society and genuinely Constitutional way of going about conducting life as a People and as a nation. *
“Stalin’s capacity to join in the superstition … is the gateway to the larger subject of how an utterly cockeyed metaphysics guaranteed that the Soviet experiment could not possibly succeed even though the men who led it were willing to murder the innocent en masse.” (p.246) In Our case there is no one dictator. But there is a Congress and a Supreme Court that has now gotten used to ‘accepting’ the most culturally and communally wrenching ‘demands’, on the basis of the most implausible and incoherent and highly dubious assertions backed up by the most sketchy (when not downright inaccurate) ‘numbers’ and ‘studies’, which are accepted either with no effort to ascertain their validity or with illogical chains of ‘reasoning’ that a freshman in any 1950s college Intro to Philosophy course could puncture like a cheap balloon.
Which is no doubt why the cadres of any revolution have always gone after the schools and the universities, to prevent the type of critical thinking that could enable a fresh mind and a sturdy heart to blurt out that the emperor had no clothes on. ‘Elites’ do not think for themselves, they just have a better grasp of what they’re supposed to conform to and – in their decadent stages – can applaud politely on cue and know how to choose the right wines.
The metaphysical assertion that there is no metaphysical reality is not one that prompts visions of a bright future, but rather a Flattened and darkly bloody one, if human history is any indication. And despite several memos to the contrary, I’m of the mind that History isn’t yet dead. Not hardly.
Revolution has its place – it’s a monstrous but true sadness in this industrialized world, one that Jefferson took a little too lightly (until he became President himself). But the Framers specifically constructed the American governmental polity so that actual revolution would not be necessary: the Branches and the Houses were like the several engines of a jetliner: if one went a little off, the others could compensate and keep the craft airborne.
But it was precisely the use of ‘war’ imagery (Emergency! Enemies! Hate and kill!), so reminiscent of “War Communism” and the willful trahison of first the Democrats (for their political benefit) and then the Republicans (ditto) that invited the ‘revolutions’ into the heart of this country’s politics. A citizenry that (too trustingly) assumed that the ‘government’ and ‘Congress’ and surely ‘the Democrats’ would provide ‘serious’ supervision in the service of the common weal was instead forced onto a roller coaster ride of cock-eyed metaphysics so egregious that the ‘revolutionaries’ realized that their only chance for pulling it off was to claim that ‘metaphysics’ didn’t exist and therefore couldn’t be used to analyze or criticize their agendas and their demands.
And then the Republicans decided that what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander: they put the same scam into the service of the rich and of a repressive governmental intrusion into the private life and civil culture of the nation.
Not that the ‘revolutions’ hadn’t already been doing the same thing, creating the eerie American revenant of fascist and Communist intrusions into the life of the citizenry, the better to control hearts and minds.
But – of course – ‘only in a good cause’ … as if any dedicated Italian Fascist or Nazi or Bolshevik or Maoist ever got up in the morning and said ‘Today let’s frak up the world and everybody in it’. Phooey, they all got up convinced that they were doing ‘the right thing’, a ‘good thing’, and had Heaven’s or History’s – or at least The Leader’s – warrant for whatever bits of the dark side had to be embraced that day, in order to ‘do whatever it takes’ to drag the lumpish world a few steps further into its bright future.
You may need a 'revolution' in a dictatorship. But you don't need it in a functioning democracy. The country and the American people did not deserve what the Dems did to them - inviting 'revolution' in for the Party's own political purposes. Now public discourse is debauched and - can it be a coincidence? - this country has the highest imprisonment rates of any country in the world or in history, and - yoooo hoooo! - almost all of them male, which is to say 'men'.
What did Wilder’s and Lubitsch’s Ninotchka say to her counterparts? “The show trials are a great success, comrades; from now on there will be fewer but better Russians!” Well, from now on there will be poorer Americans … whether they are better off, let alone whether they are ‘better’ , is a question which will be answered in future episodes. So stay tuned, to see if – Mother of God – this is the end of Little Rico.
