December 1, 2014
Author: Chilton Williamson
Articles from a column by Chilton Williamson, Jr. in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture
The Primacy of Privacy
People forget, in an age of promotion, self-promotion, publicity, advertising, the internet, and social media, that personal privacy is essential not only to civility but to civilization. Today, as never before in history, the maintenance of privacy depends on the moral fortitude to resist intrusion by others and the self-restraint and tact not to intrude on them.
In Third World societies, as in poor ones generally, privacy is compromised by squalor, crowding, and poverty. In the Western world, privacy’s enemies are democratic society and mass communications— the electronic kind, especially. Democratic mores demand that we should all be equally receptive, all of the time, to advances made to us by anyone, total strangers included, and ready and willing to “communicate” with him on any subject he chooses. An uncooperative response is frequently resented and may provoke angry replies and even abuse, as I discovered some months ago when I wrote asking to be unsubscribed from a dozen or more websites, none of whose e-mails had been solicited. (One source questioned my patriotism, and another replied that it was good riddance, no one needs Catholics for anything.) So far I’ve yet to receive hostile responses from people whose invitations I’ve ignored to be their “friends” on Facebook—I suppose because the request implies a certain level of friendly acquaintanceship to begin with. The invitation includes no option that would allow me to explain politely why I am declining the offer (because I have the e-mail addresses of these people in my computer, and if I happen to have anything of interest to communicate to one of them, I expect to do it by a private message addressed to a single person). Meanwhile, I cannot imagine having anything to say to anybody that I should wish to say to everybody. The round-robin format may a useful one in business and politics, but it is entirely unsuited to personal communication. For one thing, my friends and acquaintances belong to widely dissimilar and even mutually antagonistic circles, and most of them have little or nothing in common with one another, beyond their acquaintance with me. For another, I understand that members of Facebook have the deplorable habit of firing off messages every quarter of an hour or so with the breathtaking news that they have just fertilized their vegetable garden, or are in the middle of watching a cooking show, or that their child has just earned an A+ for his homework assignment from his Social Studies teacher. The readers of any one of these electronic missives, I gather, number in the hundreds. The principle behind this form of communication is that of the national broadcast networks, which are credited with informing on a daily basis hundreds of millions of people of what they supposedly need to know about what is going on in the world. It is impossible, of course, to “communicate” anything of significance or even coherence to those millions. The message I can conceive of sending round to 300 people could only be of the most trivial and banal kind.
“Am typing page 234 of my new novel.”
“Just back from rehearsing Bach’s B-minor Mass, where I brought in a violinist to back up the pianist and me. The three of us sounded fabulous!!!”
“Siena the cat has bladder stones and we’re about to spend $1,190 on surgery.”
“I’m mixing martinis ahead of the debate tonight. Maureen likes gin martinis; I like them with vodka as well as gin.”
“Rather than vote for Romney, I’ve decided not to vote at all.”
“My hay fever is terrible this morning—must have forgotten to take a Cetirizine pill last night.”
“M. baked an apple pie today using the apples a friend at the office gave her.”
As my friends and I used to say when we were about 16, “That’s more information than I needed to know.”
Nine decades of Madison Avenue have made people nonresistant to having their attention seized, almost forcibly, and their privacy invaded by hucksters, frauds, demagogues, busybodies, and presumptuous bores. I read several years ago that most of us enjoy being advertised to, and I’m willing to concede it must be so, else businesses and their agencies wouldn’t throw good money after bad doing it. (I myself ignore virtually all print ads, excepting the ones— for Bergdorf or Cartier or Saks Fifth Avenue— that show beautiful women beautifully dressed, and then everything but the girl herself, including the clothes, the price, and the department store, go out the window.)
All this seems to be headed unswervingly and at breakneck speed in the direction of a world that either rejects privacy as a good or has no idea any such thing exists in the first place. Yet the tendency has inevitable implications for the future of democratic societies and democratic governments, to which a sense of, and a preference for, privacy is essential. The pervasive desire in postmodern modern societies, to know everything about everybody right now, obviously threatens free societies and institutions. In tyrannous and totalitarian societies, their so-called citizens are encouraged to learn all they can about their friends, family, and neighbors for the purpose of being able to inform on them to the authorities. Privacy supports individual human dignity of a sort that the residents of a tent city in Haiti cannot know or even imagine, and also political freedom as it is promoted by the secret ballot. And privacy encourages an assurance of personal inviolability that can neither be breached from the outside, nor betrayed from within. “Friends,” Thoreau said, “will be much apart. They will respect more each other’s privacy than their communion.” Justice Brandeis praised “The right to be alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men.” And Talleyrand maintained that “The private life of a citizen must be within walls.” Those walls can be built, of course, either by the citizen himself or by the ruler. Privacy builds the wall in the first instance. The government is quite capable of accomplishing the job for him in the second.
Every totalitarian state has sought to break down the sense of privacy, and hence the awareness of individuality, its citizens possess by nature. It is the same technique that modern armies (but not those before the mass societies of the 20th century) use to transform hundreds of thousands of people housed together in communal barracks into a single unindividuated fighting machine in which esprit de corps replaces the proud self-awareness of individual, differentiated souls. One description of mass society is a society in which everybody is doing and thinking the same thing, at the same time, and in full view of everybody else. I might add that it is also a society obsessed with trivia and the minutiae of everyday life. Privacy, on the other hand, encourages the independence of mind, and of action, that democratic peoples and institutions require.
