Common knowledge, then and now

When I read works of non-fiction written in the first half of the 20th century, I’m almost always struck by how freely, frequently, and casually they throw around references to history and literature, especially of the Ancient variety. These references, though many of them would now be understood by relatively few non-specialists, are usually not meant to provide new information—no, they typically have a familiar tone which takes it for granted that this is something which the reader already knows, and which is now being brought up only to give an analogy or example. Nor are they limited to heavy, scholarly tomes; they show up quite often in popular, “middlebrow” stuff as well, including political speeches. For some reason, this tendency seems especially pronounced in the U.S. between the Interbellum and the cultural revolution of the 1960s; there are, of course, other examples that are as old as widespread literacy, but the trend dies off completely in the last three or four decades of the 20th Century, when the pool of historical and literary common knowledge becomes vastly smaller, the references to it less presuming, and the intent of those references limited to showing what credulous, puritanical bigots our ancestors were.

As a young man, I find it hard even to imagine that there was a time within living memory when references to Julian the Apostate were as universally and immediately understood as are references to The Simpsons today, but there you have it. And interestingly, those references seem to have been just as popular among the ideological ancestors of today’s anti-Western Left as among others. Here, for example,  is a short excerpt from The City of Man, a 1940 “declaration of world democracy” written and signed by a group of prominent progressives, as quoted in Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse:

We shall not imitate the backward course of Julian the Apostate … or of the Roman populace running for asylum and atonement to the old gods after the capture of their city by the Goths. We shall not return, under the counsel of despair, from a higher and vaster religion to lesser ones.

(See? I wasn’t kidding about Julian the Apostate.)

This leads me to think, perhaps too kindly, that some of the people who laid the groundwork for the present regime perhaps didn’t really know—or at least couldn’t fully envision—exactly what it was they were setting in motion. Perhaps they didn’t understand, for example, that by making internationalism and universal democracy their God, they were removing the very foundations of their own culture, which is what made those casual allusions to Julian the Apostate and the Sack of Rome possible in the first place. Then again, maybe they were just playing Good Cop.

I’ll wrap up by way of another related excerpt from Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism—which, by they way, reads a little like a much more learned version of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, with all the peaks and valleys that entails:

In one of his [Theodor Adorno’s] last lectures at Frankfurt University a number of female students stripped to the waist and tried to kiss the dazed scholar who fled with tears in his eyes. To the press he declared that this, indeed, was not the evolution he had hoped for, that his aims and ideas had been completely misunderstood. A few weeks later he succumbed to a heart attack in Switzerland.

Liberals Anonymous

Liberalism is essentially the elevation of the self to a position of pre-eminence in the overall scheme of things, and a concomitant, implicit rejection of any transcendent factors of being that might constrain it. So it is autolatry – a type of idolatry. It is a basic, lethal error about reality, which (whether or not there be a God) as a whole ever overwhelms the puny human self.

Liberalism errs about the order of being, and so disagrees with the world. It’s poor policy to argue with the universe, no? Yet that is just what liberalism does, and not just in the economic realm. Liberalism is at war with life itself, at every level; for it carries its profound philosophical errors into concrete practice. It implements its misprisions. As I have elsewhere said, the liberal is engaged in a death struggle with his own body.

But this is just a description of sin, no? It is the sin of pride, as at Babel; of man presuming to dictate to nature, and to nature’s God, rather than taking his proper place therein, and thereunder, so as to prosper and flourish. Sin *just is* such presumption (cf. Psalm 19:13). Not to say that all sins are types of liberalism, but that liberalism is a type of sin.

And sin enslaves the sinner.

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The bad cop strikes

Larry Auster calls it the “good cop/bad cop” routine.  I call it the “empirical two-step“.  It just keeps happening.

  1. Liberal wants X.
  2. Conservative says no, because X will undermine Y.
  3. Liberal insists that X will not undermine Y.  It will actually strengthen Y, perhaps by spreading Y more widely and fairly.
  4. Liberal gets X.
  5. Immediately thereafter, liberal insists that Y must be abolished or altered beyond recognition because it does indeed conflict with X.

I’ve just read an account of the purest imaginable case of this.  Here’s the setup.  We’ve all been told that calling homosexual relationships “marriage” will do nothing whatsoever to affect heterosexual marriage, and anyone who says different is a lying, hating hater who’s really just using the protection a venerable institution as a pretext for irrational animus.  Remember that?

Okay, now suppose someone were to take the liberals at their word and announce that he wants to promote marriage as traditionally understood, saying nothing whatsoever–for or against–about sodomitical unions.  What would happen to this person?  Liberals say that they’re leaving marriage alone, just extending it, so they should be okay with this, right?  It’s just a case of us heterosexuals minding our own affairs.  Here’s how our cultural overlords actually respond:

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Of Peasants and Playwrights

This piece was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Quarterly Review.

The Dano-Norwegian writer and intellectual Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) was in many ways a typical figure of the Enlightenment. A lawyer by training, Holberg made his living as a prolific writer of essays, poems, and scientific works, many of which espoused the rationalism and deism of the age. In Scandinavia, though, he is best remembered for his plays, the majority of which he wrote during an extremely productive period between 1722 and 1725, near the middle of his career.

