This month we are so very pleased and honored to present this interview with the renowned philosopher, Nicholas Capaldi, who is the Legendre-Soule Distinguished professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, USA. He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, who himself is a philosopher and author of several important books and is currently working on a collection of articles, entitled, Gods Will Have Blood: Rise of Totalitarianism in America.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): My image of Nicholas Capaldi is that of an American intellectual and academic, rather than a philosophy professor. The reason is, correct me if I am wrong, that in your books you always try to tackle a big intellectual problem, just like in your book on analytic philosophy, which you inscribed in the Enlightenment Project. It is not just narrow philosophical problems that you see, but you see them in a broad historical context. The same goes for your other books and the one you have just finished,The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law. Is my description of you correct?
Nicholas Capaldi (NC): Yes! Thank you. Philosophical issues do not exist in a vacuum but within a larger context. It is always important to ask “why” an issue is an issue and for whom. The academic world, wrongly modeled along scientific grounds, forces people to know or think they know more about less and less. The result is a series of fashionable discussions akin to a carousel on which the riders and tunes change but there is no progress or direction.
ZJ: Your other book is a biography of John Stuart Mill, the father of the Liberal Idea. What made you write it?
NC: As an undergraduate seeking to find my own voice, I was inspired both by Mill’s defense of individual autonomy and by the critique of censorship. A career in academe has only reinforced the need to seek for the truth and to be free to articulate it, even more so as the academic world becomes increasingly politicized and intolerant.
ZJ: As the author of two books on Mill, you are well qualified to assess Liberalism as a doctrine. Liberalism travelled a long way from where it started in 1820, as a criticism of the establishment of the aristocratic Anglican order to what it became in Mill, and to where it is now, essentially a form of Politically Correct orthodoxy. One could probably find a number of other intermediate stages in the 20th century (welfare state, extension of suffrage, etc.) How do you explain its plasticity, the ability to adapt itself to the changing circumstances? In ten years, it will be roughly 200 years since the emergence of the Liberal Idea in Oxford in the 1820s, as Cardinal John Henry Newman explained it in his Apologia.
NC: I think it is a mistake to talk about Liberalism. It would be better to focus on the importance of individual freedom and how it emerged/developed historically within the European psyche, but most especially in the English world. Once you try to understand this as an isolated concept (philosophical, political, economic, etc.) you have created a contextless abstraction – and abstractions can be interpreted to mean anything. The best discussion I know is Oakeshott’s distinction between civil and enterprise association, wherein the former is a society without a collective end, but exists to allow individual members to pursue their own individual ends with a minimum of conflict.
The existence of people (anti-individuals) who are incapable or unwilling to live in such a world enables them to take an abstract concept and make it mean the opposite of its original meaning. I might add that intellectuals who are limited to using only Greco-Roman models have bought into an intellectual frame of reference that limits their ability to understand individual freedom. Such intellectuals want to be free to impose their own model on others – freedom of speech for them means freedom to impose their private vision on others.
ZJ: What, in your opinion, were the classical characteristics of Mill’s Liberalism and which are the ones which today’s Liberals promote?
NC: Mill sought to respect individual freedom; today, many so-called Liberals seek to “promote” individual freedom by collectivist means. Assuming they know what they are talking about, they are blind to the inherent contradiction of ‘forcing people to be free’ (Rousseau). It all goes back to what Voegelin called “Gnosticism.”
ZJ: Let me give you one example, from his On Representative Government. Mill was a great proponent of universal suffrage. Yet, he understood that it was not a God given right, like the American inalienable rights, but contingent upon certain factors – education, for example. “Universal teaching must precede universal enfranchisement.” In other words, basic education, which he considered to be the knowledge of basic mathematics, reading, geography, national and world history is the foundation on which suffrage rests. We, today, on the other hand, believe that it is a right, that democracy can function anywhere, and that regardless of our personal and intellectual qualities, democracy can function. Democracy in Mill’s writings appears to be a very fragile and complex mechanism. How would he see the democratic world today?
NC: Mill wrote the essay, On Liberty, in part, to call attention to the difference between the negative role of democracy in the eighteenth century (favored by the U.S. founders) and the “tyranny of the majority,” against which Tocqueville argued so eloquently. Mill also called attention to the difference between what the majority might think and what those who claim to speak for the majority (power elite) claim on behalf of the majority.
ZJ: We seem to be obsessed with the idea of wide participation of the masses. No exclusions; in fact, every exclusion is called discrimination. Mill, sympathetic as he was to the idea of extending the right to vote, was very clear that, first, criminals’ right to vote should be suspended, that people who live off others should not have a right to vote, and those who are unemployed for an extensive period of time (he thought of 3-5 years), should not have a right to vote either. Today, Mill would be accused of discrimination.
NC: Today, democracy has become a mask for oppression. So-called “identity politics” brings together all the of the anti-individuals (mentioned earlier – see Oakeshott) to undermine the achievements and prestige of autonomous individuals. Instead of transferring resources from the rich to the poor, we transfer power from individuals to the state (de Jouvenel). Political discourse has become Orwellian.
ZJ: Let me go back to his educational requirements – literacy, national history, global history and geography. This is what he thought was necessary in 1861 when he published his work! The world of 1861 and the world of 2020 are not the same, and by that, I mean the world is so much more complicated and complex that even the best educated among us cannot claim to be experts in political matters.
Let me draw a parallel, I am not sure how useful it is, between criticism of Socialism by Hayek and democracy’s ability to sustain itself. According to Hayek, one major reason why Socialist economics is not viable is because no one can have complete knowledge that goes into pricing, and therefore, only free market can provide us with correct price of goods. Planned economy can’t work. The idea that the masses somehow have enough knowledge to run the social and political realms seems to me Utopian in nature, in the same way that Socialism was.
NC: You are absolutely correct. Keep in mind that Hayek’s argument against planning is a restatement of his mentor Mill’s position that no one can be infallible (remember the context of 19th-century debate on infallibility). The U.S. was founded as a Republic (constitutional protection of individual liberties) as opposed to a DEMOCRACY (majority-tyranny).
ZJ: In the beginning of his On Liberty, Mill states: “The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government.”
This idea sounds very familiar to the readers of Marx and Engels, who at the opening of the Communist Manifesto formulated their vision of progressive history as well. In their view history is a class struggle, between oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressors are in Mill’s scheme the Party of Authority, and the oppressed are the Party of Liberty. Is it a coincidence that Mill – the Liberal – and Marx and Engels sound so alike? Or does the similarity stem from the popular understanding of History as Progressive, a popular conception in 19th-century.
NC: Great question. There were different conceptions of history in the 19th-century debate. For the mature Mill, history evolved but did not progress; as in the common law, we constantly seek to retrieve, explicate, and restate for new contexts the inherent norms of our inherited civilization. For Marx, Comte, etc. “history” was understood “scientifically” as a form of teleology or progress. The great attraction of the latter view is that it allows you to invent self-serving narratives.
ZJ: Do you think there are consequences of such an interpretation of history? In Marxism it was called “Historical Inevitability,” which in practice gave the communist apparatchiks a theoretical tool to eliminate the enemies: If History is progressive, if it unfolds itself in a certain direction, there is nothing wrong in eliminating the enemies of Progress. The idea had serious consequences in real life. Millions of people killed! The Stalinist trials, for example, are a good exemplification of it.
Let me quote a few sentences from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a book about trials, in which Gletkin, the interrogator, explains what kind of historical thinking drives the communists and what justifies the elimination of the enemies: “My point is, one may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brother for emotions. This is the first commandment for us. Sympathy, conscience, and atonement are for us repellent debauchery… to sell oneself to one’s conscience is to abandon mankind. History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience.”
Thus, one can torture, kill. History provides justification. Are today’s Liberals heading in the same direction? Not necessarily by physically extermination, but by destroying everyone who disagrees with them? I am asking this question because their intolerance is growing; they attempt to shout down any critical voice; they become increasingly more violent; and the words, such as progress, progressive agenda, progressive policies, etc. are their only vocabulary.
NC: I fear that you are correct. All of this nonsense reflects the fact that the British and U.S. Revolutions were “conservative” in the sense I attributed to Mill above. The Russian and all subsequent Revolutions have been “radical,” that is, based on abstractions. Furthermore, the intellectual origin of all of this dangerous nonsense is what I have described as “the Enlightenment Project” – the belief that we could construct a social ‘science’ and thereby a social technology. You alluded to this in mentioning my other book. Like all bad ideas it originated in 18th-century France. If there is a social technology then dissent undermines utopia. Again, this appeal to infallibility is what Mill objected to in Comte.
ZJ: These dangerous tendencies in mass behavior are not new. They were noticed by philosophers, sociologists and psychologists. Let me begin with Mill who talks about tyranny of the majority in a democracy often in his On Liberty. How do you account for his favorable, even enthusiastic support for the rule of the majority, on the one hand, and his contempt for them (the collective mediocrity), as he refers to them?
NC: Mill saw political democracy as inevitable—curiously a product of industrialization. What he advocated was a cultural and political bulwark against its excesses.
ZJ: Was his contemporary, Nietzsche, a more perceptive critic of democracy and majority rule than Mill? Sometimes they sound the same, but Nietzsche took the masses for what they are – mediocrity, and saw what Mill refused to see – lack of aristocratic virtues. In fact, Mill hated aristocracy; wrote nasty things about it. Do you think it was a well-argued position, or was it a psychological suspicion of someone who did not belong to an aristocratic order, and who gave support with the power of his considerable intellect to the rule of mediocrity?
NC: lan Kahan has written a good book, Aristocratic Liberalism, in which he makes the case that Mill, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt were exemplars. I have argued that England (individual autonomy tradition) was different from the Continent (long history of collectivism). I see Nietzsche as responding to the more threatening Continental context.
Elsewhere, I (following many previous writers) have identified the extent to which intellectuals are attracted to holistic, collectivist, and Utopian thinking (e.g. Enlightenment Project, Hoffer’s men of words in his book True Believer). So, it is no surprise that the ‘Continental Disease’ has slowly infiltrated the Anglo-American world.
I also believe that the cultural dimension is more important than the purely intellectual one. In the U.S., many ordinary people understand and respond positively to Clint Eastwood’s Western films and to Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way.” This is behind Buckley remark that some of us would rather be governed by the first 300 people in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard.
ZJ: Ever since the beginning of the 20th-century, that is, the rise of psychology and sociology, we know not only how, but why masses behave the way they do. Freud devoted an interesting book, The Group Psychology, to the topic. In a nutshell, man loses his individuality and identity in a crowd. Following Le Bon, Freud claims, man goes back to his primitive instinct and nature, and acts like a member of a herd, again, an expression that Nietzsche uses frequently to describe what he calls slave-morality. Only individuals, not crowds, not masses, have a moral compass. How does it square, in your view, with the idea of a democratic, mass society? Is such a society bound to be immoral?
NC: This is the very issue that Oakeshott addresses in his essay, “The Masses in Representative Government.” His conclusion was that “….[the anti-individual or mass man] remains an unmistakably derivative character…helpless, parasitic and able to survive only in opposition to individuality….The desire of the ‘masses’ to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge.”
ZJ: Let me turn to something that has been on my mind, and which made me put out a new edition of Mill’s writings, where I think one can trace the trajectory of his development; namely, the idea of authority, which is so inimical to Mill. He made it, as the quotation from his On Liberty which I used before reveals, the centerpiece of his philosophy. Authority is the enemy of Liberty. Plato, in Book. VIII of his Republic, on the other hand, saw the dissolution of authority as the beginning of anarchy, which, in turn, is the result of expanding equality in a democracy.
Now, Mill, as you know, translated several of Plato’s dialogues and knew his philosophy well. Did he miss something? Did he expect democracy to last despite Plato’s warnings? Or did he think that everyone is rational? Or was he just too steeped in the English tradition of respect for law, order, conservatism in private life, etc.? Did he think that the social order is self-sustaining, that we will not cross a certain line? How would you explain his position?
NC: The intellectual and moral responsibility of the public intellectual, whether he/she be Plato, Mill, or us, is to (1) identify the social problem, (2) defend one alternative solution/policy against others, and (3) offer a rhetorical (artistic) expression, designed to persuade others to see the world as we do. Plato clearly did this in writing dialogues. You captured some of this in your collection of Mill’s more popular writings. You also capture this in some of your own cultural writing. It has been my great failing not to have done more of this in my own.