Electronics is making truly private conversation (and even true conversation itself) between individuals harder to maintain. At the same time, the internet denies to national cultures the possibility of national conversation in “private,” so to speak—quietly, among themselves, and off the international record. The violation of national privacies has already had major destructive consequences for international relations, and it foreshadows truly catastrophic and endlessly recurrent ones in the future. If Europeans cannot conduct free, frank, and relaxed discussions among themselves on such subjects as the merits and demerits of the Mohammedan religion, or scholarship pertaining to Muslim history, philosophy, and art and architecture without thin-skinned or fanatical Muslims in Indonesia or Egypt listening in, ready to reach for their guns and their firebombs at the slightest imagined provocation, any semblance of international peace and comity will be impossible. And it is the internet that made possible the recent attacks on diplomatic discretion, secrecy, and international security by Julian Assange and his associates hacking, cutting, pasting, and disseminating classified documents of state from their computers to newspapers and websites around the world. The havoc that the instant communication of anything and everything, no matter how innocuous at face value, can create around the world is boundless. Who can say how and when: The next international outburst could occur when a group of Muslim housewives in Islamabad inspires a chain of riots across the Islamic countries after watching the hostess of an American cooking show prepare a pork roast, with a bottle or two of Burgundy standing by. Just as it is possible for individuals to know too much about each other, so, too, is it possible for civilizations. The age-old dream of fools in which they wake some morning with the glorious preternatural ability to read other people’s minds is actually being realized today at the international level, as the internet enables nations to penetrate one another’s souls. That way lies the road to hell, as should be plain to anyone not steeped in the liberal assumptions of the past 400 years—in particular, the assumption that the greater the contact and communication achieved among individuals and nations, the better for the human race. It has always been an axiom of liberal internationalists and one-worlders that to meet the other is to disarm both yourself and him, and that to know him is to embrace him finally as your brother. T.S. Eliot thought it better, on balance, for the majority of people to remain all their lives in the place of their birth. His observation seems applicable to the desirability of millions of keyboardists roaming far and wide throughout the world by electronic extension— virtual tourism. Travel is said to be broadening, yet one wonders. A DVM I know in Laramie took his family abroad two summers ago. They visited London, Paris, Rome, and a Swiss city. His report of their journey was devastating: London was filthy, and Paris, where his daughter caught bed bugs, worse, while Rome was dirtier still and filled with beggars and foreigners who didn’t speak a word of English. (He appreciated the cleanliness of Switzerland, however.) Clearly, it would have been better for the DVM (and for the reputation of Western Europe) had he remained at home in Wyoming. And liberals prate about the virtues of international exchange programs in promoting an interconnected world. Well, we are all of us interconnected now, and a lot of good it has done us. The results so far include paralyzed cerebra and flaccid, desk-bound muscles at home, and hatred, mayhem, bloodshed, massacres, and full-blown war abroad.
Sam Francis’s most enduring, as well as trenchant, political insight may have been his perception of what he caustically described as “the unique achievement of the political genius of the modern era.” Francis dubbed this “anarcho-tyranny”-“a kind of Hegelian synthesis of two opposites,” he explained, in which the failure of the state to enforce protective law is coupled with the enforcement of oppressive law by the state to tyrannical ends. Under anarcho-tyranny, the underclass-rampaging blacks, illegal aliens invading from south of the border-is by and large tolerated or ignored in its behavior, while the law-abiding middle classes and that part of the upper class that is not directly incorporated into the ruling elite is criminalized through unfair taxation, social engineering, anti-gun legislation, “hate crime” statutes, and other forms of legislative and judicial harassment. Anarcho-tyranny is the strategy by which a dictatorially-minded ruling class exploits the lower orders for the purpose of grinding the middling majority between upper and nether millstones. Its primary and essential aim is the concentration of political and economic control exclusively in the hands of the governing elite and its apparatchiks-exactly in the manner, and to the same purpose, that the Communist Party gained absolute control of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Anarcho-tyranny is about the consolidation and expansion of raw power, not the realization of an ideological vision-just as American capitalism in its postmodern form is concerned, not with the patriotic aim of maximizing the position of the United States internationally, or the ideological one of spreading democratic capitalism throughout the world, but rather the creation of a wealth-generating dynamo destined to be, not solely the wonder, but the central defining reality, of the universe.
Anarcho-tyranny is paralled by a twin synthesis whose aim is indeed ideological, and to which power, being instrumental, is secondary. This synthesis might be called libertine-Puritanism, or Puritan-libertinism: the “creative” juxtaposition of unbridled sexuality with a bluenose condemnation of liquor, tobacco, rich food, red meat, overweight, physical unfitness, blood sports, guns, traditional male behavior (other than extramarital sex), combined with an energetic enthusiasm for genetic engineering and cloning. Libertine-Puritanism is both eager for and demanding of power, as a means for realizing its vision of the new moral order, detached from traditional morality founded in religious law, it quite rightly recognizes as the prerequisite for the creation of the New Man fit to dwell in a recreated-and strictly regimented–world. Toward its achievement, the ethic of entirely unregimented freedom-below-the-belt is an invaluable and indeed indispensable tool. As for the end itself, which is nothing less than the creation of Heaven on Earth in which all mankind will be as physically perfect as show animals and long-lived as gods, power is handy as well. In Brave New World, Huxley cedes the future more to libertine-Puritanism than to anarcho-tyranny. (There is plenty of soft tyranny in his New World, but no anarchy of the political sort at all; the same is true of Orwell’s dystopia, though in all other respects Huxley’s prophetic vision differed from, and was truer than, that of 1984.) In the post-Christian West, it may be that the pseudo-religious aspect of libertine-Puritanism makes it more dangerous-because more seductive-than anarcho-tyranny, at least in the long run. From the vantage point of the United States of America in the year 2005, a tax rebellion or a popular movement against underclass crime and illegal immigration seems a good deal more likely than a crusade to outlaw divorce, or the destruction of embryos for stem-cell research, does.
Synthesis in politics, as in philosophy, is very often a sign that someone is attempting to get away with dishonesty for a purpose, or purposes, best known to himself. Mixed, or republican, government is not the result of a “synthesis” of democracy and monarchy, or totalitarianism and anarchy; any more than Unitarianism is a “synthesis” of Judaism and Christianity. Usually, the dishonesty in attempting to reconcile contradictions amounts to trying to have one big thing both ways, for ends as dishonest and self-serving as the means. All too often, moreover, syntheses are constructed from the modern passion for “creativity,” a word that itself developed within the Marxist context. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has written, “Creativity means that in a universe that in itself is meaningless and came into existence through blind evolution, man can creatively fashion a better world.” (“It may be,” he adds, “that in such visions a cry for freedom is to be heard, a cry that in a world totally in control of technology becomes a cry for help.”) Finally, contradictory combinations unnaturally induced, in human affairs as in nature, have a way of producing catastrophic results–as was demonstrated sixty years ago last July, on the Jornada del Muerto in southern New Mexico at a place called Trinity.