But although Holberg was a product of his time, he was also, like most pre-Romantic artists, innately and instinctively conservative. This is revealed most clearly in his plays, and particularly in his crowning achievement, the comedy Jeppe på bjerget (Jeppe of the Hill), which remains a cornerstone in the repertoire of Nordic theatres. Although the play is set in the Denmark of Holberg’s time, it takes its plot from an old story found, among other places, in the Arabian Nights and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Early in the play, the eponymous Jeppe, a work-shy peasant with an unhealthy fondness for alcohol, falls asleep in a ditch after drinking away his wife’s grocery money, and is found there by a bored Baron and his party. They decide to play a trick on him, and take the still-sleeping peasant to the Baron’s estate, where they wash him, clothe him, and put him in the Baron’s bed. When Jeppe wakes up, the servants act as if he is the Baron, telling him that his life as peasant was nothing but a dream. (An unlikely explanation, yes, but this is a Moliére-style farce.) After a spell of fear and confusion, the boorish Jeppe grows accustomed to his new life, eating, drinking and tormenting his servants with greater vigour than the real Baron would ever dream of.

A few summers ago, I attended a staging of Jeppe… at the Norwegian National Theatre in Oslo. The staging was a modernized, vaguely politicized one of the sort so popular with provincial directors who want to imitate the things they’ve heard they’re doing in Berlin or Paris. Not for this director the prim historical correctness of powdered wigs and lace: instead, the Baron was dressed as a modern-day businessman — or rather, an over-the-top caricature of a modern-day businessman, complete with leather briefcase, designer suit, Brylcreemed hair, a gaggle of obsequious personal assistants, and the day’s copy of the Wall Street Journal tucked safely under one arm. (Jarringly, Jeppe still wore the rags of an 18th-century peasant.)

The implication was obvious: Jeppe… serves to highlight the cruel and arbitrary rule of the aristocracy of the past, and, with a little scenographic tweaking, the aristocracy of the present. In his wisdom, Holberg must have predicted the concept of class warfare, though it only emerged long after his death; after all, good historical determinists, be they Whigs or Marxists, know that the entirety of human history has been nothing but an inevitable march towards enlightenment and liberation. Men of past generations were simply stupider versions of us, and the astuteness of their ideas can be judged by their similarity to ours.

But this notion is folly. In the pre-Marxist age of Jeppe of the Hill, the realities of social station were often seen, not as arbitrary and unfair constructs, but rather as impersonal and unstoppable forces of an almost primeval nature. Poverty was not an intolerable and unnecessary evil, but, like death or taxes, a tragic and unavoidable fact of life, the moral and social implications of which depended on the amount of dignity with which it was borne by those it afflicted. There were those who sought to make the best of their plight, and there were those who preferred to surrender to laziness, self-medication, or self-deception. The feckless Jeppe, who is a figure of fun among his fellow peasants as well as the aristocracy, is a caricature of the latter. The play’s opening monologue, delivered by Jeppe’s shrewish wife Nille, sums up his personality well:

NILLE. I hardly believe there’s such another lazy lout in all the village as my husband, it’s as much as I can do to get him up in the morning by pulling him out of bed by the hair. The scoundrel knows to-day is market-day, and yet he lies there asleep at this hour of the morning. The pastor said to me the other day, ‘Nille, you are much too hard on your husband; he is and he ought to be the master of the house.’ But I answered him, ‘No, my good pastor! If I should let my husband have his way in the household for a year, the gentry wouldn’t get their rent nor the pastor his offering, for in that length of time he would turn all there was in the place into drink. Ought I let aman rule the household who is perfectly ready to sell his belongings and wife and children and even himself for brandy?’ The pastor had nothing to say to that, but stood there stroking his chin. The bailiff agrees with me, and says, ‘My dear woman, pay no attention to the pastor. It’s in the wedding-service, to be sure, that you must honor and obey your husband, but it’s in your lease, which is more recent than the service, that you shall keep up your farm and meet your rent–a thing you can never do unless you haul your husband about by the hair every day and beat him to his work.

I pulled him out of bed just now and went out to the barn to see how things were getting along, when I came in again, he was sitting on a chair, asleep, with his breeches–saving your presence–pulled on one leg; so the switch had to come down from the hook, and my good Jeppe got a basting till he was wide awake again.”

Some might be tempted to read this monologue as a Brechtian exposé of organized religion (no doubt my intrepid director read it that way). But Nille is hardly the sort of reasonable and likeable character that normally functions as the author’s mouthpiece. When the Baron, as a final, cruel twist, subjects Jeppe to a mock execution towards the end of the play, Nille’s attitude to her husband turns 180 degrees, from hatred to cloying, tear-drenched sentimentality. But at the moment it becomes clear that Jeppe is not dead, but simply sleeping, Nille reverts to her old abusive ways; when her emotional attachment begins to imply duties and responsibilities, Nille balks.