ZJ: Is the suspicion or hostility, in your view, as it is in Mill, characteristic of Liberalism? And if so, how far can the Liberals go, you think, without destroying social order?
NC: The greatest threat to tyranny is the capacity of a few people to stand up and say, “The Emperor has no clothes.” Keep it simple, clear, and authentic. It takes enormous courage to do this. In the end, the question is never how far tyrants will go, but how far we are willing to go to oppose them.
ZJ: Let me return to the idea of order. In Aristotle, we find a claim that the function of a good law giver is to make citizens good. In his defense, one of Socrates’ accusers makes the same point. When I taught those thinkers, it struck me that if Aristotle had a chance to read the American founding documents—pursuit of happiness, that is, leaving an individual to his own devices, without any moral compass—he would give the Founding Fathers an F. The idea that human behavior can be left unregulated would be preposterous to the ancients.
Now, given the American Founding Fathers’ brilliance, did they miss something? It is unlikely, which leads me to my question. The US was founded by the sectarian Protestants, with a very strict moral code. They, particularly Jefferson, could believe that the public realm can remain neutral because the citizens’ religiosity, or the Churches, will keep pumping, so to speak, the moral code. What are your thoughts on this?
NC: I think you are correct. The U.S. is, as Samuel Huntington said, an Anglo-Protestant culture. I would also make the case that since Mill and Nietzsche, it has become necessary to find an intellectual/cultural defense of the values of such a Protestant culture not tied to a specific theology as traditionally understood. I have tried to make such a case in a way that is compatible with some but not all traditional forms of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Curiously, we live now in an increasingly secular culture where clergy who no longer believe in God are attracted both to mindless defenses of abstractions, like tolerance of intolerant religious sects and movements, and, at the same time, a therapeutic view of the welfare state as the new moral community. When I meet such people, I am not sure whether I should laugh or cry. Perhaps we need a new Reformation. This is part of what it means to retrieve our moral tradition in a new context. Retrieving a tradition can never be a simple matter of an uncritical return to the past. Instead, it is the re-identifying of something that is a permanent part of the human condition, even though it is always expressed in specific historical contexts.
ZJ: Now, 250 years later, with the decline of religiosity, low church attendance—and the same seems to be true of Judaism (as my Orthodox Rabbi friend tells me, reformed Judaism is likely to cease to exist in a few decades) – there is no moral or ethical powerhouse. It is almost as if Sartre and de Beauvoir’s dream came true. Everyone invents his own moral code, lives according to his own rules. Are we becoming a nihilistic society? Is this nihilism?
NC: I would make two points. First, there are lost souls, some of whom embrace the latest fashionable, and sometimes destructive, enterprise association. Second, nihilism is not to be confused with moral pluralism. We have always lived in a morally pluralistic world. The mistake we have always made is to try and find the one new true collectivist faith and impose it on others.
What we need, and what we have to some extent, is a plurality of substantive moral communities who need to agree on common procedural norms. I think many such communities exist. I think some of those communities presently lack the internal resources to agree to common procedural norms. In our book on The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law, my wife Nadia and I have tried to show how this is possible and actual.
ZJ: Just like Mill, Jefferson was hostile to aristocracy, in his own, so to speak, American way. He saw it as an extension of monarchical order rather than a class, or much less so, because in one of his letters, he made a very strong case for aristocracy of spirit, education. He even designed a way how such a democratic aristocracy should be bred. In one letter he made a list of mad European monarchs, which, he thought, to be a very good case for abandoning monarchy as an institution.
Now, let me make this point – seceding from the British Crown, declaring independence from Britain, is one thing, establishing a new political order is another. So, after painful debates, the Americans chose the republic. Here is my question – one could believe, as Jefferson did, back then, that a monarch can become crazy and corrupt, but, one could argue, that one can replace a corrupt or mad monarch. However, when the masses become corrupt, what then? What can you do? And our present social and political situation seems to point to a number of problems which, on an individual scale, you could term unhealthy, or even insane.
NC: There are a number of issues here that need to be separated. First, I do not believe that the “masses” correctly captures the major issues. There are many people who cannot be classified as “intellectual,” but who are decent individuals and responsible citizens. You do not get to be decent and responsible by having a Liberal education. Second, the social pathologies I do see reflect the failure of major institutions (e.g. family, schools, religions). The failure of those institutions I would attribute to the false idea that we can have a social technology (i.e. the Enlightenment Project).
ZJ: You are an academic, having spent your life in academia. But you are more. You are associated with the Liberty Fund. When I think of the several conferences that I attended, I cannot resist the feeling that I have never, and I mean it, participated in more intense intellectual life than during the two days of their sessions. It is not only a well-organized setting, but it is a place where ideas matter. I am sure that you will agree with me. No university produces such an intense intellectual atmosphere as does the Liberty Fund. Do you agree?
NC: I would indeed agree. As long as the administration of Liberty Fund is true to donor intent, and is not captured by ideologues with a program, it remains the premier educational institution in America. Again, I would argue that the intellectual world in the last century has been a captive of the Enlightenment Project program of social technology. So-called higher education now disfigures the intellectual world, the worlds of the clergy, government administration, communication and journalism, law schools, teacher training, business, the arts, etc. At the risk of sounding self-promoting, higher education now controls the commanding heights of all that is wrong with our society.
ZJ: Given the absolutely dreadful state of education and universities in America, do you see a way out? The tenured academics will not give up their positions. Has academia been destroyed? Almost every week you can read an article of complaint from retiring academics stating how bad things are. Few people have the courage to stand up; and the majority of professors are afraid—afraid of students and administration. How did we come to be where we are?
NC: This is a long story. I started writing a book about it and became too depressed to finish it. It cannot be reformed internally, in part for reasons to which you have alluded. It can only be reformed from the outside. I do not see that happening in the short run. Our only hope is that it will collapse on itself, and the current financial crisis (student loan debt) may be how it happens. This is not an excuse for doing nothing – we keep up the rear-guard action. What we need to prepare is a positive alternative.
ZJ: What about the Liberty Fund method of education? Don’t you think that there is room for it to do the same kind of seminars with students? That Liberty Fund and other foundations could start real universities where education is what it used to be?
NC: I think the Liberty Fund model is a good one. I also think that education cannot be left to professionals alone. The articulation, defense, and critique of our fundamental norms should go on in every institution. The life of the mind also has intrinsic value. I end this interview as I plan to enter retirement with a program called “Community of Scholars.” Free from the constraints of teaching those who do not want to learn, freed from administrative B.S., free from the tyranny of journal editors and university presses; and with the help of the new technology and social media we can create a vast network of scholars who want to search for and articulate the truth, who want to share – for free – the wisdom of a lifetime of searching, and to do so in the spirit of Mill’s and Nietzsche’s ruthless self-examination. It requires both intellectual and moral virtue. It is our way, perhaps the only way, of keeping the Socratic faith.
ZJ: In 1977 Leszek Kolakowski published his opus magnum,Main Currents of Marxism. Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution. The first volume deals with the founders; the second with the golden age; the third with Marxism’s demise. Kolakowski’s work is, as I like to think about it, a death certificate of Marxist thought issued twelve years before the actual burial of Communism in Eastern Europe, and fourteen years before the end of the Soviet Union.
The range of your interests is impressive, but you also wrote a fantastic biography of John Stuart Mill – a great read! Would you feel tempted to write a work on Liberalism à la Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism? You could even title it, “Main Currents of Liberalism.” From our private conversations, I gather that you are thinking about it. Any thoughts on this and how would you structure it?
NC: I am most definitely interested in writing such a book. The general thesis is that what I have called the Enlightenment Project (18th-century French idea that there can be a social science modeled after physical science and that such a social science will give us a social technology) is the origin of Doctrinaire Liberalism, Marxism, and Socialism – these are all expressions of this bad idea (all bad ideas, by the way, come from France).
Doctrinaire Liberalism, I shall argue, is a French abstraction that (a) misunderstands Anglo-American culture, (b) and tries to introduce Anglo-American virtues into the Continent, but mistakes the abstraction for the reality. The mistake is then read-back into Anglo-American culture by British and American scholars and activists – thereby providing a fake history. All versions of the Enlightenment Project ultimately become totalitarian – hence, why what is happening in the U.S. (under the Democrats, not Trump) parallels what happened under Marxism.
ZJ: Marxism died not merely because the countries of real Socialism could not compete with the Western Liberal democracies, because the economy started to crumble, because of politics, etc., but because faith in Marxism died. Marxism, in its different stages of development, was not only a philosophy and political orientation, but a religion that required faith. One could say that its longevity depended on the existence of the believers. A host of intellectuals, writers, artists were Marxists; they gave support to the idea. When they lost faith in it – partly because of the form in which it manifested itself politically and socially – Marxism lost its magical power. Do you find any parallels between Marxism and Liberalism? Liberalism has also evolved, manifesting itself in different ways.
NC: I think you are correct that ideologies die when people lose faith in them. I do not think that this will happen soon in the U.S. In the U.S., the weakening has just begun; we need to make people aware that they are succumbing to an intellectual disease. We need to persist in weakening the faith.
ZJ: At the very end of volume one, Kolakowski characterized Marxism as man’s greatest 20th-century utopia, a flight to freedom. Today, the young generation is not familiar with such a hope and the Socialist idea, but being Politically Correct (with its call to social justice, the abolishing of “power structures,” etc.), which is a reformulation of Marxism. Do you think that the Liberal Idea is another utopia which replaced the old one, Marxism?
NC: Liberalism is just another version. What people confuse is our institutional structure with theory; we need to remind them that our structure is an historical product and not a theoretical product. I tried to initiate that in the book on The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law.
ZJ: There are a number of books on Liberalism, beginning with Hobhouse’s classic, Liberalism (1911), which, in my opinion, comes very close to what we find in Mill’s writings; Harold Laski’s book The Rise of Eurpean Liberalismis another minor landmark in the development of the idea, and a number of minor works (O’Sullivan’s Liberalism, Schapiro’s Liberalism, Brinton’s The Shaping of the Modern Mind, part of which is devoted to liberalism, and so on). What is probably the most ambitious and serious book on the subject is De Ruggierro’s History of European Liberalism. It occurred to me that one could write a book on the development of Liberalism by tracing books called “Liberalism” or “History of Liberalism.” This is a phenomenon in itself, which makes one wonder why Liberals must redefine or readjust the notion of what Liberalism is every decade or so. Do you have an explanation?
NC: There is a disconnect between theory and practice, a disconnect that the discipline of philosophy has encouraged, namely, the belief that we can theorize the relation of theory to practice. Intellectuals, as Schumpeter noted, are the culprits here. Intellectuals so want to be the new clergy, they are unwilling to acknowledge the limits of discursive reason.
We cannot defeat them with more theory; we need to root out the notion that reason exists independent of all context (almost every major philosopher from Plato on has made this mistake). In the 20th-century, only Oakeshott and a few others have tried to reign in this rationalism.
ZJ: Do you think there is a need for a work on Liberalism, like Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, particularly now that Liberalism has assumed a freedom-threatening posture (I mean the PC movement, which is very destructive, socially, politically and culturally), just like Marxism before? Need the people be reminded how Socialism began and deteriorated? Liberalism is no longer an idea that promises liberation from the shackles of oppression but, like Marxism, has become an oppressive system, very much like what Tocqueville feared democracy would become.
NC: Several of us should write about it – not one book but a host of books. I do not think “democracy” is the problem. I think the problem is a collection of elites (academe, journalism, military, business, Hollywood, technicians in IT, etc.).
ZJ: Does Liberalism require and depend on faith as much as Marxism did? When this faith dies, does the Liberal Idea die with it?
NC: It is the same faith. We need to make clear what that faith is. Voegelin identified it as Gnosticism, a form of Pelagianism. It will never disappear; it will simply assume new guises. We have to be patient in dealing with its eternal return.
ZJ: Under Communism, where I spent the first 25 years of my life, we had a mild Marxist-Leninism indoctrination (it was not that mild in the 1950s or the 1960s); but no one believed this ideological rubbish. Opposing it meant serious consequences, losing a job, interrogations, prison, sometimes “an accident” (death). But people opposed it; there was an underground/ samizdat press. We would read Hayek, Milton Friedman, Roger Scruton, Kolakowski, and others in horrible underground editions. One book would be read by twenty individuals. People made the effort to clear their minds of the ideological pollution. But now they attend official university classes in feminism, gender studies, environmental justice, domination, patriarchy, colonialism, women in art, literature, and many others.
