Friday, May 13, 2011

Getting back to normalcy: How do we do that?

A helpful reader, commenting anonymously, left this response in reference to my 9/11 Memoir post. I thought his comments and questions merited more than just a quick combox response, so I beg his leave to quote them here and answer them in a new post. To wit:


Great post. Years ago at BC I praised your sensibilities and eloquence when other were browbeating you and encouraged you to keep on in that direction. I'm glad you did, the results are evident.

I read with especial interest the part about the obsession with authority with regard to the Truther movement.

Your analysis is spot on with regards to the left and its dysfunctional attitude towards authority. I've always thought that nearly all of those people who put on bumper sitckers reading "Question Authority" really mean "disrespect authority". A few opportunistic, faux conservatives have made these mistakes too, albeit far fewer. However, I would have to point out that this approach is not limited to leftists on the political spectrum. A disturbing number of doctrinaire, capital "L" libertarians also share this dysfunction.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks I was a pretty out-there libertarian. The libertarians had coopted much of the neocon language about the end of history, and it seemed that the age of anarcho-capitalism was upon us and that it would be a good thing. It seemed that the left was on the ropes and that we would enter a new age, a return to the decency and normalcy you reference elsewhere in your essay. I would guess that a lot of folks with libertarian, conservative tendencies were traipsing this way - it sure seemed like it at the time.

The 9/11 attacks changed that forever for me. While I still buy into much of what libertarians tout - "bill of rights" type negative liberties, free enterprise, and limited government - I also have come to realize that the world is a dangerous, nasty place, and that some level of authority must exist in order to deal with the nastiness. And my fellow traveler libertarians were so wrapped up in their avoidance of obeying authority that they couldn't or wouldn't understand what was going on. I discovered what I should have known all along - that they were, like leftists, more interested in power and more interested in winning some imagined debate than they were in doing the right thing. It was then that I reconnected with a more true form of conservatism, and, not so surprisingly, became interested in philosophers and theologians who decried those folks more interested in what they CAN do than what they SHOULD do (in other words, doctrinaire liberals and libertarians).

My conservatism will always be laced with strong libertarian sensibilities. I guess that's just how I'm built. But the straight line stuff no longer has a hold on me.

OK, then, the question is now this. The American public, wanting a return to normalcy after 75 years of Gramscian and overt leftism, modernism, and postmodernism, is simply voting for "something different" every six or eight years in the hopes of acheiving said return (almost as if by magic), but failing each time. How do we break this cycle and get to that return?

Dear Anonymous,

First of all, thank you very much for your kindness and encouragement. I, too, remember the days before 9/11 as a great heyday for the more philistine sorts of libertarianism. Those were the days when the tech bubble was roaring along and it seemed like the stock market could only go up. The Internet was still a relatively new phenomenon then, but it was growing by leaps and bounds. With new technological breakthroughs seemingly happening every day and a slew of popular writers touting our techno-libertarian future to the skies, it was easy to go along with the idea that humanity was turning a corner. Plus, the Greenspan Put had flooded the world with easy money; and the millennium which was then fast dawning upon us had everybody already disposed to think grand, unbridled thoughts of transcendence and progress. It felt like a time to cut loose, and people did. (Now you’ve got me thinking of writing another memoir! But not here, not yet.)

The question before us is, How do we disentangle ourselves from Gramscian Leftist agitprop and get back to normalcy? I think the answer must come in two parts. First, we ought to address what “normalcy” is. What sort of background exists in the minds and attitudes of men who desire normalcy and live in normalcy? That will be the first step towards a complete answer. The second step will involve outlining the sort of work that needs to be done on a daily and hourly basis in order to affect the changes we would like to see in society. It’s all connected, of course, but some explication might help to make the matter clearer.

As for what normalcy is, I would answer by saying that the idea of normalcy has an unmistakable root which can be described as either “perennial philosophy” or “real metaphysical religion.” These terms are crucial to understanding what a “normal” person wants and desires, what a “normal” government should aspire to, and so forth. Let’s take them one at a time.

Perennial Philosophy: By this I mean the notion that the nature of things is essentially unchangeable. All things have a nature; even “nature” has a nature; and so do human beings. The nature that a thing has defines what it is good for and what is good for it. Since our human nature does not change, the same things that were good and noble for us to do yesterday are still good and noble today. No innovation can change that which constitutes basic morality and virtue. Furthermore, the forms in which human beings live virtuously or to which they apply their virtues—families, realms, guilds, the Church—are meant to last forever. The betrayal of them is universally recognized as a failing, a sin. The perennial philosophy recommends to us how to live harmoniously with natural and supernatural nature. This is the golden quality that we recognize at once in the world’s greatest thinkers, men like Homer, Aristotle, Seneca, and Confucius. It is brought to perfection in Christ.