Those who do not work with God in history end up working against him. This appears to be an historical (as well as theological) axiom that admits, to my knowledge, of absolutely no exception. Man bends toward transcendence as a plant grows toward the sun. And if he will not achieve transcendence through God, he is impelled to attempt to achieve it through himself. This has been the modern project, lasting already for half a millenium at least, and showing few signs at present of abating, but rather the opposite. Man is impelled also by the desire for achievement-paradoxically achieved through work, which is the curse of Adam. And he is never content with achievement solely, but desires and works to perfect that achievement as well. Anarcho-tyranny and libertine-Puritanism both strive to accomplish tyranny. But the tyranny they envision is not the tyranny of the present, just as the economic system envisioned by Wall Street, London City, Frankfurt, and Shanghai is not the present-day system, but the radically-almost unimaginably-enchanced one of tomorrow. In modern parlance and understanding, “changed,” of course, means “improved.” (Detroit works to build something superior, in efficiency and everything else, to last year’s Ford.) Financiers today are at work to construct an economy that quite simply will not be of this world, which is to say our world–the world in which we live today. Similary, the architects of anarcho-tyranny are hard at work planning a tyranny that is not of this world, while libertine-Puritanism has in mind a people that are not of this world and, finally, a world that is not of this world.
Superficially, it might appear that anarcho-tyranny and libertine-Puritanism have divergent, actually opposed, ends. What the two share, however, is a principal means toward those ends. And it is at that point, concerning this matter of means, that anarcho-tyranny and libertine-Puritanism intersect, libertinism being only another word for sexual anarchy ( the sole anarchic expression to command popular enthusiasm in the middle-class suburbs and the ghettos).
Libertinism.anarchy.chaos — an ancient word, charged with Grecian nobility, force, and truth:
Keep order in space,
And order in time,
For disorder is chaos,
And chaos is crime.
For the England in which this bit of anonymous verse was written, chaos was the greatest evil imaginable-quite literally, the work of the Devil. For the would-be synthesizers, it is simply the step in planning at which the creative destruction necessary to the fulfillment of their ambitions occurs. Out of confusion, destruction, chaos a new world will be built, constructed and consecrated to their own specifications and their particular purposes.
Religion, blushing, veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame nor private dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! Thy dread empire Chaos is restor’d,
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all.
If all goes according to plan, the curtain will remain down only for so long as is necessary for the dismantlement of the original set and the construction of its replacement to be accomplished. And when the curtain rises again, it will be the hand of the Tyrant-not the Anarch–that lifts it. If the world breaks toward chaos at present, chaos is unlikely to prove long-lasting. Insofar as the world, meaning the Western world, ever was “free,” the age of freedom is rapidly reaching its end. Tyranny, it seems, is set to increase; anarchy to decrease-after, like St. John the Baptist, it has fulfilled its purpose, which is to prepare the way for tyranny by making tyranny nearly inevitable.
Orwell warned that, when words lose their meaning, men lose their freedom. In these days, however, the misuse and abuse of language, though significant, is not the chief weapon of advancing tyranny. Propaganda is rife-in fact, it is everything, or nearly so-but the main danger is not really Newspeak. It is conceptual structures, not word structures. Intellectuals create historical syntheses, not active people-who, in so far as these syntheses amount to an accurate description of the world, simply act them out. That is not to say that certain of these people are unaware of what they are up to, where they are going, and where they intend to take the world, if they can. As a general rule, a society in contradiction of itself to the degree that ours is, and at the elevated social and political levels at which fundamental contradictions are recognizable, is not just a troubled society, it is a society in which trouble is being actively contemplated. And so is also a devious and deceitful society-one based on lies, in which lying has become its modus vivendi in its internal as well as in its external relations. Worst, it lies to itself about its own nature-what it is today, and what it has in mind to become tomorrow.
Societies, nations, like individuals, whose chief subject of conversation is themselves, are usually and rightly suspect. And what they have to say about themselves is never to be trusted, it being a pretty certain rule of thumb that what they say of themselves is the exact opposite of the truth about them. Protected (as they think) by the collective “we” from the appearance and charge of egotism, societies are far more shameless in conferring lavish praise on themselves than individuals typically are-on those occasions, that is, when individuals are speaking for themselves, individually. It is rare to hear a person describe himself forthrightly as “compassionate” or “loving,” though I once heard a man declare, to my discomfort, that he was “pious.” (The truly odd thing in this instance is, I’d have felt compelled to agree with him, if asked directly for my corroberation.) But a compassionate society does not make the abortion of its children a sacrament nor a loving one offer no-fault divorce or divorce-on-demand, anymore than a Christian society legalizes adultery and sodomy and makes Madonna a millionaire. Similarly, a “free” society does not promote the growth of tyranny at the highest levels, nor a “country of laws” tolerate anarchy at the lowest ones. (Only a schizoid, or, as we have seen, dishonest country is comfortable with a synthesis of the two.) “Decent” societies do not encourage libertinism either from philosophical conviction or for reasons of political advantage, while “free” and “democratic” ones do not agitate for the totalitarian regimentation demanded by a Puritananical regime that would have appalled historical Puritanism by its antiseptic plasticity as much as by its sexual license and godlessness. As for democracy-democratic nations do not assume responsibility for whipping authoritarian societies into some sort of weird approximation of themselves, a thing none of the great empires of history presumed-or cared-to do.
Organic development, not Hegelian synthesis, is what characterizes free societies, true societies, real societies, as distinguished from incoherent ersatz ones, such as the United States has grown into over the past century and a half. If anarcho-tyranny and libertine-Puritanism make no sense, that is because the nation that developed them fails to make sense, as well.