Holberg’s masterpiece ends where it began, returning Jeppe to the state of drunken destitution in which we first found him. The Baron has revealed the hoax to the peasant, given him four silver thalers, and driven off in his carriage, leaving him to continue his pointless existence. The ever-feckless Jeppe has got nothing out of the experience: no epiphanic carpe diem induced by the mock execution, no new love for Nille, no new appreciation of the perks and perils of power. Even the Baron’s four thalers are gone – spent, of course, on beer and spirits.

Nille and Jeppe often seem to embody the worst traits of what is now sometimes called ‘the underclass’: sentimentality, laziness, substance abuse, contempt for their betters, and an inability to understand the full weight and necessity of patriarchal and religious authority.

Jeppe of the Hill is hardly an uncritical paean to the aristocracy – the Baron comes off as cruel and unlikeable – but neither is it the class-warfare tract some moderns read it as. In Norway, the playis often associated with the saying ‘Skomaker, bli ved din lest’ (‘Shoemaker, stay by your last’), and to the extent that it can be said to have a moral, this is it. The catastrophic consequences of Jeppe becoming Baron for a day is a microcosm of the chaos that ensues whenever wealth and power are divorced from cultivation and responsibility. In an age where the stupidity and vulgarity of the European nouveau riche have nearly completely eroded the aristocratic traditions of old, such insights seem prescient. More than an irreverent farce or a product of the Age of Reason, then, Jeppe… is a defence, transcending any particular age or ideology, of tradition, continuity, and natural hierarchy.

How can we not be anti-intellectual?

It’s harder than I thought, at least if Russell Jacoby’s critique of the Right has any merit.  Why does Jacoby say that we’re anti-intellectual?  It’s because we blame things we don’t like about society on the influence of ideas like individualism and feminism rather than on impersonal economic forces.  Thus, we always end up pointing fingers at intellectuals for promoting ideas we don’t like.

This is really baffling.  I thought that focusing on ideas, and especially engaging rival ideological systems, was what intellectuals were supposed to do.  One might even say, in Marxist fashion, that focusing on ideas to the exclusion of economic forces is the characteristic mistake of intellectuals.  I’ve never heard it said before that this sort of thing is anti-intellectual.  What, one wonders, would be pro-intellectual?  Perhaps we should look at the majority of Jacoby’s liberal colleagues, who while remaining complacently ignorant of the conservative intellectual tradition feel free to dismiss conservatives for being a bunch of dumb inbred rednecks.  This, you see, is pro-intellectual, even though it’s nothing but rank unthinking prejudice, because it keeps the hostility directed at those not deemed to be part of the intellectual elite.

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A Church of Conservatism?

Proper Western conservatism (commonly called “traditionalist conservatism”) is concerned with the social order, that is, the sum total of society’s laws, regulations, rules, customs and, more generally, the elements that give rise to society’s structure. Since America and the other Western societies are fundamentally disordered as a result of the victory of the Left in the culture war, proper conservatism tries to preserve the remaining vestiges of a properly-ordered society and to expand the properly-ordered realm. Conservatives, then, must understand how societies function.

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Put not your trust in agrarians

I knew it!  I knew there was something rotten about Wendell Berry.  So now the supposed Christian defender of natural living has endorsed gay marriage.  From Dreher’s quote, it seems that he also endorses divorce and abortion.  We see this again and again, don’t we?  Anyone who will not explicitly renounce Leftism will eventually cave completely to the Left.  Well, congratulations, Wendell!  You’re sure to make yourself very popular with this repudiation of natural law, not with the One Christians are supposed to be trying to please but with the group you apparently care about.  Go ahead and win more praise for yourself by slandering (for example, by saying that we endorse adultery and fornication) those of us who defend the natural law in its entirety and refuse to betray our Saviour for the sake of a loathsome perversion.  Letting us know about your openness to prenatal murder and spousal abandonment certainly makes the break easier.  I really do feel sorry for the good men at Front Porch Republic who misplaced so much admiration on this man.

Liberalism’s Good Cop / Bad Cop Team

The phrase “good cop / bad cop” originated as a description of an interrogation technique described thus at Wikipedia:

The ‘bad cop’ takes an aggressive, negative stance towards the subject, making blatant accusations, derogatory comments, threats, and in general creating antipathy between the subject and himself. This sets the stage for the ‘good cop’ to act sympathetically: appearing supportive, understanding, in general showing sympathy for the subject. The good cop will also defend the subject from the bad cop. The subject may feel he can cooperate with the good cop out of trust or fear of the bad cop. He may then seek protection by and trust the good cop and provide the information the interrogators are seeking.

As Lawrence Auster recently pointed out about the hype surrounding the announced probable discovery of the Higgs Boson, contemporary science often employs a “good cop / bad cop” technique when making claims about the theological significance of scientific discoveries. The “good cop” reassures the public that science makes no claim to have disproved God and that science knows that its place in the order of things is only to make tentative pronouncements about physical reality and not to speculate about God.  In this, the “good cop” says what most people want to hear. But the “bad cop,” when speaking to those he believes to be sympathetic to aggressive leftist atheism, claims that contemporary science has indeed rendered any god both extremely improbable and totally unnecessary, as science (so he claims) is well on the road to explaining everything materialistically.

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