Real Metaphysical Religion: The modern world treats religion as if it were a subjective psychological phenomenon, as if its only purpose was to promote social adjustment, cooperation, politeness, and community. This is merely a modern notion, and it is both false and shallow. Religion makes no sense unless the gods are real. According to the traditional understanding, we worship God or gods because they are mighty beings who command both obedience and respect. They have the power to make our prayers and sacrifices efficacious. They have the power to save us or damn us. They have handed down certain rites to us by which they prefer to be worshipped, and so forth. The perennial philosophy reaches its conclusion by teaching us that the highest end of man is “contemplation,” i.e. the divine life, living and abiding in the same reality which is God Himself. All real religion aims at this goal and is worthy of respect; but we who have received the benefit of Revelation know that the goal is reached only through Christ, who is the Word made Flesh.

So the “normal” man is one who lives virtuously, who honors God through a proper attitude of worship, who is loyal to lord and kin, who preserves intact the lands and wisdom of his ancestors, and who absorbs and reflects the permanence of permanent things. This is the eternal man, the man who fulfills the end of man in accordance with man’s unchangeable nature. Obviously, he is not the modern man. The modern man recognizes no end, no God, no measure by which to judge himself except his own fickle impulses. Modern man is a gangrel creature who is throwing away his dignity and his lordship over the earth, and heaping a shame upon his head which will echo for generations down the road. But in the background of the normal man stands God, who created the man to tend His garden. This is what gives the normal man his tincture of divinity.

The second part of our question now becomes, What should the normal man “do” now that modern man has taken over the planet? How can he go back to living his normal life again in permanence and peace?

I will not attempt to offer you glib solutions, for certainly this will be a long and grueling battle which will rise to world-historical proportions and will cost many men their lives before it’s over. But that doesn’t mean that the answer isn’t straightforward—it is. We first have to win the battle for our own minds by embracing perennial philosophy and real metaphysical religion. Then we simply have to fight Gramsci inch for inch in the larger culture. This is done by setting our faces steadfast against the Left and never accepting their premises. We have to call them out, expose their lies, and let everyone see that truth and logic are on the side of perennial conservatism not Leftist innovation. We must fight them materially at the ballot box, the school board meeting, the internet comboxs and call-in radio shows. We have to stop paying attention to television, preferably by turning it off. We have to drain life away from the education establishment by sending our children to private schools, or home-schooling them. We have to elect candidates (not the candidates proffered by the existing party structure, but members of our own circle) who will bring down the welfare state and simplify the tax code. Indeed in most cases we already know what we should do, but we need to gird up our loins and do it. We will build a virtuous society by living virtuously, for the key to acquiring any skill is to begin to do those things which we will have to do once we’ve acquired it, as Aristotle says. A strong person is one who can lift a heavy weight. How can I become stronger? By lifting heavy weights.

And at this juncture, I think what we have to do most is get intellectual. We must endeavor to explain perennial conservatism with as much philosophical depth, poetry, and inward force of expression as we can attain. The life of a political essayist and cultural critic is always one of showing your heart to the world, of displaying for all and sundry just who you are and what you would do if you were in charge. Well, this is what we need to do. It will not only get events moving in the right direction but it will help us develop strength for when we really are in charge.

I call my blog “Man of the West” in part because I believe the Tolkienian legendarium provides an excellent basis for talking about tradition (another one is Frank Herbert’s Dune.) It is sad that the only place where you can find real virtues today is in works of fiction. But we have an excellent opportunity to take those stories and explain why they’re important, to inspire others to live up to a higher standard. I touched upon the matter in another Belmont Club post called “What could go wrong.” If you’ll permit me to close with this, it explains somewhat passionately what we have to do:


Here is my metaphorical take on the bureaucratic problem.

The films Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail each make use of an ironic ending which unmakes all that came before it. Instead of bringing closure, the movie spills out into the real world and the wild cast of characters is either hauled away by police or comically juxtaposed against contemporary mores. It is perhaps the most dissatisfying type of ending a movie could have, as it mocks the transcendent possibilities of life and art. It is more like the uncomfortable experience of having to leave the theater than it is like the cause of one’s leaving the theater, as the end of a movie must be in any case. Who does not recall, as a child, being utterly uplifted by some movie which depicted acts of heroism and freedom and natural beauty; and then, with the magic of the film still suffusing your mind like an incense, being rudely deflated by the trauma of emerging from the cool dark of the cinemaplex and out into the world, where there was nothing to greet you but the noonday sun glinting of a thousand windshields, and your loud-mouth friends who couldn’t give a damn that you were just briefly in the company of God? Awakening from the sweet dream and finding that nothing has changed on this side of the wardrobe, you begin to resent that the parking-lot world offers so little in the way of transcendence. When that kind of ending is brought into the movie itself, you feel like your very aspiration to transcendence has been rendered ridiculous, that it was silly to ever hope for anything in the first place.