Sartor Resartus Resartus
Brilliantly original and insightful as Herr Professor Doktor Teufelsdröckh’s Clothes, their Origin and Influence remains more than a century and three-quarters after its initial appearance in print, a recent trip from Denver via London to Rome served as a reminder that a new, or at least a revised, Philosophy of Clothes is an essential need of what remains of civilization at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The good Doktor’s book, which is not always readily comprehensible, evinces a certain ambivalence toward both its subject and its own attitude toward that subject, while Professor Teufelsdröckh’s English editor, a Mr. Thomas Carlyle, seems positively schizophrenic in respect of it. On the one hand, Teufelsdröckh is skeptical to the point of suspiciousness, and even enmity, of clothes as artificial distinctions that separate man from his brother. “The beginning of all Wisdom,” he writes, “is to look fixedly on clothes, or even with armed eyesight, until they become transparent.” Writing in a quite different mood, Teufelsdröckh says:
Matter exists only spiritually, and to
represent some Idea, and body
it forth. Hence, Clothes, as despicable as
we think them, are so unspeakably significant.
Clothes, from the King’s mantle downwards are
emblematic..[Yet] all Emblematic things are
properly Clothes, thought-woven
or hand-woven..Nay, if you consider it, what
what is Man himself, and his whole terrestrial
life, but an Emblem; a Clothing or visible
garment for that divine ME of his, cast hither,
like a light-particle, down from Heaven?
Thus he is said also to be clothed with a Body.
This passage, with its clear Platonic roots, anticipates Richard Weaver’s discussion (In Ideas Have Consequences) of the veil that reveals even as it conceals, and his attribution of the modern barbarian’s attack on culture to the fact that culture’s “formal requirements stand in the way of expression of the natural man.” I had reason to think often of Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle, and Weaver, all three, in the course of my eight-day trip abroad. Just what emblem–I speculated–do the passively herding, blasé, unimpressed, underdressed, and finally bored-seeming masses of international jet travel imagine they are boding forth to the world? Or do they “imagine” at all?
Travel almost anywhere, even from the farm to one’s country village, until the very recent historical past was considered an adventure by nearly all people; something quite out of the ordinary, imbued with drama and romance. Flying from, say, New York City to Salt Lake City, properly regarded, remains intrinsically a romantic adventure to this day, no matter that the same hotel and restaurant chains, the same newspapers and magazines, the same music and televison shows, are available in both cities. And if it is an adventure to fly from the East Coast to the Rockies, then what of a trip between Salt Lake City and Rome? And yet, slovenly as air travelers on domestic flights appear, passengers on international ones are-if anything, and if possible-even more so. All foreign visitors to the United States know that, for vast distances across the most affluent country the world has ever known, a good meal is simply impossible to find. Hardly any-including, to look at them, those flying Business and First-Class-seem aware that the wealthiest region of the world, what we call The West, processes daily through its international travel system travelers who, in their barabaric, nearly inhuman disreptuability, are put to shame by white-robed pilgrims on Haj to Mecca, or the festive, brightly-dressed inhabitants of a Sudanese village, en route to experience the mysteries and wonders of Khartoum.
Mysteries and wonders are only appreciable by those who have a capacity for Mystery and Wonder, a capacity that the large majority of Westerners show every sign of having forfeited. The process of loss at an earlier stage in history was noted and deplored by Professor Teufelsdröckh, who nevertheless supposed that the reign of Wonder, as the basis of worship, “is perennial, indestructible in Man; only in certain stages (as the present), it is, for some short season, a reign in partibus infidelium.” Nearly two centuries later is still too early to judge whether this since-lengthened season is, in relatively terms, short or long. All we can say is that we remain in it, while the end hangs somewhere below the horizon. One way or the other, a world without wonder is a disenchanted world, and a disenchanted world is a world, quite literally, without significance. Since human beings are a part of the world, they too find themselves deprived of significance which, in human terms, is neither more nor less than dignity. Since Darwin, Western man has grown accustomed to thinking of himself as an animal, without ever quite discarding the notion that this human animal is a dignified animal. Indeed, for nearly a century after Darwin, he dressed and otherwise comported himself as if he actually believed himself to be such. Only in the past few generations, to judge from his appearance and behavior, has he given over the pretense entirely. Whatever today’s international tripper may be, dignified is absolutely the last description anyone would think to hang on him. And his total want of dignity shows, first and foremost, in his clothes-the outward emblem of the meager and ignoble philosophy behind them.
Most of what we call travelers nowadays are really only tourists. The tourist animal is not, and by his nature cannot be, the dignified animal. Instead he is the comfortable animal, the relaxing animal, the pleasure-seeking animal, the escaping animal, the vacating animal, whose chief purpose is to leave his dutiful, serious self (to him, his business self) at home. That is an appropriate attitude to carry along on a trip to Six Flags Over Texas or Dollywood, but not to foreign countries, and especially not to the great metropoli like London, Paris, or Rome. Whether one’s purpose in traveling to Rome is fundamentally serious or not, Rome is a serious place-perhaps the most serious in the entire world-where encounters with profundity are both natural and inevitable. Whether one seeks such confrontations or not is scarcely the question. What matters is that no one but a barbarian or a human brute would waste the opportunity to make the most of serendipity in such exalted form. And it is quite simply impossible to take proper advantage of stupendous surprises like San Pietro in Vincoli, or Sant’ Andrea della Valle, or the Scala Sancta and the Sancta Sanctorum if you present yourself to them in a manner appropriate to attending the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights at Disneyworld.
Costume determines mental (and moral) attitudes as much as it denotes them, which is another way of saying that venue governs perspective. Perspective is not the concern of painters only, but of all artists-and of every type of human being as well. Women say, “I feel romantic in this gown.” The chief reason the two- and three-piece suit remains a staple of dress in our thoroughly deformalized society is surely that wearing a suit conveys the sense to the wearer, as well as to the beholder, that he is a serious man of business or of public affairs. Similarly, nothing is more conducive than what nowadays is called “formal” dress (suit or jacket and tie; skirt and blouse, or dress) to the creation of a dignified and serious demeanor that itself conduces to the gratifying sensation both of being in the presence of some awesome thing and worthiness of being present to it. There is all the difference in the world-no, the universe-between confronting the Pietà in a good woolen suit and silk necktie (the dress of a gentleman) and slouching toward it in a T-shirt, short pants, athletic socks, and sneakers with lights in them (an outfit originally designed for little boys, and not very well brought-up little boys, either).