Here is my question: Why this weakness of man under Liberal Democracy, why such blindness? Is it because Liberal Democracies do not go after your body, but your soul, as Tocqueville observed? People prefer to lose their souls – integrity, conscience – than their jobs? This is not a recent phenomenon. Tocqueville saw it in 1835!
NC: We have to remember that the vast majority of Americans do not have college degrees; that the U.S. culture is not primarily an intellectual culture but a practice/pragmatic culture. The infected part of the population consists of two groups: (a) Intellectuals taking their cue from the Continental abstractions I previously identified, and (b) College students – most of whom are disinterested in ideas.
The public has been totally turned off by the media journalists (“fake news”), so they remain uninfected; and the public is largely oblivious to what goes on in higher education and still thinks it is about getting a better job. The problem is the intelligentsia (vast literature on why totalitarianism appeals to them) and the intellectual students who are indoctrinated. Most students are ignorant, disinterested, turned off, and remain quiet as a defensive maneuver.
It is OUR job to attack the intelligentsia (and remain unpopular with fellow faculty) to educate and re-educate those bright students with whom one comes into contact, and to reassure, by our opposition, the disinterested students that they do not have to take left-wing intellectuals and faculty seriously. The latter, ironically, may be the most effective thing we do.
ZJ: Thank you, Professor Capaldi, for this wonderful conservation!
The image shows, “Danish soldiers return to Copenhagen, 1849,” by Otto Bache; painted in 1894.
A Polish version of this interview appeared in Arcana.
In the last several months, Conservatism lost two of its family members: Norman Stone, a historian, and Sir Roger Scruton, a philosopher. How important they were is testified by the fact that they and Jonathan C. D. Clark, the author of a very important work on English history, entitled, English Society, 1688-1832, became objects of the liberal historian Timothy Garton-Ash’s attack in 1990. Attacks are never pleasant to those who are their object, but sometimes they tell the reader whose views deserve attention.
What do these three men have in common? They were staunch defenders of hierarchy, privilege and the Past. The Past is sacred; it is our guide to the future, and, therefore, to use one of Sir Roger’s favorite words, it must be approached with “piety.” The Liberal sees nothing sacred in the Past. Like hierarchy and privilege, it is an instrument of the oppressive “power-structure,” which today’s Liberal finds it imperative to destroy.
The chaos and lawlessness on the streets in America has brought to light what the philosophy of Liberalism has become, but it also highlighted the importance of the role that the State plays in upholding social order.
The State and History are what Liberals waged an open war against. The destruction of monuments, Nancy Pelosi’s (the Speaker of the American House of Representatives) wholehearted support for the removal of statues and paintings from the Congressional buildings, the destruction of Columbus’ monuments all over the country, and those of the American presidents (Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt) are open admissions that American history is in the process of being abolished even by American politicians.
The Washington D.C. mayor’s refusal to lodge members of the National Guard, while the President, for reasons of security, was put in a bunker, is also a telling fact: the enemy is not the thugs, looters and vandals who took over the protests, but the State.
Paradoxically, this sentiment is shared by many high State officials whose salaries are paid for by the State. According to the mayor of Durham, in North Carolina, the function of police, which White folks need to understand, was to police Black people, and to protect White people and their property. The absurdity of such an utterance becomes obvious when we reflect on the fact that police are present in all African countries with no White population. The function of police in every civilized and advanced society is not to protect one race from another, but to protect decent citizens from harm by anyone.
To be sure, America has a race problem which cuts both ways, but the racial conflict is augmented by media and demagogues, and the mayor’s statement propagates a socially dangerous view, according to which, the American police is an oppressive arm of the White race. That may have been true to some extent a very long time ago, but it is hardly the case nowadays. Even the most hideous racially motivated killings are the work of individuals rather than the White “power-structure” or effects of “systemic racism;” and very few Whites in the U.S. can be called racist.
I doubt that Durham’s mayor propagates her views out of malice or even ignorance. Such an outlook on American history is the effect of about three decades of multicultural indoctrination by an intellectually semi-literate academic establishment.
Many of the American politicians and activists see the political realm as theatre, on whose stage we are watching an eternal racial conflict where the Whites play the role of the oppressors and the Blacks the role of the oppressed. If it is politically expedient, the actors are the oppressed American Indians, or the privileged class and those without privileges, the obscurantists who look to the Past and the Progressives who look to the Future.
The script changes, depending on who wants to enter the stage. Last year, during the weeks of Congressional testimony by Justice Kavanaugh, the actors embodied the two sexes: men and progressive women. Several years earlier, when the Supreme Court, after several-thousand years of human history, was deciding what marriage is, the participants were the heterosexual oppressors and the oppressed homosexuals.
Next came the “transgendered” party and those who feel comfortable in their original skin. There are already signs that the future conflict will erupt between the monogamist oppressors and the oppressed groups of polygamists who will demand further changes in the structure of family. This scheme is like a mathematical equation, with one unknown, which can always be substituted by whatever minority variable one wants.
Nothing in this theatrical scenario is very original. The script was written in the second half of the 19th-century by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Socialism, in The Communist Manifesto, and by John Stuart Mill, the founding father of Liberalism, on the very first page of his On Liberty and the last two pages of his Utilitarianism. Both Marx and Engels, on the one hand, and Mill, on the other, view social conflicts always as bi-polar. History’s purpose is to abolish hierarchy and replace privileges by rights. At the end of History, once equality reigns supreme, there will be no need for the use of force! The State—its coercive institutions—will wither away.
By calling on the police to be “defunded,” the current protesters want to accelerate this process. When the mayor of Minneapolis said that he would not do it, the angry crowd shouted: “Jacob, go home.” Jacob, unless he does what the mob says, is likely to be voted out, and we can be almost certain that the new mayor will be elected on the promise of defunding police, or seriously limiting the scope of its power. The movement is aiming at further “withering” of the already weak liberal State.
To anyone with a modicum of critical-mindedness, such ideas are at best utopian and at worst dangerous. The danger seems to suggest, however, that the Western world may have reached the point where its two socio-political options—Conservatism and Liberalism which originated at the beginning of 19th-century — are no longer two forces mutually controlling and enriching each other in their occasional clashes over social policies.
Liberalism, which for the last sixty years or so has been slowly corroding social hierarchies, degenerated into a destructive social force. It is no longer the philosophical doctrine which drew our attention to unnecessary cruelty, brutality, arbitrariness in administrating the system of justice, and the abuse of power.
In its nascent stage, Liberalism promoted serious policies—unemployment benefits, education for the poor, taxation, greater participation of women and lower classes in political decision-making—that would help the poor and weak. All these items were addressed and tackled with high degree of theoretical subtlety by J. S. Mill in his Considerations On Representative Government.
Today’s Liberalism is not a doctrine that encourages the underdogs to make an effort to ennoble themselves, but encourages them to feel resentful. This resentment, as Nietzsche saw it, encourages the destruction of the social fabric and institutions that protect all individuals from one another. As New York authorities announced, they will not prosecute the protesters for damages, which is another way of saying, that one can participate in the destruction and still pay no legal consequences.
Is what is happening on our streets a matter of badly designed social policies or discrimination? One can seriously doubt it. What I would like to suggest is that what is taking place is the consequence of the Liberal doctrine.
Liberals have always been hostile to the use of force or coercion in human relationships. This is clear from reading Mill. The meaning of the term “force” or “coercion” in the Liberal dictionary is extremely wide. It can signify burning human beings alive, torture, lynching, brutal beatings, but it can also mean light spanking, screaming at someone for rudeness, using so-called “offensive” language, or any form of what was once considered discipline.
Lack of discipline is responsible for the state of American education and lack of respect among children and young people, without which polite society is impossible. Everything that is not negotiated is considered coercive and evil. Therefore, to achieve their social and political goals, the Liberals prefer to use legislation in order to regulate human relationships rather than discipline.
They see no contradiction between mounting legislation which regulates every aspect of human relationships and the diminishing scope of individual freedom. This paradox was noticed already by Tocqueville, who understood that the reason why there is so little freedom in America is that the democratic man does not understand that the laws he enacts can be the source of his own enslavement.
The Liberal State that sees power as evil does not know how to act in situations of national emergency, for example, nation-wide riots, which threaten social order. Can one defend the destruction of property, physical violence, or the killing of police? A commonsensical person should agree that the State can, should, and must intervene to deter the destruction of property, and the harm or death of many persons. Accordingly, it would appear that in such situations the Liberal is pushed into a corner and forced to renounce his naïve idea that, either there are no circumstances under which we could use force, or that all problems can be negotiated. But the Liberal mind can defy logic.
During recent protests, the liberal news outlets spared no effort to augment the protesters’ grievances, which go back to 1619, when the first slaves were brought to the New World. Grievances either obfuscate or justify the destruction, as they did in 1789 in France and 1917 in Russia. And as grievances grow, the destruction of cities and the deaths of several policemen become irrelevant. Today’s victims are the currency with which the Present pays off its historical debt. This is how the Communists thought and what they did.
In the words of Gletkin in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, “History is a priori immoral; it is not a brothel of emotions,” and, therefore, no point in shedding tears over the death of a few innocent men who died defending the Old order. Lack of coverage of those deaths in the liberal media proves that the old communists are today’s liberals.
The case in point is the behavior of Nancy Pelosi, after Congressional presentation by the sister of Patrick Underwood, the Black policeman who was killed by a looter. The Speaker of the House, who stood eight feet from her, did not even bother to express any condolences for his death. Why? Most likely because in defending order, the murdered policeman was on the wrong side of History, whereas his killer was part of the social movement whose origin can be traced back to 1619.
We should note, however, that American conservatives who believe that the imposition of curfew or martial law measures for a very brief period of time could have saved us from the destructive power of protests, do not have a firm conviction that one can find justification for the use of power.
This seems to have always been the case in American Conservatism, which from the beginning of the Republic was dominated by the Liberal idea of abstract rights. As Ronald Raegan said: “The state is not a solution; the state is a problem.”
To be sure, at that time in American history, conservative Raegan thought of the State as a huge bureaucratic machine, which needs to be reduced to make room for private initiative in the economic realm – but this leaves the problem of how much power the American conservatives would be willing to grant the State to prevent society from falling into chaos.The only legitimate realm where Americans feel the use of force is rather unproblematic is foreign lands—a matter of little interest to the uninformed majority of the American public.
The problem can be ultimately reduced to how Liberalism and Conservatism perceive the role of the State. While the former sees it as a means to shape and impose abstract social and political norms, always by legislative means, the latter sees the State as a product of a historical process, and considers its power as legitimate only when it is used in defense of the historical nature of the country: its institutions, religion, customs and traditions. The Liberals do not consider any of the above as particularly important. At best, they think of them as ingredients of what they term “multiculturalism.”
In a Conservative vision, on the other hand, there is no room for the State to use its coercive power to intervene in the family structure, educational programs (unless they are harmful to the development of children), forms of religious worship, marital relationships, let alone defining who is a man or a woman. These structures and institutions established themselves through a long historical process (and continue to evolve), and this is a sacred Conservative realm. They can never be changed according to an a priori blueprint or a legislative fiat of a democratically elected legislative body.
The decision of the Supreme Court concerning marriage is the most glaring demonstration of how divorced the Liberal mind is from History. Given the fact that there are no historical precedents, not in the entire human history of all peoples and races, to take marriage to be anything other than a union of man and woman, the decision of five American Justices of one of the youngest countries in the world tipped the historical scale.
The same disregard for History can be observed in the treatment of traditional educational curricula, Christian religion, or History of the United States. The books by minorities, despite the fact that they have had a marginal role in shaping the mind of the nation, are considered more important than the gigantic classics which shaped it; Protestant Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, despite the paramount importance of the role of Protestantism in creating American culture, are put on a par; and the three monotheistic religions are put on par with Eastern religions and different “New Age” doctrines.
What is ultimately responsible for this state of affairs is the idea of equality, which does not tolerate discrimination, despite the fact that only some religions, books, cultures, peoples, and ideas have forged nations and their institutions.
The Liberals, who traditionally boasted that they are the defenders of a “minimal” State, are today the greatest defenders of an all-powerful State, one which constitutes a threat to traditional structures, social mores, and individual freedoms. Why is that?