It is the task of every modern bureaucracy to always bring about the ironic ending. “They” are the bobbies who lock up the crusading heroes, the boom-and-mike intruders who trample into the picture and poison the dream. As long as the bulk of mankind still cherishes a transcendent ideal, society moves along unconsciously and the sublime things that we all know to be true are left relatively unmolested. The highest aspirations that burn in the hearts of men—aspirations for love, victory, and permanence—can find adequate expression. Certainly such a society does not turn all its inhabitants into saints, for there is much unbelief and selfishness in every era. But the norms are there, the paths of virtue are clearly marked out; and a man finds that whenever he desires to do good, he is able to do good.

Not so in the bureaucratic state. The vulgar-souled apparatchiks live entirely in the world of glass and concrete. They have never been to Neverland, and they don’t know how to fly. You cannot do good in a bureaucracy because, for the bureaucrats, the term has an entirely artificial meaning. Authentic charity is replaced by brittle utopian solidarity for the procurement of “rights.” Faith, family, property, country, and everything most dear to the heart, is proscribed or brutally repressed. This is the end of genuine humanity. We do not often see it under this terrifying aspect because we live too close to it, are too painfully involved in it. But it is now fully possible to sketch out just what a horrible price we have paid for the false hopes of modernity. Why have we made war against the family? Abortion and no-fault divorce have ruined more lives than a thousand tsunamis. When beholding the ruin of Japan, let no one lift up his eyes to the heavens and say “God, why did this happen?” For then God will show us the faces of 50 million babies and say, “Why did THIS happen?” The bigger catastrophe is the one we’ve inflicted on ourselves. And why, for what?

Now it occurs to us that we need to fight back, only that isn’t so simple to do. Your every attempt to act like a hero will be met with stony repression. Nothing authentic can be permitted in the parking-lot; heroism lives on only inside the theater. It is okay to cheer for the Greeks at Thermopylae—in the theater. Don’t you dare try to act like that in real life, or it’s hemlock and exile for you. Or perhaps you’ve just seen The Sound of Music and you’re inspired to throw some pebbles at your girlfriend’s window. Forget about it—the neighbors will call the cops. If you want to get her pregnant in the Taco Bell crapper you can have a state-sponsored abortion, but don’t try being romantic. It’s politically incorrect.

So what can a defender of truth do when the enemy is inside the fortress; and not only inside the fortress, but sitting on the throne? At this point the most effective measure is the Heideggerian concept of “releasement,” otherwise known as the Puddleglum Solution. Do not listen to the lies any longer; give them no place in your being; stomp out the bewitching fire and say, “I look around me and I see no trace of Narnia. In my despair I cannot recall that Narnia ever existed. But I would rather live as if Narnia existed than put up with you anymore. I am not going to live in the parking-lot!” This will at least create a bastion behind which others can get to work. The first step in the struggle is necessarily spiritual. It is a matter of conscience and resolve.


  1. Re: Puddleglum solution. The Wiki page on the Lewis character has this interesting observation:

    "Lewis is perhaps using Puddleglum to give a somewhat existential statement of faith when he writes, 'Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.'"

    Ahhh, the pretensions of the pretenders. Play on, my friend, but be careful. Not everyone cares to play your games.

  2. Pretensions? The idea that Lewis was an existentialist with respect to matters of faith is possible only to one who is familiar with his writings solely through Wikipedia articles. The principal theme throughout Lewis’ long apologetic career can be summed up as “Either Christianity is true or it’s worthless. Jesus Christ is either the Son of God or he is a raving madman beneath contempt. It cannot be both ways.” The so-called existentialist elements come into play in the life of a believer only in those desperate moments when all visible proofs of God’s providence seem to have disappeared. But even then the believer does not hold to the proposition that God is real simply because he believes Him to be so. Rather, he uses his willpower to adhere to past assurances in the absence of present incentives. It is a test of faith, loyalty, and courage that has many natural analogues (e.g. marriage and soldiery).

    Lewis never once intimated that Christianity might be all “pie in the sky,” that Jesus Christ might have been a deluded lunatic, but that we ought to put our faith in them anyway because to do so would be to “believe the better story.” That’s Yann Martel, not Lewis. The issues of life and eternity are not a game. Neither Lewis nor any serious Christian would brook the suggestion that they are.

  3. Well, if Christianity were "The Greatest Story Ever Told" there would be no problem, no?

    Paraphrasing Nietzsche, I find it more likely that human life, in its highest forms, must be lived in the full acceptance that the values we create for ourselves are fictions. Nietzsche draws our attention to the trivial nature of dogma and the temporary fictions that we as societies and cultures author, often for the express purpose of preserving the status quo.

    The real danger of trying to establish these fictions on the grounds of a claim to absolutes like truth or “objectivity” is that they bump up against other fictions authored by other peoples, which ultimately results in what Nietzsche so insightfully predicted of the 20th century — multiple bloody and horrendous wars waged in the defense and propagation of competing ideologies.

    Adjudicating which fictions are better in some sense, rather than whose Revelation is the right one, seems a better way to go.