Meanwhile a government so debauched by its servility to a cockeyed metaphysics, while denying the validity of any decently coherent metaphysics, now has the warrant of both Left and Right to go forth and invade any nation that might be sitting on enough cash to fund the spendthrift spree of the past decades. In ‘civilian life’, on ‘Main Street’, folks like that are called ‘bandits’ and dealt with accordingly. And not just in Hometown, USA, but in any decent human community on the planet. We’re still in a great Western like ‘The Magnificent Seven’, only now – half a century later – Americans are in the Eli Wallach role. Look that up in your Funk & Wagnall’s.
Whether to get oil, to make the world ‘safe for Democracy’, or to make a country safe for this or that cultural agenda … what’s the difference? And should We be surprised if a country chooses to screw itself up rather than become the doormat for international bank-robbery and cultural deconstruction on a ‘world-class’ scale? A woman in a soldier’s uniform holding a male naked on a leash … the equivalent of political gold in Our domestic politics, the radical feminist (and eerily lesbian) damp-dream of a world where ‘men’ are beasts fit only for servitude and degradation … that photo will haunt Our every effort to gain ‘the trust’ of other peoples of the world and keep a seat at their table. What plays to the ‘base’ over here will – the hot ironies! – ensure resistance to the glorious American agenda unto the latest generation and the Latter Day.
James talks about old Nazis after the war, who “could not resist telling television reporters how sad it was to see a new generation of young people who believed in nothing and had no respect for values, because they had never done anything hard and clean … [those old men] remembered their lives as a crusade.”
This observation bespeaks a reality wayyyy too complicated for current American grade-school conceptions of what makes the world go ‘round. It’s William James’s ‘moral equivalent of war’ problem with a vengeance. How to live one’s life unto its fullest and furthest capacities? How to push one’s very self to its most ultimate (and glorious) limits? How to ‘get the most out of’ your life and your own self? How to ‘make a difference’? How to maximize that?
The Nazis and Italian Blackshirts considered themselves far more vitally involved in life than the intellectuals who ‘merely’ read books and trafficked in ‘ideas’. But they also considered themselves far more vitally human and ‘engaged’ than the flappers and the louche generation that staggered out from under the horror of World War One with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other, looking for one boozy party after the next and trusting no one who valued sobriety. The Bolsheviks considered themselves more genuinely human and far more authentically ‘Russian’ than the ‘bourgeois’ who had jobs, raised children, and conducted life as decently as might be in this vale of tears.
The fey but intelligent Walter Pater had said that his ideal of full humanity was to “burn with a hard, gem-like flame”, perhaps recoiling from his own inconsistency and lack of an emotional (even spiritual) center. The ‘true’ Brownshirt, Blackshirt, and Bolshevik embraced the ‘hardness’ and the ‘gem-like’ purity.
But it wasn’t enough. Not hardly.
And the ideals of Europe’s old Christendom could have told them that. James quotes Friedell: “Mankind in the Christian era possesses one advantage over the ancients: a bad conscience.” (p.242). You can only access ‘conscience’ by acknowledging that there is a Law – written in your heart but coming from Somewhere Else – that you cannot violate without somehow also violating yourself. It’s that ‘element’ which provides the trellis (capital justified in this case: Trellis) that keeps all your determination and dedication and zeal from bursting forth wildly, crushing truth and integrity and justice and charity and, inevitably, other people’s rights and lives.
Without ‘conscience’ and its ‘Law’ all human energy goes wild, barbarically wild. And that barbarism need not appear unwashed and slavering like a Victorian ink-sketch of Attila the Hun or a pop-eyed histrionic with a funny moustache and hair flopping down over his eye. It can appear dressed rather nice, speaking calmly and confidently from the highest human precincts: ‘Well, we’ll just have to embrace the dark side’.
Nor need it be a Brownshirt screaming about “unlebenswurdiges Leben”; it could be a young female remarking over drinks that she can’t let her life be thrown off by a “discarded bundle of cells” that she one day “discovered” as if by inadvertence inside her body. Ach. A cell here, a cell there … after a while … **
So, James notes, it soon became clear to Friedell in those awful days of the 1930s in Germany that “Christianity was in for a comprehensive rewrite, the main aim being to jettison its moral encumbrances, of which bad conscience was the most burdensome”. (p.242) That should not be unfamiliar to Us.