The liberal polis is an abstraction, the denial of previous forms of social organizations, and its ultimate goal is the unconditional equality of all people and all cultures. It is inhabited neither by the Germans in Germany, the Poles in Poland, the Italians in Italy, nor the Americans in the United States.
The citizens of this Liberalopolis are abstract human beings, stripped of their historical identity. They are neither American nor Kenyan nor Japanese; nor are they White or Black or Yellow. And last but not least, they are neither men or women, and their sexual “preferences” are neither Natural nor of Divine design. They, like culinary taste, are a matter of individual taste and subject to change. The criterion of choice is not rational; it is a subjective feeling, or whim.
The conservative State in their eyes is a threatening “power-structure,” which is the bedrock of social hierarchy and privileges rather than rights. Even the old traditional educational programs are the enemy because they inculcate reverence for the Past, and in doing so, they unconsciously perpetuate old forms of oppression. For this reason, they deserve to be quietly destroyed. A superficial glance at the state of American universities suffices to understand how successful Liberalism is in destroying education.
The Conservative mind, the liberal argument runs, is implicitly biased and discriminatory against other groups or cultures. An Englishman has no more reason to feel proud for being English than a Gypsy or an Eskimo. English “superiority” on account of England’s achievements is an illusion because both an Englishman, and a Gypsy or an Eskimo, are simply human beings.
The superior attitude of, say, a proud Englishman named, “Nigel” can even be threatening to a Gypsy or an Eskimo; and calling a Gypsy “Gypsy” rather than “Roma” is a sign of English-supremacy. The threat, of course, is not of a physical nature. It is psychological. To ensure that a Gypsy and Eskimo have an equally high self-esteem as “Nigel”, colleges make sure that English history is not taught there, or, at best, it is one of many history courses, including Gypsy and Eskimo histories.
In the eyes of the Liberal, the defense of the Past, including the defense of programs which teach English history, is a sign of English or White (cultural) supremacy, and this must be fought against—lest it occur to “Nigel” to recreate the British Empire.
This way of thinking, crazy as it sounds, forms the basis of democratic-liberal politics in America and Western democracies. For example, in the words of former Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, “There are no illegal immigrants, because there are no illegal human beings.” Gillibrand, you might think, is an extremist! Not at all. Consider what American children learn in schools daily: fixed “gender” is a social construct. And since it is a construct, it can be deconstructed and changed.
For instance, the State’s refusal to accept my claim that I am what I claim to be (a woman in the case of someone who was born with male genitals and who shaves everyday) is oppressive, and the judge, the college professor, or the co-worker who refuses to acknowledge how I feel is a manifestation of “structural oppression.” Ergo, we must fight the State, educational institutions, and the way others see and think of us.
A most recent item in the Liberal Catechism, which American children are taught, is that there is no genetic basis for race. Accordingly, there is no White, Yellow, or Black race—there is only the human race. From here, there is only one step to Senator Gillibrand’s proposal for open borders: there should be no borders, no states, since our true citizenship is defined in terms of a shared humanity which overrides the old national categories, which teach us to be prejudiced against others.
As part of her campaign to raise racial consciousness, Senator Gillibrand even made a few trips to meet with White small-town folks to explain to them that they are beneficiaries of “White privilege.” The trip did not go well, and because individual calls to end “oppression” fall on deaf ears, the solution is to institute sensitivity trainings, and give the State more power so no student or employee in America can escape it. This is a pure form of ideological brainwashing on a national scale – which had never taken place under communism in Soviet Russia and its satellite countries.
Many such ideologically driven rules are already in place and govern our speech (the mandatory use of preferred pronouns, the censure of “sexist” language) and conduct (reorientation of sexual mores; correction of racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and Islamophobic attitudes). So far, no university or institution has dared to defy it.
Rather, they have been at the forefront of its cause, ensuring that the new generation of American children learns the new catechism of social insanity.
Many of us believe that we fight barbarism. This is not quite true. Fascism and Communism were barbaric in the sense that they twisted historical heritage so that it would conform to the official ideology of a country. What we are facing is insanity, which is in the process of annihilating Western cultural heritage and our own understanding of ourselves as men and women.
What else but insanity can one call the state of mind of someone who, standing in front of a mirror, has doubts about his sex? What does one call the legal system where the judge rules, as happened in the UK last year, that Biblical teaching from the Book of Genesis about two sexes is “inconsistent with human dignity”? What justice system is it that redefines what marriage is? (Couldn’t one stop by granting homosexual couples exactly the same rights without abrogating the entirety of human tradition?)
Does one really need to be a religious bigot to defend his refusal to bow to insanity because he refuses to call a man a woman? Common sense should be enough. But ever since the new gender studies dominated education, common sense, as Orwell’s Winston discovered, became the greatest heresy. In his ruling, the British judge acted like Orwell’s O’Brian who made Winston believe that 2 + 2 = 5. There is nothing “dignifying” in making people with psychological problems believe that they are OK, and at the same time force the insanity of a few onto others. It is totalitarian oppression in its purest form.
Instances of insanity that defy common sense are endless. It has become common practice in America to reward failure. The members of school sports teams, which happen to lose the game, receive trophies. “Trophies for what?” you may wonder. For losing! This way a child, as I was told by my daughter’s coach, whose team never won, will not lose self-esteem. Clearly, no one thought what long-term psychological consequences such methods can have. Imagine a child whose room is full of trophies for losing! Self-esteem grows out of success in the face of adversity, and no new “psychology for losers” will ever change that.
These trophies for losers reveal only what Liberalism aims at: abolishing hierarchy. Hierarchy exists only in societies which retain a sense of excellence. For example, the idea of a “grade” or a “mark” (received in our schools) used to show your placement vis-à-vis an objective standard of excellence, and would thus signify where you are relative to others. But as excellence disappeared from education, so did a serious grading system. Almost everybody today is an A-student!
Why is that? As equality made its inroads everywhere, so hierarchy and its sister, privilege (right based on merit) disappeared. Right is the new form of privilege to which everyone is entitled; but since in every game there are winners and losers, to uphold equality, it is only natural to reward losers with a trophy.
This egalitarian mentality became all-pervasive, and it seized the minds of almost everyone. There is virtually no way to argue today about, say, the superiority of Beethoven’s “Fűr Elise” over Jay-Z’s rapping about “White bitches;” or the superiority of musical pieces performed by Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra over the sounds produced by street rappers on Michigan Avenue. Vulgarity and the greatest achievements of human spirit have finally reconciled.
Our inability to discern between the High and the Low is the result of a blurred distinction between “Culture” (like in “High Culture”) and “culture” (in the old anthropological sense).
The same goes for dress code. I have seen many people giving each other “strange looks” when they saw young men wearing pants sagging down, exposing their buttocks to the public, but have never heard anyone explain to them that what they think is a fashion is, and would have been called decades ago, “public indecency,” lack of manners, bad taste, or vulgarity. Today, we call it culture! Expecting that someone keep his pants above the waist would be considered an expression of “oppression” and “supremacy,” an “imposition of ‘your’ values” onto others, or, simply, intolerance. Many among us still know what is proper, but we lack the courage to say it.
The Liberal Left is becoming more and more anti-capitalist, anti-free market; and the defense of capitalism should be one of the goals of conservatives. However, the defense of capitalism is likely to be unsuccessful, if it means a defense of corporate business, which the Republican politicians in America are in the habit of partaking in.
Values of Conservatism are not the same as those of a political party, and the values of corporations are not the same as the values of a nation. As Lord Acton noted in his letter to Mary Gladstone, corporations have neither a body to kick nor a soul to redeem. They are soulless creatures, looking only after themselves.
The old slogan, “What is good for business is good for America” covered this truth for decades. It was accepted because, so long as most of the powerful world corporations were American, the American public profited from them. The true nature of business was realized about twenty years ago when American businesses moved to Asian countries. Once they discovered that what is good for business is cheap labor, they left their tricolor national dress behind on American soil, leaving American workers jobless.
The corporate world, however, can sometimes be an instrument endangering national interest. Everyone remembers the famous incident in a Starbucks two years ago when two Black men were arrested.
Instead of applying appropriate measures with respect to the employees’ posture in the location where the incident took place, Starbucks turned the isolated problem into a national problem of racism. It immediately instituted a nation-wide shut-down of all its stores for several hours to conduct “bias” trainings for all employees. It was a spectacle, the purpose of which was to demonstrate Starbucks’ commitment to fighting undesirable attitudes. How good was Starbucks’ decision for the nation?
As I write these words, destruction and anarchy are sweeping through a number of cities in the U.S., millions of Americans are burning cities and many young White people are feeling ashamed of being White. Some of them denounce their parents for being “racist.” Norms of civility are being crushed. All of this is done in the name of the same ideology which seeks to render the world free of biases.
Yet, those young people know little to nothing about racism. They are too ignorant about history and are too young to remember what racism was. They attend the same schools that Black children attend, they have Black classmates, Black friends, and some have Black girlfriends and boyfriends. They did not watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to fathom the obstacles of interracial marriage in the past. Yet the protesters act as if America was still a pre-Civil Rights country, and some think that as long as prisons exist, slavery still exists, too.
When we visit what we call “White trash” neighborhoods, we realize that the problems one finds there are the same that exist in Black: they are human problems, and most human problems come down to the disintegration of marriage, single-parenthood, familial troubles, lack of religious ties and moral code, and a weak sense of community. Those among the Blacks who talk to other Blacks about “acting White” do a profound disservice to Black Americans; just like the college teachers in poor community colleges who tell “White trash” students about “White privilege.” This is a language that can only anger people and further divide America.
Why have only few journalists and politicians dared to make a connection between the high level of incarceration among young Black men and the disintegration of the Black family, or the lower academic performance and the lack of appreciation for learning in Black communities? The answer is not shrouded in mystery: only certain, historically discovered and established methodologies, ways of thinking, cultures, and forms of behavior proved successful. All of them have roots in Western intellectual tradition, which far-East Asians do not reject because Dead White European Males invented or discovered them. They have adopted the White intellectual tradition because they know that that is the way to success. So do some of the Muslim-Arab and African countries.
But the Western intellectual tradition is under attack in America and Europe by the partisans of multiculturalism who promote the idea of equality of all cultures. If we are serious about “no child left behind,” we should educate every Black, Brown and White child in the Western tradition. There is nothing that can change the fact that the Frenchman Descartes invented analytical geometry, the German Leibniz, calculus, and the English Newton formulated the laws of Modern physics. If you want your child to be successful, you should make sure that they know it, rather than accuse them of acting White.
The hysterical nature of the protesters’ behavior, tearing down monuments of historical icons, is reminiscent of the “Two Minutes Hate” in 1984. Given their age, they should not act this way. If they do, it is because their behavior is the result of an artificially induced hatred of Present and Past America, of the West, and as long as there are any signs of it left, they will continue their destruction of the country and of Western civilization.
Today’s protests are not the end but, more likely, the beginning of a series of protests. Everything suggests that democracy, as Plato predicted it in Book VIII of his Republic, has entered the stage of disintegration of authority. Just like France in 1789, and Russia in 1917, the US shows the same symptoms of revolutionary fervor, including the attempt to erase the Past. After several years, in 1793, the experiment ended with the Reign of Terror that was followed by the seizure of power by Bonaparte. Revolutionary disorder ended with one man’s tyranny.
Only the blind in reason can claim that there is no connection between the mass indoctrination concerning race that young people are subject to in schools and colleges, and what is happening now in American cities. The same goes for gender indoctrination.
The crowds of hysterical women demonstrating against the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh on the steps of the Supreme Court looked like a religious chiliastic movement. Finally, the protesters’ disregard for recommended safety measures during COVID-19 showed that their desire for a perfect world overcame the natural fear of death. Such an attitude was not uncommon among the believers in eradicating evil from the world.
George Floyd’s death does not fit the category of American police brutality or “targeting” Blacks. His murder was an act of bestiality and sadism of one sick individual who happened to wear a police uniform. There was not a single American who did not condemn it. If anything, Floyd’s death made all Americans feel repulsed at the sight of unspeakable cruelty. Yet almost within hours, this moment of national unity was hijacked by different factions which gave it a label: racism.