“Why do people traveling abroad want to dress like that?” I’ve asked my wife. “And what do people who do dress like that expect to gain from foreign travel, anyway?”
She couldn’t tell me and I doubt that, if asked, they’d be able to do so, either.
I imagine the answer is the obvious one in this day and age: Consumption. Travel in the modern world is simply another consumer good or item for the masses, like eating at McDonald’s or going to a movie. Consumption is a pleasure, not an adventure (as sex so often is for bored and jaded people). Consumption is the rule, not the exception. Consumption is something routine rather than special; a satisfaction, not an excitement; familiar, as opposed to exotic; comforting instead of awe-inspiring. Consumers do not dress, or in other ways adjust and heighten their perspective, in preparation to consume. Consumption presupposes and includes ease, comfort, lack of effort, relaxation, and a total absence of artifice, selfconsciousness, and self-presentation-“just like at home!” It is a private or family experience, not a social or ritualized one. Consumption is a type of activity of which watching television is a prime example, demanding no more than what is required of-in Raymond Chandler’s mordant phrase-“a fly on a can of garbage.”
Even so, a fuller answer would probably strike deeper and more comprehensively than that. To contemplate Westerners in international transit, removed from their familiar social context, is to be struck by the sense of a people-a civilization, a world-that has simply given up, by giving themselves up to the vision and enjoyment of an illusory world from which standards, significance, dignity, effort, wonder, and piety have been removed. I say “Westerners,” but it may be this goes for the Americans and the British in particular. The Italians, for all their political laxity and their religious falling-way, do not strike me at all as having given up, nor as having passed beyond civilized boundaries to a state of post-civilization. By contrast, the British I encountered recently seemed as uncivilized as the Americans, or even more so. Worse still, hardly any were recognizably British at all: no Colonel Bow-wows, no Foreign Service types, no fog-freshened country-women from the shires in doormat tweeds, no sharp-jawed, sinewy tradesunion types such as I remembered from the year I spent as a boy in London and Cornwall in the early sixties, but rather the sodden human uniformity of Tony Blair’s version of The People’s Britain. On the flight over and back between Denver and London, reading a biography of G.M. Trevelyan, I found it impossible to reconcile even the decadent England this last of the old Whigs patiently and quietly deplored (Trevelyan died in 1962, the year I lived there) with the faceless English tourists roaming the aisles of British Airway’s fiendishly uncomfortable 777.
But of course, in modern circumstances, people will give up. It is the natural response to a Cowardly New World from which awe and wonder, imagination and belief, dignity and honor, pride and the effort pride demands have been expunged. Because these things lie at the heart of a fundamentally romantic view of the world, and without the romantic sensibility, people have no life to enjoy, having nothing to enjoy life for (which is not at all the same thing as enjoying life). Gentility, learning, sensibility, manners, dress, moral seriousness, a presence of self: These attributes of the English gentleman, the last and final inheritor of the Renaisance ideal of The Courtier, are also attributes of the romantic one. They need not be present in all members of society, or even the larger part of it, in order to vivify and fortify the whole, but they must be present in the leading part–which at present they are certainly not, just as they are totally absent from the modern mass–to make their effect.
Foreign travel, in the true sense of the thing, is scarcely possible anymore, having gone out with the great transoceanic liners that epitomized it and gave the experience its framing dimensions. No artifact created by man, saving only in another age the medieval cathedrals, can match the ocean liner, the ultimate romantic symbol for its unmatchable combination in a single image of the serious with the frivolous, the utilitarian with the imaginative, power with grace, fragility with majesty, modern industrial potency with Old World sensibility. In spite of the fact that the great ships are no longer with us, they remain today, as yesterday, the only way to cross.
* * *
[tonic in music. Tonic in recall, in preparation to write. Mental and emotional stance determines perspective.]
The Deserts of Nations
In “A Mirror for Artists”-his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, Agrarianism’s classic manifesto, published in 1930-Donald Davidson attacked what he called “the industrial theory of the arts.” According to this Maecenas concept, industrialism can be counted upon to create an artistic renaissance in which not the wealthy classes only but the plain people will share. Davidson thought otherwise. “Industrialism cannot play the role of Maecenas, because its complete ascendancy will mean that there will be no arts left to foster; or, if they flourish at all, they will flourish only in a diseased and disordered condition.”
I am reminded of Mr. Davidson’s skepticism roughly once a week, while listening to National Public Radio’s “Performance Today,” sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts whose slogan is, “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art.” Obvious corollaries to this axiom are that a woman of great beauty deserves great wealth to boot, and Lynn Cheney, as Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, deserved a great intellect. I doubt, however, that Donald Davidson would have agreed with these propositions, which would be ridiculed out of hand by any competent moral philosopher. Nations, to a greater extent still than individuals, generally deserve exactly what they have, no more and no less-even when democratic sentiment and demagogic politicians assure them otherwise.
Jefferson was confident that public schooling would produce universal literacy, which in turn would promote popular enlightenment; John Adams wrote that he devoted his life to public affairs so that his sons might study history and philosophy, and his grandsons dedicate themselves to the arts. But Jefferson’s idea of a great nation was the polar opposite of Hamilton’s (or David Brooks’s), while his expectations for the success of the public school system were something short of those entertained by a modern philanthropic behemoth. More importantly, to their more sober and realistic minds, the development of American high culture either preceded national greatness, or developed as a concomitant of it. Kenneth Minogue argues that political policy devised to attain the conditions of freedom will end, more likely than not, by destroying free behavior, and that the quest for political freedom is necessarily the pursuit of something else. The same is true of anything worth having, including art, of the “great” as well as the not so great variety.
