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.