Notes on a history’s end

Martin Peretz notes in his publication The New Republic that liberalism is “bookless and dying.” He’s right, of course. A political movement with no guides in sight other than consultants, careerists and cranks isn’t going to go anywhere. The problem is that the lack of thought and vision isn’t peculiar to the Left. Kerry didn’t have much to say that made sense but neither does Bush. Open borders, world empire, endless deficits and America as a religion don’t seem that great a program to me. They look more like the manic phase of some bipolar disorder.

Basically, the problem seems to be that the Left has won in principle, even though the mopping up is endless because of the absurdity of the project. That means intellectual collapse, because its project of destroying everything of value we have inherited—on the grounds that success and particularity are the same as injustice—has secured the commanding heights of institutional, cultural and moral authority. Nobody in respectable public life questions its fundamental principles, so there’s nothing significant left to think about.

The victory of the Left also means the Right has collapsed intellectually, because it no longer has any principles to defend against further Leftist advances. Fighting for “civil unions” instead of “gay marriage,” which seems to be Mr. Bush’s position, doesn’t seem that much of a rallying point to me. The result is that in active public life we have careerists, mujahed global Jacobins, and fans of the Washington Conservatives (apparently a sports team), but not so many actual principled conservatives who are able to bring their views to bear on actual events and policy.

The net effect is that we have to start from the beginning, think through basic issues, and start to rebuild as best we can. That, after all, is the point of Turnabout. The day-to-day political battles should of course be prosecuted, I admire those who can keep at them, but I can’t help but think of them as ancillary to more fundamental philosophical and spiritual struggles.

9 thoughts on “Notes on a history’s end”

  1. New Beginnings and WMD’s
    Savagery seems inevitable. On or before the collapse of liberalism and Bushism, WMD’s will still be around and must be dealt with. The threat of the actual use of a pre-emptive use of WMD’s seems to be the minimum method to ward off powerful, crazy cultures such as Iran and Korea.

    Probably, Americans will not act but will be reactive resulting in many dead people. America did nothing until Mexicans slaughtered around 100 Americans at the Alamo. The North did nothing until the South actually seceded (and ended up “winning” by a razor thin margin). If the South had performed slightly better at Gettysburg, there would be two Americas now. America did nothing about Spanish influence in the Americas until the Maine was sunk around 1898.

    America wisely sat back from 1914 until 1917, when American troops entered WWI. America unwisely held back from defending against an awful Germany in 1939 until the Germans stupidly declared war on America in 1941. America sat back in the 1930’s while Japan performed unspeakable evils upon its oriental neighbors until Japan attacked America militarily.

    It seems the Democratic Party will ignore WMD’s and Republicans will trust in a president who is no wiser than they are.

  2. Sage
    As often as not, your tone is despairing. I don’t really mean this as a criticism. But I often find myself casting about for some sign that, as you put it, “intellectual collapse” is somehow avoidable. The signs aren’t very hopeful.

    But, as a Catholic, I am called to hope all the same. I wonder if we aren’t on the very edge of a new Dark Age, and I’m moved to ask Eomer’s question, How is a man to judge in such times? What signs do you see, if any, that are hopeful? I see only one, the resurgence of traditionalist thought within our Church. I wonder, though, just how deep it runs.

    • I’m up on Catholic trads too,
      I’m up on Catholic trads too, if not every actual trad here and now then at least Catholic traditionalism. Intellectuals like to think, and when “mainstream” public thought gets vacant enough some of them will do the Saint Augustine thing and look for a setting where thought can actually be carried on because a cosmos is presumed in which it makes sense. (BTW, I just published a 40-page article claiming that ever since Alexander something very like a pope has been necessary for long-term coherence of thought.)

      There’s also of course the point that the world is very complicated and the future may be determined by some aspect of things that we aren’t attending to. That’s usually what happens in fact.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  3. “Nobody in respectable public
    “Nobody in respectable public life questions its fundamental principles, so there’s nothing significant left to think about.”

    Hence, the entrenchment of “liberal thought” in academia and the media, and the extreme reactions against anything that can arguably be considered creative, original, or traditional. Intellectual censorship is pervasive.

    Also, in our age, the most mudane, sentimental, or thoughtless is hailed as “creative,” because there is nothing creative actually going on.

    “The victory of the Left also means the Right has collapsed intellectually, because it no longer has any principles to defend against further Leftist advances.”

    True. The Right has been co-opted, and has almost unconsciously adopted the presuppositions of the Left. Their arguments are therefore reduced to unprincipled exceptions and “I have a better way to apply a Left principle” (such as “equality” in college admissions).

    • With respect to the intellect
      With respect to the intellectual dullness of our times, I had the thought that the only hope for creative work comes from science, because nature is both creative and surprising.

      The conclusion is that science will have to be controlled and censored (or ingnored, as in the AIDS crisis).

      Do you agree?

      • Good question about science.
        Good question about science. The Larry Summers business and the fate of The Bell Curve demonstrate that certain sorts of findings can be kept out of public discussions quite effectively while research proceeds among specialists. I’m not sure what limits there are to the mechanisms of control in this area. Control is of course greatly facilitated by scientists’ attachment to their research grants.

        Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  4. We were hoping what Spengler said wasn’t true, but maybe it was.
    Thrasymachus has a log entry up on what he calls “Declinism,” the view by historians and other commentators that the West faces the beginning of a decline.

    “For Spengler, history was a story of vibrant cultures birthing civilizations, civilizations reaching intellectual zeniths, and then periods of decline marked by force-politics, imperial expansion, and internal spiritual decay and death. Spengler saw the process as inevitable and irreversible, and well along its way for West European/American culture. […] The great art and architecture of our civilization and culture has already been created. The particular philosophical conclusions important to the West have already been reached. Our time, according to Spengler, is a parallel to that of Caesar’s Rome, not Pericles’ Athens.”

    Thras goes on to very briefly summarize the thought of a few commentators who believe they have discerned signs of civilizational decline in today’s West: Jacques Barzun, Roger Scruton, James Kalb, James Howard Kunstler (who needs to change the name of his site, “Clusterf*** Chronicles,” to one without the incorporated 4-letter word), and Charles Murray.

    Long live Flanders!

    • And other people devote their
      And other people devote their lives to opposition to the success of the West, represented by “globalization,” “neo-Liberalism,” “colonial capitalism,” “environmental destruction,” and “cultural genocide.”

      So, who do you believe? The West is withering, or the West is expanding its victories day by day, leaving cultural, environmental, and economic depradations in its wake?

      I suppose it depends on what you mean by “the West.” The ordinary Joe on the street probably has the impression that the West is insinuating itself, with inexorable success, into the far corners of the Earth: China is going capitalist, Nike shoes are made in Indonesia, al quaeda is online with its own websites and imitates Western public relations campaigns, OPEC conducts its financial business in American dollars, Iran is using western technology to challenge or resist the West, our corporations are now “multi-nationals,” Dubai has an annual golf tournament populated with the best Western professionals, Yao Ming plays for the Houston Rockets, etc.

      As for a choice between Caesar’s Rome or Pericles’ Athens, I would take Caesar’s Rome. Athens was defeated and subjugated within 30 years of Pericles’ death; it was over. Caesar’s Rome had some good years ahead of it (and it knew how to co-opt and absorb the best of the Greek world to its own purposes).

      A more appropriate parallel might be Europe at the end of the High Middle Ages, a spent force that nevertheless lived to fight another day; on this thesis, we could view the current regency of Liberalism as an interregnum, a holding pattern until the next wave of creativity and confidence. The history of Europe, by the way, refutes Spengler’s thesis of the inevitability of cultural rise, decay, and destruction.

      Spengler, if memory serves correctly, wrote his pessimistic prognostications during the 1920’s, in the aftermath of WWI, a time of great disillusion and despondency in Europe. Spengler’s thesis therefore reflects the particular emotional and spiritual currents of the time. Compare his speculations with a contemporaneous novel like “A Sun Also Rises,”—published in 1926—which depicts a world of insufferable loss, ennui, deliberate self-destruction, and meaninglessness.

  5. The transcendent resistance
    The overwhelming leftist/multiculturalist/centralized authority mindset that dominates the commanding heights of public discourse—the schools and universities, the establishment news media, corporations, et al.—is perhaps not invulnerable. Certainly, there is a far stronger resistance movement in the U.S. than in Britain or “old” Europe. Unfortunately, most of the resistance is either a sham or based on poorly conceived alternatives, many of which are just variations on what they are supposedly against.

    Republicans may talk a vaguely conservative line, but in the end, the electoral calculus is all that matters. If they believe that supprting what amounts in practice to unlimited Latin American immigration, “civil unions,” and reverse discrimination that dare not speak its name will win them enough votes, that’s what they’ll support, regardless of whatever posturing they fell compelled to do.

    Libertarians? They don’t like government. Big deal. They want to let “the marketplace” (i.e., the strategies of corporations) decide everything about what kind of polity and culture we inhabit, a tyranny that is different but no less intellectually and morally demeaning than that of rule by government bureaucracies and unaccountable judiciaries.

    So-called neoconservatives? They have made a worthwhile contribution in terms of stiffening GWB’s spine for taking seriously the Islamic fundamentalist threat and actively opposing it. But some modest success seems to have gone to their heads; they now believe they have the key to remaking the world into their own vision of Utopia, and such visions are a dangerous drug. Neoconservatives lack skepticism and a “tragic sense,” and I’m afraid that the bill for their hubris will come due.

    In short, no current mainstream political movement seems to offer much hope of fundamental change. Are we then to despair?

    Maybe not. I don’t know much about Spengler, but I think Toynbee—for all that he was too rigid a systematizer—probably had something with his idea that cultural and political decadence could be trumped only with a spiritual revival. Can transcendence break through into a culture that worships money, power and numbers? Something like it has happened before, probably many times. I must believe it can happen again. There is nothing else I can believe will roll back the tsunami that is engulfing us.


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