Freedom, art, national greatness-these things cannot be created by research and development programs, subsidized by rich foundations, underwritten by federal tax breaks, and promoted by educational programs. They are natural growths occurring organically, not artificial creations imagined as a people’s just deserts waiting to be supplied by super-jobbers from the private and public spheres. In respect of the arts, the most philanthropic organizations can hope to accomplish is to preserve and transmit fragments of the dead civilization the parents and grandparents of their founders helped to destroy. It is meaningless to say that a great nation deserves great art, if only for the reason that the formula is tautological: Lacking a distinguished artistic tradition, a nation cannot be said to be “great” at all. You will never hear a Frenchman say that France, as a great nation, deserves great art, because he understands that his country is both great in its artistic past and artistic in its national greatness. France, in other words, remains a civilization-as the United States was once (however modestly by comparison), before it chose to sacrifice that achievement on the altar of economic success and military power.
The fatuity of the NEA’s assertion exemplifies the truth of Davidson’s argument, and indicates the magnitude of the problem confronting the arts in modern times. Industrial society, being what it is, supposes that industry and commerce can support and encourage art without industrializing it. (Or perhaps it assumes that the industrialization of anything is an improvement over the same thing in its preindustrialized form.) Its intellectual confusion is the result of industrialism’s inability to understand the concept of reason in making (Aquinas’s definition of art) that is so at odds with its own shibboleth, which is making for a reason. Donald Davidson knew better: “For [the arts] have been produced in societies which were for the most part stable, religious, and agrarian; where the goodness of life was measured by a scale of values having little to do with the material values of industrialism; where men were never too far from nature to forget that the chief subject of art, in the final sense, is nature.”
The Industrial School of fiction popular around the turn of the last century ( Zola, Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris) is an example of how artistic talent may be narrowed and impoverished by the constrictive industrial milieu, when it accepts the industrial world for the world itself. At the opposite end of the creative process, the iron logic, irreversible direction, and irresistible momentum of industrialism are all apparent in in the publishing industry today, the former swarm of distinguished small imprints having been consolidated and cartelized into a handful of so-called “major” publishers, themselves owned by corporate giants whose chief business is manufacturing toothpaste and producing gas and oil. The rationale given for consolidation was that bigger publishers meant more money to publish more good books, also bigger advances and other emoluments for their authors. Instead (it would have come as no surprise to either Davidson or Maecenas), consolidation has resulted in the commercialization of a once gentlemanly industry, including the ruthless imposition of rule of the bottom line, the trashing of American letters, and the exponential expansion of a beggarly literary class unable to get its best work (or any work at all) into print by the “major” publishers. The condition of the national letters these days appears nearly hopeless. Whether it is or isn’t, the situation is not one that the NEA is in a position to alleviate or cure, even if it showed any sign of wanting to try (which, so far as I know, it doesn’t).
In the end, the focus of industrialism and the values that determine that focus ensure disaster for the arts in industrial society, even more than its logic does. Industrialism has no use for what T.S. Eliot called the permanent things, since the permanent things are not susceptible of industrialization: insofar as they can be “produced” at all, they cannot be mass-produced and mass-marketed (though they can be exploited in the marketing of the productible, impermanent things). Nor can what is permanent be rendered obsolete and made replaceable, at a profit. It is true, industrialism does its best to make Truth obsolete by offering all sorts of heresies, diversions, and baubles in its place: inventing and reinventing religions, churches, philosophies, “values”–even human nature itself. But industrialism, though enjoying the gift of seemingly endless production, lacks the God-given gift of creation. Thus it can fill the world with artifacts, but not with creatures and the life-given and life-giving creations creatures depend on. (If ever it should succeed in creating “creatures” of its own, they will be mere artifacts, too, of course.) Industrialism, then, creates a world that is ever more artificial and less natural, more passing and less permanent, like the values and ideas its activity expresses, and upon which it depends. And to the extent that the world becomes increasingly artificial, the people who inhabit that world grow increasingly inhuman-which is to say, unreal.
How can the artist succeed in making art from an artificial wasteland populated by a mass of industrialized humanoids? Eliot identified the dilemma poetically in 1922; Donald Davidson posed it in a political and cultural manifesto less than a decade later. Eliot’s speculative treatment of the problem was theoretical, philosophical, poetical; Davidson’s statement practical, realistic, and thoroughly down-to-earth. What he was pointing to is only the fundamental question concerning artistic enterprise in the twentieth and twenty-first century. How does the artist approach reality by the venue of the unreal? How does art–whose final subject is nature, remember–survive its replacement by the artificial environment (the sprawling suburbs and mechanized supermetropolises) that industrialism has substituted for the natural-that is to say, the human-one? How do New Jersey, Houston, or Los Angeles provide artists with the intuition of the permanent things and their objectification; both of them necessary to the creation of anything beyond a pale imitation, or grotesque travesty, of a genuine work of art? The problem is intensively reinforced by the mass industrialization of education, communication, culture, and, increasingly, political discourse. It begins to seem almost assured, as Davidson expected, that the arts, in the sense of a connected and recognized institution, cannot in the long run survive the industrial system–and now the post-industrial one, that looks more inimical still to their future.
The denatured post-industrial wasteland, hardwired to the empty chaos of cyberspace, cannot provide the kinds, or the variety, of intense human experience that have historically provided the arts with their inspiration, subject, and object. That, really, is the crux of the matter. It was said of Christopher Wren, “If you seek his monument, look around you.” So with the arts in a post-industrial world. Only these monuments are not living stones, but monuments of a different sort: they are tombstones, in fact. Novels, poems, plays; paintings, sculpture, architecture; operas, symphonies, chamber music: They are, most of them, dead: the creations of dead people deprived of the naturally grounded lives human nature requires, and art demands. We know the answer to the question, What can come out of Nazareth? Yet there is something almost infinitely less than Nazareth here. It is called New Canaan, or Darien, or Westport. Perhaps the best writer to have come out of suburbia is John Updike-a talent of Shakespearean breadth and depth by comparison with subsequent generations of American novelists. Industrial civilization, ultimately, gives artists nothing to work with, nothing to get their hands on or their minds into. Art is rooted in reality. When industrialism removes nature from experience, denies the permanence of metaphysical truth, and transforms human multiplicity into a social uniformity imposed by the logic of democratic consumerism, art in the true sense becomes an impossibility in a new and unreal world, pioneered and realized most fully by America.