After several days of anti-racial protests, the frenzy assumed anti-Confederate tones to underline the continuity of American history: 1619, the Civil War, and today. Several monuments of Robert E. Lee have been torn down. What followed was the destruction of the monuments of Christopher Columbus.
One could wonder, however: what does Columbus have in common with General Robert E. Lee, who lived almost four hundred years after Columbus discovered America? As American students learn now, Columbus was the father of “genocide.” Confederacy means “White,” “White” means “racial supremacy,” and since Columbus was White, he and Robert E. Lee belong to the same family: White European oppressors.
Accordingly, Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 appears to have only been a preparation for 1619, when the first Black slaves were brought to America.
This script is known all too well. The general formula, as I said earlier, comes down to a bi-polar Marxian-Liberal view of history, in which the oppressed are dominated by the oppressors. Today’s protests carry the banner of anti-racism; tomorrow, they will carry the banner of anti-sexism, anti-misogyny, anti-homophobia, anti-xenophobia, and finally, the banner of anti-oppression of the transgendered by the “birth-naturalists,” and anti-monogamist.
Each protest will repeat the destruction of the part of historical heritage, removal of monuments, burning books, renaming buildings, all of which represent the ills that must be eradicated before we can enter the new egalitarian Utopia. Hierarchy and privilege—the foundations of “polite society”—will be two words erased from the American Webster’s Dictionary. This is a pattern that we know from the history of the French and Russian Revolutions, which aimed at equality, though somehow ended up with a Great Terror and purges.
America, the West, have reached a point where the only question left is: can anything be done? And if so, what can we do?
Ideas have consequences, and the current cultural climate is a direct result of what happened in the educational institutions since the beginning of the 1990s, or even earlier, as Allan Bloom suggested in his The Closing of the American Mind (1987). The philosophical doctrine of Relativism propagated by academics assumed the voice of a social message of multiculturalism—equality of all cultures. It purged from the curricula the greatest works of the human mind. Intellectual discipline, which the old classics would inculcate in the college graduates, was replaced by the idea that there is no Truth, only subjective feelings.
This idea went counter not only to Truth absolutists but also to the Classical Liberal notion that we find in John Stuart Mill: at no point in history, as Mill claims, is any single person in the possession of absolute Truth. We are progressive beings and as we travel through history, we discover more. Quest for Truth animates our lives. But relativism undermined both.
Individual sensitivity became a new cognitive criterion. Moreover, since every individual has his own threshold of sensitivity, different things appear true to different people, and different things offend different people. Today’s fight over the removal of names, monuments, and changing curricula is the direct result of relativism.
The Left today is offended by President Trump’s disregard for Truth and facts, but it was the Left of the 1990s which wholeheartedly promoted Relativism. It also invented the methodology of Culture Wars, which says that we can choose from among “competing interpretations.” Now the Left is crying “wolf” when Mr. Trump uses their own weapon to fight his adversaries. The Trumpian presidency is an unintended creation of the Liberal Left, which created the intellectual and moral conditions that made disregard for Truth and rational discourse possible.
The Classical Liberal idea of a rational society proposed by Mill, in which only people who are in possession of rational powers can be granted equal right to participate in a social conversation, has no place in the new America. The winner is not the one with the strongest argument, but someone who expresses the strongest emotion.
A prime example of how emotions can influence the political realm is the Swedish teenager’s walkout from school to protest climate change. Her protest was followed by the walkout of millions of children all over the world. Needless to say, the children do not know what to do about the changing climate, but climate change became the single most important socio-political issue, and as its importance grows, so the election of candidates who are concerned with the problem will be given high priority.
Election of a twenty-eight-year old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to the American House of Representatives is a telling fact. AOC is by far the most emotional and politically ignorant member of the House of Representatives, but her influence is growing. Like Greta, AOC is a climate activist, the author of the Green New Deal, and is a furious anti-capitalist.
New Green Deal anti-capitalism is the fastest growing ideology. Whether we like it or not, we need to take it seriously, just as we need to take seriously the fact that rational conversation with teenagers and political adolescents is not an option.
They do not understand that capitalism is the most efficient system of creating wealth, and that creating it has roots in the human desire to maximize profit, not to benefit anyone. “It is not because of the benevolence of the butcher, the baker or the brewer that you have your lunch, “Adam Smith writes in his The Wealth of Nations (1776), “but because of their self-interest.” The young people are not interested in maximizing profit, becoming entrepreneurs, or building anything. Their objective is the division of the wealth created by “selfish” individuals.
The mental universe of the New Green Deal anti-capitalists revolves around a few terms: sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and islamophobia. It is a world of intellectual and cultural poverty. Those words are like lenses which concentrate your vision on “evil.”
This new social theology says nothing about the world’s beauty, complexity, or the grandeur and tragedy of human existence, and since it is a world without God, there is no redeeming power. Collective, social activism is the only power which operates in it, and it claims it can save the world. Social activism has great appeal: it requires no knowledge, learning, or expertise. That is why it appeals to children, who, by definition, do not like school.
The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and conservative parties holding power in a few European countries (such as Poland and Hungary), may signify a temporary win for conservatives. However, we should not assume that this situation shall continue.
As things stand, it is unlikely that conservatives will retake education and that we will return to the old forms of learning. One can suggest serious reform proposals, as did American philosophy professor Nicholas Capaldi, but the chances of their acceptance are slim. This means that the new anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-Islamophobic indoctrination, supplemented by social justice courses, will reign supreme and will continue to shape the minds of the new generation.
There is only one way, in my opinion, which in which Conservatism has a chance to succeed long term. Climate change is an almost exclusive political property of the Left, and insofar as it is something that all children deeply care about, unless conservatives present their own Green alternative, they are likely to lose the new generation for good.
We need to realize that conserving the environment can be presented as the most conservative of conservative causes. What, if not the beauty of Nature, is the most thrilling of human experiences? The English “landed” aristocracy and Thomas Jefferson’s attachment to land are expressions of it. Jefferson, who knew as much about agriculture as he knew about politics, understood that there is a direct relationship between Nature and aristocratic-republican virtues.
Unless Conservatives come up with a political program that makes the preservation of Nature a top priority, we will be in danger of losing the political power and social force which can defend all other conservative values and causes.
It is high time to stop airing programs that undermine the Left’s research about climate change. We need to understand that the people who are against racism, sexism, homophobia etc. are the same people who last year protested against the failure to restore climate.
Following the Roman rule of politics divide et impera (divide and rule), one could, and indeed should weaken and divide the Left by proposing a serious Conservative Green Deal. In this way, one could attract many reasonable Left-leaning Liberal individuals to a more conservative side. Without the “Conservative Green Deal,” the ignorant and psychologically unstable are likely to become the most powerful party in the world.
The experience of Communism taught us about the power of manipulating language. The books by the French intellectual historian, Alain Besançon, are an excellent guide to understanding how it worked, and they were appreciated even among the former denizens of socialist countries.
American English, as I have written elsewhere, displays all the signs of the communist Newspeak. In some cases, it twisted reality even greater than was done under Communism. Therefore, we should avoid using it and, with a little courage, we can return to Oldspeak to clear up our social reality.
Terms such as “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobic,” “islamophobic” and “racist” are not helpful in dealing with social problems. In fact, they obfuscate real problems which might otherwise be resolved. What is more, using them means that we have bought into the categories created by the adversary.
Here is an instructive example. Communists liked using the term “socialist economy,” and at each time of deep economic collapse, they would propose to “improve the socialist economy.” It was a futile attempt because a socialist economy meant the absence of private property, which is the basis of economy. Therefore, no reform could improve the economic situation of “the working class,” and people’s miserable condition existed for as long as they were imprisoned by language.
In the country of my birth, Poland, the 1980s were the years when socialist economy reached its peak: for several years the entire population lived off of food-stamps; buying basic goods, such as toilet paper, was hardly possible, and most of one’s time was spent waiting in lines for hours to buy whatever one could.
When the “socialist economy” was replaced by real, capitalist economy, the shelves were filled with all kinds of goods one could only dream of under the socialist dictatorship. What happened was not any miracle, but a change of language. No one believed that a “socialist economy” made sense, or that it is an alternative to the Western form of creating wealth.
A similar explanation can be applied to American Newspeak. Almost everybody uses the superfluous “he or she.” There is no reason to do it, and the old generic “he” (which meant “he” and “she”) is good enough. Yet since the beginning of the 1990s, people say it out of fear of being branded “sexist,” to keep from being accused of “excluding” women.
There is nothing “exclusive” about using the generic pronoun “he” instead of the cumbersome “he or she.” Gender is a grammatical, not a social, category, and everyone who studied other languages is familiar with it.
Nouns in English have no gender, with the exception of a few which follow the Latin gender (Church, in British English; ship, occasionally pieces of machinery, and some animals). In other languages, the gender of pronouns follows the gender of the noun (masculine, feminine, or neuter). In genderless English, ignorance of grammar evolved into a political problem: “exclusion,” “oppression,” and so on. It would take but a minor act of courage to return to the Oldspeak to create a different socio-political reality.
Self-Expression. Its Avoidance In Education
This term is used increasingly in education and politics. It even became synonymous with the word “speech,” like in “freedom of expression” instead of “freedom of speech.” That they are not the same can be shown by invoking Justice Holmes’ example of someone shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. I can be held liable for causing harm to others only if there was no fire and someone got hurt because I shouted “fire.” I am liable because my speech did not correspond to the facts (there was no fire, and what I said was the direct cause of someone’s harm), or because what I said was untrue.
However, if the term “speech” was to be substituted by “expression,” I could defend myself by saying, that my shouting “fire” did not need to correspond to anything. I was expressing the state of my soul and my expression was genuine! The notion of “genuine” abolishes the idea of Truth.
Why did “self-expression” become so popular? Partly because it is a counterpoise to discipline, one thing that democratic man lacks, as Ortega y Gasset noted. Mastering skills and crafts was always a long and laborious process, and it was done under someone’s direction. Only when the apprenticeship was over could one claim intellectual or artistic independence. It was not a guarantee of being a genius but a good craftsman.
Today’s students, including art students, instead of being encouraged to master something well (like grammar, style etc.) are told to be “creative.” The result is that most of them write insignificant stories about themselves, how they feel about the text, instead of precisely answering a question assigned by the teacher. Their work is genuine but often without merit.
This was something that the great German poet, Goethe, in his conversations to his friend Eckermann, warned against. The world around us is richer than what we find inside ourselves, and to be a great writer or poet, we must study Nature, learn from others who discovered many things before us. By imitating the best of our past predecessors, we learn techniques and gain insights that we could never discover or create on our own.
Self-expression may give us a momentary sense of lightness, liberation from the shackles of the past, the discipline that the Past demands of us, and sometimes even a momentary success, but in the long run it will throw us back on ourselves and leave our souls empty.
In education, we need to go back to serious and difficult classical texts and teach the youngsters to read what great writers and philosophers said, rather than allow the student to “disagree” with great minds. Self-expression is not an educational method. It is a dangerous anti-educational tool. However, as Nietzsche observed, it fits the frame of mind of the democratic man, who claims to be equal to everyone.
Gender And The Professions
It is a commonly accepted claim that the low enrollment of women in, say, physics or civil engineering departments is a result “sexism.” And since no one wants to be branded “sexist,” we accept the idea, just as how under communism people talked about the “socialist economy.” Is it because of “sexism”? An alternative explanation could be that it is a result of innate differences between the sexes.
One could ask, for example: is the low percentage of men in the teaching profession at elementary schools (it changes as we go higher) a result of “sexism”? Women, generally speaking, are simply better at dealing with little children; no man would consider this assertion sexist. Would it benefit children if the profession was 50% women and 50% men? One can easily doubt it, but, once again, instead of opposing such policies, we accept the language of equality and discrimination, and frequently create policies which are hurtful.
Striving for equality is tantamount to creating a problem, and the problem in this case was created by extending the idea of equality beyond the legal realm (i.e. equality before the law). The demand that we have equal representation of the sexes, races, ethnicities, sexual minorities, and so on in any profession and politics, on any level, is utopian, unrealistic, and, above all, it runs counter to the idea of excellence.
There will never be a situation in which all minorities will have a sufficient number of qualified members to fill every profession at any given time. The only criterion that is truly just is to admit and hire people on the basis of what they know, and how good they are at what they do.