Frighteningly, the ideals of Christianity have been under assault – ferociously – from both Left and Right in this country for decades. From the Left, knowingly, to jettison the moral encumbrances that obstruct ‘liberation’ and some sort of ‘full equality’ that winds up assaulting Life and lives, although only in the service of a revolutionary ‘good’ that must be acknowledged and accepted here and now without delay. From the Right, unknowingly, in the pursuit of a ‘purity’ and ‘zeal’ that seeks to flood human imperfection with an irresistible force of ‘good’ here and now without delay.
“Even if the Nazis had stayed where they belonged, at the fringes of politics instead of at its centre …” (p.242). But of course, that Our problem too. Forty years ago, as desperate as a Weimar government fearful for its own existence, the Democrats invited the most radical and revolutionary elements into the very center of Our democratic polity, and thereby through everything out of balance (not a good thing to do in a large aircraft flying at altitude).
It wasn’t the validity of the agendas and the false numbers and fake studies and the cockeyed metaphysics of no-metaphysics … it wasn’t the strength and validity of all that which ‘justified’ the sudden irruption of all those numerous agendas into the center of Our national life. It was that the Democrats – without actually admitting it – simply threw their entire weight behind what they saw as their political life-preserver, the radical Left (nothing ‘liberal’ about it at all). Which seems as fecklessly self-defeating as the struggling democracy of Weimar making common cause with the radical Right in order to keep itself going, sort of like inviting in the vampire to protect you against the wolf.
And the Political Correctness that then stifled all intelligent deliberation so as to prevent any ‘obstruction’ to the realization of the agendas and demands … you won’t keep a democracy for very long once you’ve taken that route.
We’ve been on that road for forty years. Wandering in that desert. Now according to one Narrative, things should start to look up about now. But then, in the cock-eyed metaphysics of no-metaphysics, The People can expect no help from … Somewhere Else. They will be urged to stick with ‘the revolution’ . The revolution which after all this time (like the Communism from which it drew so much of its method) has now calcified into its own ‘nomenklatura’, its own aristocracy and big-shots, its own string-pullers and puppeteers, all of whom are doing very well, thank you, and – more acutely – really don’t want things to change and don’t want ‘light’ to be shone into darknesses that have been embraced. Why cry over eggs that had to be broken to make the Great Omlette? Why dig up all the bodies? They’re dead so let’s stick to ‘the living’ and not worry about anything else – only the living count. (An eerily modern bit of advice, no?)
But there is a Somewhere Else. And the dead – here and everywhere – cry out to that Realm from the ground. Because in some other Place the dead are still very much alive. And they know.
Conscience can hear those voices. Courage must answer them.
*History, of course, is dynamic. This means that once you have gotten yourself into a mess, and when you finally get around to taking measures against your previous area of mistake to get yourself out of the mess, all of History's other 'areas' will have moved on, so that when you finally do get the particular mess somehow resolved, you will not be returning to your original condition since the rest of that original condition will have 'moved on'. So '1999' or '1959' ... they aren't coming back and nobody is going back to them.
**For a stunning discussion by a young woman, having recently undergone the procedure, of how she’s shocked that “even smart, liberal men are freaked out by abortion” when she tells them, over drinks, that she wouldn’t let “the uterine equivalent of minor knee-surgery” or “a discarded bundle of cells” interfere with her life just because she “had been careless with [her] pill intake”, see here. There is something of a Brownshirt callowness to it.
Nor am I consoled by the thought that this is a ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ and therefore rare position among young women.
First of all, there’s no reason to think that it is and some substantial reason to think that it may be rather the norm, especially among the college-educated ‘elites’.
And second, it was not the ‘middle of the road’ aspect of feminism that was embraced into law and policy, laws and policies that are still very much on the books.
In this I am not voicing an anti-feminist concern; this is an anti-Brownshirt concern.