In order for us to love our country, said Burke, our country must be lovely. What goes for patriotism goes for art as well. Before the industrial era, artists did not take for their subjects the ugly, the perverted, the demented, the chaotic: That phenomenon was reserved for the industrialized modern age. Art arranges, rearranges, and heightens reality as the artist perceives and experiences it. For art to reflect loveliness, there must be loveliness for it to reflect-as an influence, as a model, and as a grateful response. Given a nation that is truly lovely, it will see itself reflected naturally and abundantly, without the aid of a national endowment. And alternatively. Writers, composers, painters, and sculptors raised in a wasteland of shopping malls, commercial strips, industrial parks, blighted farmland, and plastic suburbs will reflect not just the unloveliness surrounding them, but-since aesthetics is a branch of moral philosophy, as Burke understood-the encompassing moral sink as well.
“A great nation deserves a great cuisine.”
“A great nation deserves great style.”
“A great nation deserves great learning.”
“A great nation deserves great piety.”
“A great nation deserves great politicians.”
“A great nation deserves a great war.”
Perhaps national greatness resembles personal greatness in being a quantity, like freedom, that should not be sought consciously and for itself, and cannot be attained that way. Perhaps also the NEA’s motto is in need of modification. Or perhaps it should be scrapped altogether. Whether the great society is properly accompanied by great art depends on your notion of greatness, after all. And of art. The important thing to understand is that deserts have nothing to do with it, anymore than the physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves the genius of Mozart or Cervantes.
Leftist Rage, Conservative Hate
Years ago, when we were very young and contributing promiscuously to the reviews departments of various intellectual publications, a misguided editor sent out to me for review a leftist rant by an author whose name I have long since banished from memory, while clearly recalling the title. It was The Dying of the Light–taken, of course, from the Dylan Thomas poem a stanza of which was chosen to serve as an epigraph: “Go not gently into that dark night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Lost to memory also is the identity of the Good epitomized for the writer by the Light-the Spirit of Liberalism, I suppose, or the Rights of Man as established in 1789.
What did make a lasting impression is the use in context of the word “rage,” obviously considered by poet and author alike as a fine, even a noble, thing. According to the Chinese proverb, “So long as a man is angry he can’t be in the right.” Rage and hate both are aspects of anger. They are not, however, the equivalent of one another. “I love a good hater,” said Samuel Johnson. He meant that hate implies a corresponding love, which responds reactively to its threatened opposite. For a man to hate, he must first love; as he who loves, inevitably hates. Hate is a directed thing, focused like a laser beam. By comparison, rage is undirected, unfocused, generalized, indiscriminate: an adult tantrum. “Rage,” Ernst von Feuchtersleben thought, “is a vulgar passion with vulgar ends.” Thus it is with good reason, if poor judgment, that the Left boasts of the “rage” it nurtures in its bosom, while denouncing the “hate” it relentlessly discovers on the Right.
Probably there is no genuinely conservative organization, whether in America or western Europe, that by now has not been publicly identified as a “hate group” by one or more of the Leftist mastiffs self-appointed to police the public square in search of dragons to slay. This is understandable. The Left, despising all that exists, or ever has existed, loves nothing: Therefore, it rages. The Right, from its grateful appreciation of what is (and was), loves much: Hence, it hates. “Whoever hateth his brother is a murderer,” warns St. John. But Dr. Johnson did not have murder in mind when he spoke of good hating; anymore than Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center spoke from the Love that is God when, in a recent outburst, he attacked the restrictionist faction within the Sierra Club for opposing mass immigration to the United States. “They want to keep America white,” Mr. Dees charged. The inference is that Morris Dees wants to turn it brown, black, yellow, and red-surely not out of love for America or his fellow Americans, against which he habitually rages.
The rage motif has been a staple of Western culture since the 1960s. For half a century now it has been associated with the liberal and the radical Left which has never hesitated to claim it, proudly and defiantly, as its hallmark. Anti-abortion, pro-war, and so-called majoritarian activists could never have conceived anything like the “Days of Rage” rampage in Chicago in 1968, not because they are incapable of violence but because their demonstrations characteristically are expressions of discriminate and focused anger, not of indiscriminate, inchoate, and nihilistic fury. Conservatives may have lost, along with their intellectual grasp on reality, the habit of thinking straight, but they are mostly capable still of feeling sanely. “Anger is a brief lunacy” (Horace). By comparison with the Left, the Right has managed for the most part to retain emotional sanity, at least.
That staunch Old Believer, Edward Abbey, complained shortly before he died that everything he valued and cared for in the world was not merely under assault but apparently doomed to extinction. In his review of Desert Solitaire at the time of the book’s publication in 1968, Joseph Wood Krutch described it as “a hymn of hate.” Krutch, however, with equal plausibility could have called Abbey’s masterwork “a hymn of love.” Edward Abbey was a good hater of the rapacious industrial-consumerist system he despised in proportion as he passionately loved the natural world that system is bent on systematically destroying. Inevitably, therefore, this life-long selfconsidered liberal was a marked man by the time of his death in 1989, attacked by his politically correct enemies as a racist for opposing Third World immigration and a male chauvinist pig for mocking “wimmen’s liberation,” which Abbey viewed as another aberrancy created by a perverse social and economic set-up. “Our only hope is catastrophe,” he believed. Yet this very angry, though also goodnatured and humorous, man never stooped to rage against the world, being too oldfashioned a liberal-and far too good a writer-to do anything so stupid, childish, and crazy.
Joe Sobran, with cutting characteristic clarity, has observed that one can’t “tolerate” what one likes, but only what one dislikes. In demanding toleration for everything, the Left assumes on the Right’s part a cultivated dislike for almost everything. Since, for the Left, majoritarian distaste or even want of sympathy for minorities (e.g. immigrants, homosexuals, feminists, Muslims, Jews, blacks, etc.) is always the equivalent of “hate,” for Leftists hate necessarily appears as the universal reality stretching like an arid and infinite plain beyond the shining walls and towers of the New Jerusalem.