A critic might say: it is naive to think that the idea of excellence will always win, and that we will never be discriminated against. However true, this argument is rather weak. The push for more equality is tantamount to creating a situation in which nearly all standards of excellence have been abrogated, and an individual failure is never perceived as failure, but as the result of discrimination based on sex or race or religion.
The social, educational, and political costs of such policies are already proving to be too high. Secondly, we will never be able to make sure that someone’s decision is not influenced by his prejudices; and the only way to make sure that he is bias-free is by a system of repeated trainings (as commonly done in American already).
If a condition of employment consists in going through a series of training, we should make it clear that we do not live in a free country, but a totalitarian boot-camp. Furthermore, the State is not a moral institution. It has no right to intervene into anyone’s ways of thinking and perceiving the world. It can, however, intervene when traditional social norms are violated.
We need to decide whether we want to live in a totalitarian democracy, where all people are equal and, consequently, the same, or, in a society with many problems and imperfections in which we are free to act as different and free individuals.
Blind tests, examinations, and job applications would do the trick, but they would soon be attacked, as they are, for being culturally biased. This, of course, is nonsense, but very few people have the courage to oppose such sentiments.
Conservative Notion Of Law In A Liberal State
We are told that Justice Gorsuch’s recent ruling was a slap on the face of Conservatives. The prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of sex extends, according to him, to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” In other words, today’s notion of “gender” is what Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act considered “sex;” that is to say, biological differences between man and woman.
According to Nature there are only two sexes, but according to “Tumblr,” there are 112 of them (in 2020). One can ask, what happened between 1964 and now? Nature did not change. Culture did. Culture became subjectivist, and the old notion that there is a stable, unchangeable reality out there, has been abandoned.
In this new reality, a man who imagines himself to be a woman is therefore a woman; a White woman (e.g., the Black activist Rachel Dolezal) who imagines herself to be a Black woman is therefore a Black woman, and someone who claims to be an animal—trans-species-ism—is consequently an animal. One could simply end the conversation by saying that my being a woman is no more valid than my saying that I am 19 years old. There are things which we cannot change.
The Liberalism of today is committed to the unconditional defense of subjectivism and minorities, and even if some of the minorities are imaginary and self-created, Liberalism does not have the needed theoretical tools to reject individual self-identification. My being me is what I imagine myself to be, and because the Liberal State was created in response to the oppressiveness of History and Tradition, it is bound to defend social attitudes which are destructive to, and incompatible with, the preservation of national Culture and civilization. As a matter of fact, Liberalism is committed to the destruction of national heritage and civilization.
One does not have to believe that the idea of “human rights” is totally useless, but when confronted by recent rulings of the American Supreme Court Justices, one wants to join the English Jeremy Bentham in saying: It is nonsense upon stilts. Why did a conservative Justice Gorsuch rule the way he did? Either because he lacked courage to go against his liberal colleagues or because he does not believe in rights grounded in Natural Law.
Reforming The Police
Any foreign visitor to America, including her Mexican and Canadian neighbors, is surprised by the ubiquitous presence of police on American streets. Why is that? The immediate answer is: American attachment to guns, unheard of in most countries. American police deal with dangerous criminals who have weapons, and so must possess higher mental alertness than the police of other countries.
The other observation is that Americans are more aggressive and violent than other peoples. (Hollywood movies, TV programs about crime and criminals, shootings, etc.) The moment one crosses the American border, one gets the impression of entering a highly militarized zone. This feeling is additionally strengthened by the attitude of immigration officers, who do not make any effort to welcome you, as is almost universally the case in other countries.
The presence of guns, however, can only partly explain violence in America. Australia, for example, shares the same British roots: it was a colony, attachment to guns exists there too. Yet the level of violence there is much lower, and serious gun reforms had been undertaken without massive opposition.
But America has something that Australia does not. Australia was colonized by British criminals; America was colonized by Protestant Puritans. They were people who displayed an uncompromising theological spirit and who wanted to eradicate all evil. A cultural historian could say that such an attitude might foster a psychological state that causes violent responses.
Today, not much of this bellicose religious spirit is left. However, it is possible that the high-level of religious temperatures survived in a secular form, as national characteristic. The alcohol prohibition of the 1930s, and the anti-smoking campaign of twenty-years ago bear resemblance to the religious crusade against sinfulness. Now vegetarianism is becoming a new theological movement. (Meatless Mondays were introduced in California, in restaurants, and in all schools in New York City.). Now the fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia causes equally violent responses. The Protestant Spirit seems to be today’s “social justice warriorism.” Criticism of it meets with condemnation, ostracism, and public annihilation; and this has been described already by Tocqueville.
When Sinclair Lewis, an American author, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930, he was not only denounced, but met with threats by those whom he described. As he said in his Nobel Lecture, “Now and then I have, for my books or myself, been somewhat warmly denounced—there was one good pastor in California who upon reading my Elmer Gantry desired to lead a mob and lynch me, while another holy man in the state of Maine wondered if there was no respectable and righteous way of putting me in jail.”
The causes that the population of a country fights for may change over time, but the historically shaped character of people seems to persist. One cannot change the character of a people overnight. Violence will likely continue, and will have to be dealt with by finding imperfect solutions to preserve the social order. However, to be successful, we should attempt to minimize wrongs and vices, not eliminate them completely.
Any attempt to make the world sinless, or to turn a blind eye to the violence and hatred of social justice warriors, is to encourage intolerant behavior and allow disorder to grow in the name of alleged future social benefits. The Left’s proposal to defund the police in order to dismantle them is naïve and dangerous. Any reform must begin by taking into account the use of force, something that the Liberal Left does not wish to consider.
Here, another opportunity for conservatives presents itself. Reasonable, but very firm restrictions on the police’s use of lethal force, which would include a guarantee of the officer’s safety, is in place. However, we must keep in mind that making police gentler will not change the behavior of criminals. If the desired reforms will not increase public safety, even the liberal public may come to the conclusion that avoiding walking on the streets for fear of harm or death is not the realization of their program of social justice.
Civility, Toleration and Politeness. Common values.
The 1990s witnessed the publication of several books about toleration. In a climate of diverse views, created by relativism, toleration is a virtue. The meaning of the term that emerges from John Locke and Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration means, “putting up” with views and behaviors that we loathe, disapprove of, dislike, and do not want our children to imitate.
The idea of toleration was invented to put an end to religious persecutions, and the killing of people who claimed to profess a different theology. Today, being tolerant means something else: accepting someone’s opinions and behavior as equal to our own. Any forms of disapproval, including mental acts, are considered to be acts of bigotry, and since all Cultures are cultures, all cultures are equal, and so are all forms of behavior.
In reality, only a few of us believe this, and most would prefer to live in a society in which all behave like us and have opinions similar to ours. This is not a utopian dream, but the psychological inclination of everyone who believes that it is better to share a common system of values and behavioral patterns than not. Violation of norms would traditionally meet with social and personal disapproval, which would also help the norm-breakers to act in a “civilized” way.
Such social norms no longer exist. They have been in decline since at least the late 1960s. Those who dare to uphold them are labeled “fascist.” Absence of common norms does not make life easier, but more difficult, and when conflict arises, we cannot appeal to the notion of “unacceptable behavior.” We must have recourse to law to arbitrate between parties.
Toleration, today, means that it is our duty to accept quietly any behavior from any individual, and if we do not, let alone if we openly oppose it, then we will be prosecuted by law on account of discrimination. Such a situation creates a social atmosphere in which a minority has the upper hand, and keeps the majority silent through fear that they may be labeled as “intolerant.”
This is true not only of all past cases of so-called “discrimination,” but of all future cases as well. Tocqueville and Mill feared that democracy will create a tyranny of the majority. What it turned into was rather a tyranny of the minority.
The tyranny of the minority exists not because the majority cannot stop or oppose it, but because the majority accepts the premise that all views are equal, and none can be suppressed. In the absence of recognized, rational, cognitive criteria, no argument can be persuasive. Our thought has no absolute or universal grounding; it is nothing other than “self-expression,” which is neither true nor false because it is always genuine.
This is one of Liberalism’s greatest weaknesses. Mill, as much as he was in favor of the Party of Progress, understood that what passes for the opinion of the majority is the opinion of the most vocal individuals in a society. Yet, despite the danger that he described in Chapter 3 of On Liberty, he never resolved the theoretical problem of the threatening power of the minority’s demagoguery. He believed that traditional rules of civility and politeness would guide us. Today, we know that this is not true, and that such rules must be inculcated; they stem from Tradition and a respect for authority, something that his Party of Progress waged the war against.
Thus, for example, we find ourselves in a situation where a single member of a minority can make demands that are destructive to the very tissue of culture and civilization. This mental attitude is most prevalent in academia, where a number of administrative emails to the faculty is about “name preference” (a male student can request that he be called by his chosen female name). Or, as it happened in Sweden, a group of Muslims who fled Syria demanded that a mosque be built for them in a small town. The quiet outrage of the local population was met with criticism, accusing the “Christian folks” of being intolerant.
Unlike Liberalism, Conservatism’s solution to resolve such conflicts is thorough appeal to the tradition and history of a nation. Thus, a Conservative could refuse, for example, to build a monument of the Prophet Mohammed next to Jefferson, Washington or Lincoln memorials on account of the tradition, religion, and history of the United States.
No matter how large the Muslim population of the US is today, Islam had no historical role in shaping the soul of the American people. The same goes for educational curricula and Protestant religion; they should not reflect the diversity of the population, but the ideas which created the United States of America. Similarly, no Catholic or Jew should feel “offended” by the Protestant religion and history, nor by History of Britain being prioritized in American history books.
Since Liberals are committed to a vision of the world in which a people and a nation do not exist, they are indifferent to a nation’s cultural heritage. Pulling down historical monuments is not an act of Al-Qaeda-like barbarism, but an act of liberation.
Church, Religion, Faith.
One could say that only people of faith or churchgoers should pronounce themselves on matters of religion and how the Church should act. This is certainly true, but one could also claim that insofar as religion and the Church is an important cultural and moral institution, what She does should not be a matter of indifference to those who may not be as engaged in Her life as others may be, or even atheists.
One could draw a parallel with status of monarchy. There are many of them in Europe: Spain, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and, of course, Britain. British monarchy is the most visible and, relative to other countries, occupies a special place among them.
The British monarch’s power is mostly symbolic, but symbols matter. They point to the Past. They speak the language with which History talks to us about ourselves. Monarchy is the last visible symbol of the old hierarchical order. “You, too, can become president” is a very well-known American phrase. “You can’t become a queen or a king” would be its British counterpart. (As a matter of fact, this is what the arch-Liberal J.S. Mill said).
It is a language of gentle submission that teaches us that our political ambitions must have limits. Such limits also exist for the monarch, and they do not come from legal limitations. The royals, nobility, are limited by aristocratic code. One can be almost sure that monarchy in Britain, and elsewhere, will last so long as the Royals behave like royals, not like celebrities. Once they do, monarchy will be gone.
The Church and its officials are not in the same situation. They, unlike the Royals, represent an eternal, not a worldly order, and, one could say, will never become spiritual celebrities. Someone might say that this is not necessarily true. It is enough to have a closer look at the state of Protestant churches in America, many of which turned into mega-churches, while their pastors behave like actors, peddling the “gospel of wealth,” rather than the attitude of humility, love, and forgiveness.
Protestantism was always more egalitarian and democratic (sola scriptura, as Luther said) than the Catholic Church, and Protestant Christianity’s slow demise, which we observe in America, is unlikely to be the lot of the Church of Rome. It is a hierarchical institution, with the Pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests, and therefore much resistant to changes. Any attempt to introduce democracy into it must fail.
This is true, but what matters the most is the message. It’s been decades since I heard a sermon when the word “sin,” “corruption of human nature” were used. Confession is frequently called dialogue/confession. But dialogue presupposes that the two interlocutors are equal. This is not the case of confession, where the sinner is not equal to the priest.
Some twenty or thirty years ago, the most popular language of the sermon was that of psychology (self-understanding, self-esteem); today, the language is that of social justice. In both cases, then and now, the language of theology (and this concerns also Judaism in America; particularly the reformed synagogues, which are becoming increasingly progressive) is the same that is heard on the street, on television, or in a coffee shop.