A profound and fundamental difference between Left and Right is that the one tends to think and to feel reflectively, the other reflexively. The distinction is between what Oakeshott called “the reflective application of a moral criterion” and the “habit of affection and behavior.” Another way to put this is to say that Leftists react ideologically, Rightists viscerally. “Visceral” is an ugly-sounding word connoting the most primitive and violent instincts. Yet, as a barbaric destructive force in history, visceral thinking cannot compare with thinking of the ideological variety. What leftists decry as conservative “hate” is actually resentment of, and resistance to, the intrusion of the alien and the displacement of the familiar by the unfamiliar, the old by the new, the traditional by the untraditional, the proximate by the distant, the particular by the universal. Leftists misinterpret conservative hate because they cannot understand it, and they cannot understand it because it is incomparably less radical, thoroughgoing, vicious, and nihilistic-in a word, ideological–than their own, vaunted rage. The Leftist perception of Rightist “hate” is a classic example of what the Freudians call “transference,” by which one automatically ascribes one’s own motives, sentiments, and thoughts to someone else. If conservative “hate” were what Morris Dees and Alan Dershowitz think it is, then people like Dees and Dershowitz would not be the millionaire celebrities they are: They might not, indeed, be anymore. Jews in America would long since have been rounded up and packed off to concentration camps in the Aleutian Islands; black slavery would have been reinstituted in a reconstituted Confederacy; the Indian tribes would have been exterminated and their reservations seized; the gay population would have been gassed in their bath houses; women would be denied the suffrage along with the right to abortion. The presumptively hate-filled majority remains the majority, after all, and so there is no good reason why it should have tolerated the social devastation that the Left has accomplished in the last hundred and fifty years. No reason, that is, beyond the fact that conservative hate lies in another moral dimension entirely than that occupied by leftist rage.
The Left is offended by, above everything else, the intransigent fact of the metaphysical reality it in certain moods denies, at other times defies, and always despises. After reality, the continued existence of a Right (no matter how relatively “Right” it may be) incites it most efficiently to rage. If Leftists “hate” anything, that thing is Rightists–and with a rage that surpasseth understanding. The purpose of Leftist witch hunters who make a (typically very good) living by identifying “hate groups” and publicizing their existence is not to perform an act of good citizenship by setting the public record straight. What they intend is to brand these organizations and the individuals who comprise them as public enemies, thus marking them for liquidation come the revolution they are working for and fully expect in the long run. Whoever thinks otherwise has failed to understand both the history of the twentieth century, and the moral nature of the Left.
“Hate,” which leftists view as a peculiarly egregious symptom of moral and social perversion, in revolutionary times is simply an expression of sanity, and even of humanity. Hatred for persons is sinful and un-Christian; but personal hatred is not really the issue here. For one thing, it is a waste of time: a fact of which the great majority of resentful conservatives are aware. Even immigration restrictionists do not go about talking of how they “hate immigrants,” while those who simply dislike having immigrants around are for the most part content to move somewhere else, as frustrated Californians have been moving to Colorado for the past decade and a half. Of course, for the Left, “white flight” is unmistakably an expression of hate. This sort of luxuriant false analogy, however, is what leftists have instead of poetry, and perhaps we should leave them to it. Meanwhile, responsible anti-immigration groups (and most of them are responsible) go out of their way to insist that their quarrel is not with the immigrants themselves but with the policies responsible for their presence here. Policies, of course, are not self-generated by machines in government printing offices. They are created by individual flesh-and-blood persons, who may indeed be “hated” by people who despise their policies and hold them responsible for these. But hatred for traitors, quislings, opportunists, and suborned politicians is not merely a human thing, it is the instinct upon which the future of self-government, free institutions, and civilization itself depends.
Leftists are quick to insist upon the distinction between offensive and defensive war, and quicker still to declare their own governments guilty of the former. Yet, for the past two centuries, the Left has waged unremittant offensive warfare against existing societies. “We must hate-hatred is the basis of Communism,” Lenin declared. One wonders what Morris Dees would have to say about that statement. (Does he, for instance, have any neo-Leninist or -Maoist organizations on his executioner’s little hate list?) One wonders further what response Dees would expect from targeted victims of revolutionary hatred besides reaction, which for the SPLC and its friends and allies is not self-defense but hate, pure and simple. Could there be, indeed, any conservative response to leftwing aggression that the Left would not condemn as hate, excepting immediate unconditional surrender? The answer is no: since anything less than surrender would amount to resistance, and resistance to the Left, according to the leftist dialectic, is simply another manifestation of hate. (This, of course, is not logic; it is ideological. That is to say, it is extralogic. As such, it is unanswerable.)
Conservatives know as little of history as anyone else does these days. Nevertheless, the Right does possess a residual sense of history, or anyway of historical process. Unlike the Left, it understands that history is linear and has no end, save in the eschatological sense. That is a major reason why, at this point in history, it is losing everywhere to the Left, which still believes in the possibility, and even the inevitability, of triumphalism. Conservatives, paradoxically, are accustomed to thinking in terms of historical flux; if they are Christians also, they are resigned to change as being an inescapable aspect of this world that is not yet Christ’s kingdom. Resignation does not tend to promote hate, let alone rage; and here is another reason why the Right is losing the apocalyptic battle. The Left prevails by rage over its enemies, who, so far from being defined by hate, have shown themselves unable to hate enough. This inability has Christian roots; that is why, for certain post-Christian reactionaries, Christianity is as great or greater an enemy than the anti-religious Left–an object of the kind of hatred that truly hates.
There is something to be said for these people’s contempt and anger. The world has never been in greater need of good haters than nowadays, but good hating requires more than an appropriate measure of righteous anger. It requires also probity and, above all, moral courage-which in modern times is not just in short supply but nearly an outmoded concept. Nevertheless, it is the Right’s best weapon with which to combat Leftist rage. As such, it is indispensable to the retaking and rebuilding of our beleaguered civilization.