One could say, cultural trends are almost impossible to stop, and, unless religion adopts the language that the people respond to, it is likely to lose. This is not true. The changes in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council are proof. One of the “tricks” was to introduce popular music (guitars) into the Church. Reason? To attract more young people. But it did not work well, and much of the Catholic music was, luckily, preserved in High Anglican rituals, and those who wanted to listen to guitar music found better places.
The same goes for the religious message: “social justice” is likely to be better propagated by social justice warriors than by priests and pastors. There is also a danger: the Christian or Biblical message is not the same as that of the secular world, and by trying to squeeze the two together, we may confuse what is good for one’s soul with a secular ideology of intolerance and violence.
Many of today’s protesters who commit acts of violence call themselves social justice warriors. If they are the same people who attend Sunday mass and do not see a contradiction between religious values and what they are doing, the Church has then lost its battle for the souls. The more appropriate message is the old theological language of sin and corruption. It tells us that evil is in us, not in the institutions representing “power structure.”
Jesus’s teaching may have been the most culturally transformative experience of the Western world, and without Him, our world would be what all ancient civilizations were – cruel. Jesus was not a forerunner of today’s social justice movement. “My kingdom is not of this world” were His words. They point to us, our souls which must become pure. Nothing in His message is about changing “power structure.” “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – another of His important sayings – means that we owe obedience to the State; or, that the world cannot be fundamentally reformed.
If the Church is to play any social role it must remain the guardian of 2000 years of Western Tradition and historical memory. Any changes in it – music, rituals, rapid changes in theology — can only break Her historical ties to the Past. This is particularly important now as the secular Past is being destroyed.
The protests, the protesters’ demands, the government’s reluctance to use force to restore order: all of these problems lead us to ask, What’s next? Americans are scared and many are even thinking of leaving the country, suspecting that the situation can only deteriorate. And they are likely to be right.
Walmart has already announced: “Inside the company, our work to recruit, develop and support African Americans and other people of color will be even more of a priority.” Other companies will, undoubtedly, follow suit. This is nothing but a policy of appeasement, which, however well-intended, is not very likely to eliminate the inflammatory social situation. The opposite policy could be most desirable.
Instead of enticing African-Americans and other minorities to violence and destruction of their country, one should encourage them to be more American, show them that the Anglo-Protestant Western heritage belongs to them as much as it belongs to the Whites. There is nothing in the biological and genetic make-up of the Whites that make them “Westerners.” Culture—a people’s way of acting and thinking—is inculcated through education and patterns of the acquired behavior, not genetics.
It is truly instructive in this case to recall a classic movie, To Sir with Love, with the Black American actor, Sidney Poitier. It is a story of a Black man from the former British colony, British Guiana, who came to London to look for work. Unable to find a job as an engineer, he becomes a teacher in the working-class of East London. What are the English teenagers like? To put it simply, they are unruly, destructive barbarians, whom the Black man, the man whose people the British colonized, teaches the principles of civilization, civilized behavior and appreciation of civilized behavior.
What can bring Americans together is the collective effort to rid America of the destructive myth of multiculturalism. On a cultural level it means little, and in practice it promotes the mediocre works of other cultures, instead of those great works that elevate the spirit of those who need to be elevated. We should promote humanity’s greatest achievements which everyone, regardless of color, can recognize. The beauty of Leonardo’s “Lady with the Ermine,” Botticelli’s “Primavera,” or Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” are beautiful to everyone, regardless of color.
Multiculturalism, despite its pronouncements to the contrary, is a form of racist ideology. It insists that we look at ourselves as members of a single race or sex, leaving little room to perceive ourselves as people who may actually have something in common. In doing so, it fosters suspicions and hatred, the very things it claims to fight.
The question of the end of America is by no means rhetorical, and even very wise men, like Victor Hansen of the Hoover Institution, openly draw parallels between what we see on American streets and the French Revolution. As we know, the enthusiastic beginning brought the Reign of Terror and ended with Napoleon’s rule. Napoleon’s seizure of power fits Plato’s description of the tyrant who emerges to restore order after a democracy, by extension of equality, slides into anarchy.
Plato did not think this cycle applicable merely to the experience of Athens, but that it inheres in the logic of democracy. The expansion of equality is bound to dissolve all authority and social structures. The protesters’ demands to dismantle the “power structure” (defunding police, abolishing history by tearing down monuments, abolishing all intellectual and moral criteria that differentiate us, and, above all, making politicians responsive to protesters’ whims) fit Plato’s description perfectly.
If Plato was right, and everything indicates that he was, we are witnessing the end of democracy and of America, the American system of government. American historians of the past century would talk about the United States in self-congratulatory language, as if the American founding principles were solid, immune to criticism, and no structural problems could be found in this new political edifice.
A closer look seems to point to a fundamental crack in the foundation – equality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” But equality is what Plato identified as the problem of government. Equality causes the collapse of political structures, including democracy itself. It is an acid which dissolves authority, without which political order is impossible. Thus, the long-celebrated and idealized founding principle of the American Republic was flawed from the very beginning. Equality is a form of political steroid which worked for a while (about 200 some years), but now the runner is about to collapse without ever fulfilling his promise to leave no one behind.
Matthew Arnold predicted it in his essay, “Democracy,” arguing that the Anglican-hierarchical order is the glue which keeps England’s political system stable. But, as he warned, if the English adopt an American system of government by expanding equality, “the fate of America will be ours.” The protests in Britain, the behavior of a part of the British population, who demand that the statues of Winston Churchill be torn down, the adoption of American slogans, etc., only confirm that Britain is becoming another America, and the growing social disorder in America will show up there, too.
Today we see the secular consequences of the old war. In 1776, Americans fought the old hierarchical oppressive order. Today, they are fighting the oppression that was established in 1776. However, unlike in 1776, there are no new founding fathers who can offer an alternative to the old-new oppression, and the reason is simple: founding principles of political life presuppose a degree of hierarchy to ensure social cohesion, which a people must be willing to accept. It appears that the American understanding of freedom is what Plato termed “license.” It was what buried Athenian democracy.
Can anything be done? Yes, the return to the three concepts of Conservative thought that I mentioned at the beginning: reverence for the Past as the guide to the Future, privilege based on merit, and social hierarchy. If equality is the sole principle that animates social and political life, we are in danger of even further destroying the Past.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): When I interviewed you twenty-six years ago, I titled our conversation “Civil Society, Toleration, and All That.” Both topics were very timely. “Civil Society” was of utmost concern to the people in Eastern Europe, who only several years earlier had freed themselves from Soviet rule. Their primary goal was to rebuild “civil society,” create social structures, free from ideological dominion. “Toleration,” on the other hand, was more of a concern in Western countries, probably because of the rising pressure of what was termed “multiculturalism.” The question of how to respond to contradictory opinions, different cultural assumptions, relativism of values, etc., naturally resulted in invoking the old idea of toleration. When I reread our conversation recently, I was struck by the obsolescence of these topics.
The last thing one can say about America is that it is multicultural. It may be multi-racial or -ethnic, but not multicultural. Ignorance of other cultures and nations, civilizations, knowledge of foreign languages, is dismal. If there is any content to the term “multiculturalism” in America, it means that there is a great number of ethnic restaurants, which Americans occasionally go to. It is not an exaggeration to say that today’s America is totally monolithic.
The idea of multiculturalism and toleration runs counter to the official Politically Correct orthodoxy, which is based on the premise that only one set of views is right, and therefore we can dispense with tolerating opposing views. In fact, the attitude of the Left, or ultra-Liberals, is that tolerating opposing views is wrong because the opponents are morally wrong. Thus, we no longer need to tolerate others’ views; we should actively fight them. Disinviting speakers to American colleges, shouting them down, canceling their lectures, firing people from their jobs for saying “one word too much,” ostracizing public figures for saying something that is not Politically Correct, is totally normal in American life.
Do you have an explanation as to what happened between the time we talked over two decades ago and now?
Jonathan Clark (JC): I have been trying to think of explanations, with little success. However, I have attempted a brief outline, in a thousand words, which is due to appear in the September issue of the UK magazine Standpoint.
I suggest – to reply directly to your question – that multiculturalism is a new ideology. It claims to respect all cultures; in reality, it hands power to the elites that administer the practical arrangements for which the ideology serves as a smokescreen. Civil society, across much of western Europe and parts of the USA, was partly rebuilt by mass migrations; toleration was demanded in order to defend the new plural societies that mass migration (and other developments) were bringing into being; democracy was reshaped in order to defend in power the elites that administered the system. Hence one of the key phenomena of our time, most clearly visible in the universities but evident everywhere: the rise of the administrators in numbers, power, and wealth.
In the United States and Russia, the vast distances, and the difficulty of learning about other cultures, homogenize the population to a marked degree: this makes the control of these populations by the techniques still labeled ‘democracy’ much more effective than it still is, say, in the UK. There, the referendum of 23 June 2016 that led to a vote to leave the European Union was, among other things, a powerful reaction against such trends.
According to Fukuyama, the world exhausted its’ ideological alternatives: Liberalism and free market economy appeared to be the future of mankind, the fulfillment of human aspirations. Almost everyone—except you, and I shall return to this point in a moment—subscribed to his idea. Today, thirty years later, Fukuyama’s thesis, to use Marx’s expression, belongs to the Dustbin of History. Looking through the lenses of contemporary events, it appears almost laughable, but it was not then; no one ridiculed it, and, frankly, it sounded very convincing.
As a historian, how do you explain what is happening in the Western world? Are we witnessing a rebellion against Liberalism? Or, to put it in historical terms, is the rise of nationalism a response to the Enlightenment idea of universal human nature, the abstract nature divorced from tradition, history, religion, and man’s need to belong to a community?
JC: I suggest that ‘nationalism’ is the proper name for a new ideology, coined in continental Europe in response to the French Revolution. Other ways of picturing the commonalities of the populations of differing polities had long been available, and still are. There is not, then, one thing called ‘nationalism’ that currently reasserts itself. Rather, populations reassert their identities against groups within (liberal elites) and organizations without (multinational bodies, like the EU) that assert the rival values of what they call cosmopolitanism.
“Liberalism” is a doctrine that has evolved many meanings since it was coined in the early nineteenth century; today it includes, quite prominently, the rejection of religion either as metaphysics or as identity, and the rejection of the claims to allegiance of the nation state. The quite narrow identification of liberalism with free trade seemed in 1991 to be very forward-looking; now, it seems more of a throwback to 1891. Liberalism has moved on in ways hardly anticipated in 1991.
ZJ: A few years ago, Ryszard Legutko published a book titled The Demon in Democracy. Its subtitle reads: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. Legutko points out how similar today’s liberal democracies are to former Communist—totalitarian—societies. Anyone who was born under socialism, as were Legutko and I, has the same reaction: “We have seen it before. How is it possible?
History is repeating itself; before it was called socialism, today it is socialism’s former rival—liberal democracy, which threatens us. It eliminates, through public ostracism and legislation, everyone who dares to be different, who dares to think differently. Under Communism, it was the “class-enemy,” “enemy of the state”; under liberalism the enemy is called a “sexist, racist, homophobe, xenophobe, misogynist, ageist”—that is, the enemy of equality!
Once again, how, as a historian, do you explain the “convergence” of the two systems, which for a hundred and fifty years appeared to be inimical? Has Liberal-democracy become totalitarian, and if so why?
JC: I suggest that the divergence in the meaning of liberalism, between freeing the individual from the community and identifying those unacceptable beliefs and actions that justified the intervention of the community, was there already in the work of John Stuart Mill. The same contradiction was present in socialism. But with the ebbing tide of socialism since 1989, the long-standing problem within liberalism emerges into clear view. What is new, I suggest, is the enormous expansion of the language of universal human rights since the 1970s, and the scope this gives to the new administrative elites to exercise their power in the name of the coercive component of liberalism.
ZJ: Let me go back to our old conversation and remind you of what you said: “I think it is extremely unfortunate if Eastern Europeans or Russians imagine that the only alternative to the Communist state is a Liberal state. They will immediately go from one unhappy state form to another equally unhappy state form.” You are a historian, not a prophet, but what you said in 1993 now sounds almost like a prophesy. Legutko’s book, in which he draws parallels between Communism and Liberalism, is a perfect illustration of your claim about one “unhappy state form” traded for another “unhappy state form.”
How is it that you knew what the Future holds for us, whereas everyone else had to wait another twenty-five years for history to unfold itself to fulfill your prophesy? Do you have a particular gift for prophesy? Did your study of history tell you Liberalism is bound to produce “an unhappy state” of affairs just like socialism did? If so, why?
JC: I claim no gift of foresight; academic history confers no such faculty. I had merely been taught to be a sceptic, to appreciate that everything changes, that there are no permanent secular truths, and that every secular ideology experiences a trajectory from inception through flourishing to decline. I also appreciated that although names (like ‘liberalism’ or ‘democracy’) remain the same, their content can change radically. These predispositions made me regard both communism and liberalism from the outside.
ZJ: Liberalism’s unhealthy state was recently acknowledged even by the editors of The Economist. On September 15th, 2018, The Economist published “A Manifesto,” their aim being to “rekindle the spirit of radicalism.”
In it, we read: “Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling to solve the problems of ordinary people.”
For The Economist this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish ‘progressivism’ of American university campuses or the rightish “ultraliberalism” conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.
There is one minor point in the language of The Economist, which, I believe, is of historical significance: “radicalism.” If I remember correctly, at your seminar in Chicago 26 years ago, you said something to the effect that the premise of “Radicalism” is the doctrine of the natural equality of all men. Can you comment on that?
JC: I forget what, exactly, I taught about ‘radicalism’ in Chicago in the early 1990s. But I adopted the position at about that time that radicalism was the proper name for a new doctrine, coined in England around 1820, combining programmatic atheism, Ricardian economics and universal suffrage. This term, too, has been used to cover a range of evolving positions, and is now too vague to be meaningful in the way in which The Economist wanted to use it.
ZJ: This leads me to my next question. It is hardly possible to have a conversation today without sooner or later using the terms “liberal,” “liberalism,” “democracy,” or “liberal-democracy.” This was not so in the 18th century. If I am not mistaken, the term “liberal” in the 18th century did not have a political connotation. Also, neither democracy nor liberalism can be found in Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, published in 1764. One is impelled to ask, how could the people of the Enlightenment go without using such words?
JC: Easily. They were preoccupied with other things, meaningful to them but largely neglected by us (we no longer share Paine’s prioritization of kings and aristocrats, or his lifelong antipathy to Trinitarian Christianity). We need also to understand the term ‘the Enlightenment’ historically, as a term of historical art unknown in the eighteenth century and propagated chiefly since the 1960s.
ZJ: In your Revolution and Rebellion, you write: “To attempt to write the history of liberalism before 1820’s is thus, in point of method, akin to attempting to write the history of the 18th century motor car. There were, of course, forms of transport which performed many of the functions which the motor car later performed, the sedan chair among them. Yet to explain the sedan chair as if it were an early version of the motor car, and by implication to condemn it for failing so lamentably to evolve into the motor car, is to turn a modern error of scholarly method into a failure of men in a past society.” The origin of the term is obscure, but you trace the origins of Liberalism not to politics, but theology, and point to the teaching of theology at Oxford.
JC: This was an early expression of my rejection of the methodological error of anachronism. I later learned much more about what ‘liberalism’ was, when first formulated in c. 1820.
ZJ: Let me go back to The Economist. However well-intentioned The Economist’s statement is, to me—someone who spent the first twenty-five years of his life under Socialism—it sounds like the statements made by the Communists. Each time, after a popular rebellion and crisis—be it the invasion of Hungry in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, events in Poland in 1971, the Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, and so on—the Communists would look for a scapegoat to blame. It was either the Party apparatchiks, the former Politburo members, the executive committees on high, middle and low level—but never the idea of Socialism. We were assured by the Communist Party that there was nothing wrong with the idea of socialism; the execution was imperfect.
When I read The Economist’s “Manifesto,” I recalled that Communist slogan: “Socialism Yes; Distortions No!” which can be reformulated: “Liberalism—Yes, Politically Correct distortions—No.” “There is nothing wrong with the idea of Liberalism”; the problem, as the editors claim, is “the self-serving liberal elites” who let “ordinary people” down, just like the Central Committee of the Communist Party let “the toiling masses” down, or academic radicals.
What is happening now looks like a mirror image of what we have seen under Socialism. Even the language sounds the same.
Do you agree that there are very close parallels between the two ideologies? Would you also agree that if there is an explanation as to why they exist, it is because both Socialism and Liberalism are the twin children of the same parent—the idea of equality? They may have looked dissimilar for some time, in their childhood and adolescent stages, but when they reached maturity, they seem to act alike.
JC: I do agree that there are structural and procedural similarities. To discern their substantive commonalities one would need to explore the young Marx’s work on religion, and here I defer to others. To understand liberalism, it would help to discern J. S. Mill’s rejection of the Anglican orthodoxy of his day. I don’t see ‘equality’ as an autonomous variable.
As to periodicals, I find the general stance of The Economist remarkably similar to that of the columnists of the Financial Times – this paper has evidently been captured by politicized liberals who regularly condescend to those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
ZJ: Let me turn to the problem of academia, which, as it is constituted now, presents itself as a very serious problem, and the ideology disseminated therein permeates the society at large. Let me quote a fragment from an article by John Gray, the author of many books on liberalism.
In his TLS (March, 27, 2018) article titled “The Problem of Hyper-Liberalism,” Gray wrote: “For liberals the recent transformation of universities into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime must seem paradoxical. In the past higher education was avowedly shaped by an ideal of unfettered inquiry. Varieties of social democrats and conservatives, liberals and Marxists taught and researched alongside scholars with no strong political views. Academic disciplines cherished their orthodoxies, and dissenters could face difficulties in being heard. But visiting lecturers were rarely disinvited because their views were deemed unspeakable, course readings were not routinely screened in case they contained material that students might find discomforting, and faculty members who departed from the prevailing consensus did not face attempts to silence them or terminate their careers… Judged by old-fashioned standards, this is the opposite of what liberals have stood for. But what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philosophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project.” And: “When students from China study in Western countries one of the lessons they learn is that the enforcement of intellectual orthodoxy does not require an authoritarian government. In institutions that proclaim their commitment to critical inquiry, censorship is most effective when it is self-imposed. A defining feature of tyranny, the policing of opinion is now established practice in societies that believe themselves to be freer than they have ever been.”
The way Gray formulates the problem it is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. However, for Orwellian Communist orthodoxy to work, one needed Ministry of Truth, Thought-Police, an army of informants, brainwashing, and so on. In America, we need none of this! We police ourselves, we destroy history, remove monuments, decry as enemies everyone who is against equality, who is for hierarchy and standards of excellence, and we voluntarily confess “crimes.”
There isn’t a day that passes by without a public figure apologizing for a racist, sexist, or homophobic remark. Confessions are a daily routine in America. You are accused of a crime, you make a public confession only to disappear, just like in Orwell. Orwell did not invent the idea of confession; he got it from the Stalinist trials of the 1930s (described by Arthur Koestler in his Darkness at Noon). Another parallel between Communism and liberal-democracy! Except that under Communism, people were threatened with bayonets, torture, and death. Yet many of them—the dissidents and the majority of society—opposed it. Here we have no opposition, people confess freely. The majority is docile. Can you explain how we came to be where we are now?
JC: John Gray and I experienced the Oxford of the 1980s and 1990s, and drew similar conclusions from it; he has continued to observe the university world in the UK, as I have done in the USA. Part of my response is contained in my article soon to appear in Standpoint. I would add to your account of the USA the lasting legacy of New England Puritanism, the consequent ‘paranoid style’ that has been held to characterize US politics, and the Puritanical zeal to enforce confessions and persecute heretical opponents. The past is always with us, and people in the present do not escape their determinative heritage by claiming to be secular.
ZJ:Heather MacDonald, a conservative American commentator of the Manhattan Institute, made a claim that the problem of today’s America is that the infantile academic mentality has spilled over to the public realm. The language, behavior, and ways of thinking that were characteristic of academia 20, or even 30 years ago, is now the dominant mentality of adult Americans, who behave like children. I believe her analysis is correct. What appeared to be a childish mentality—culture wars, fights over Great Books programs (or classics), as we call it in the US, and similar “academic” issues, to which not too many people paid serious attention in the past—is now a prominent way of thinking in the US. Academia was never as important as it is now!
JC: American conservatives are condemned to grapple unsuccessfully with a major problem: what, exactly, would American conservatives conserve? By implication, their civic religion, which is essentially a tradition of world revolution. It comes in a variety of forms, more or less extreme. But it is true of this revolution, as of all, that it takes time to work out its full implications. A parochial and campus contest over ‘Great Books’ was an expression of this, but not the cause. I find it difficult to think that but for certain tactical mistakes on US campuses 20 or 30 years ago, all would have been well. But I fully agree that such issues are often most clearly seen within the university world, now a very large one, as they were formerly most clearly seen in the coal mines and the shipyards.
ZJ: Besides Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch, when the attack on Great Books started 30 years ago with the blessing from Jessie Jackson, who famously announced that “Western Culture’s got to go”—who else would think that it matters whether you read your Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Pascal, Marlowe, or Milton, Burke, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville? And yet, it does! It makes a difference whether you study serious thinkers or ephemeral authors, whose claim to fame is whether they are “supportive” of the “minority causes.”
JC: It should make a great difference to students to discover that these thinkers, or thousands of others like them, did not anticipate the American civic religion; indeed that their values were often antithetical to it. Quite right, then, that today’s cultural warriors work to block recollection of the past, and shepherd even History students into more and more modern time frames. But remember that ‘western culture’ or ‘western civilization’ are very much inventions of the twentieth-century United States, little known elsewhere; this says something of major importance about the long-term nature of the host culture.
ZJ: Today’s academia, as you know, is the Mecca of un-thought. Gender studies, Women’s Studies, all kinds of -studies replaced Departments of … Do you think that we didn’t pay enough attention to what was going to happen? Or, did we not realize how important academic disciplines are for the intellectual health of a nation? Were we simply too cowardly to stand up and stop the academic radicals from taking over universities?
JC: Many academic disciplines were undermined in the 1960s and 1970s by the Marxist and marxisant Left; but this is old news, and is largely forgotten by today’s commentators. Future histories of the long term development of academe will need to explain what happened subsequently. Clearly, Marx himself hardly anticipated the developments you refer to. Nor did his followers into the 1960s, however subtle and intelligent; consider, as just one instance, the absence of such themes from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1964).
Did the Pyrrhic victory of anti-Marxist positivist scholarship so weaken it that scholarship in many areas could evolve into interest-group advocacy? Or did many of those positivist scholars themselves seek to promote their society’s myth of origins, so that their own traditions of advocacy could be taken over and used against them? There is, of course, nothing wrong with studying gender, or the position of women in society, and the rest; indeed it is perfectly proper to do so. What has been marked has been the ideological freight that these movements have been made to carry.
ZJ: Your books abound in criticism and scholarly “attacks” on former historians. I take it to be a sign of a healthy intellectual atmosphere when scholars do it.
Let me invoke a few names: Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, Sidney Hook or Irving Howe in America, and many others. They all were on the Left, or they were the Old Left, and one can hardly imagine the history of intellectual life without them. Whatever scholarly disagreements you may have with them, methodological problems you find in their works, you cannot, I dare say, claim that they were scholarly incompetent. Can one say the same thing about the proponents of the new -studies? Leaving aside the problem of comprehensibility of what they write, do the new studies advance our knowledge of anything, the same way that the Old Left inspired you to attack?
JC: You are right to think that I had considerable respect for the figures you mention: it was possible to engage with their work, whether one agreed or disagreed. The contrast is considerable with a number or present-day schools, and scholars, for whom a private language defends their enforcement of values in ways not open to debate. The prevalence of such assumptions explains how easy it is for dissentient arguments and individuals to be excluded from universities today. I am concerned that such abuses will only provoke an equally extreme reaction in the opposite direction. But at present the natural stance of people of my persuasion is often indifference to that which cannot enter into debate.
ZJ: As far as I know, you had your intellectual heroes, so to say, or at least people who influenced you, whom you admire. Let me mention three names of people whom you knew personally, and for whom, as far as I know, you have intellectual respect: Peter Laslett, a Cambridge historian, author of the classic, The World We Have Lost; Edward Shils, America’s greatest sociologist, whom, if I am correct, you met as a student at Cambridge, where you studied; Leszek Kolakowski, who was your colleague and friend at All Souls College in Oxford, and François Furet, an eminent French historian of the French Revolution, who invited you as a Visiting Professor in the prestigious Committee on Social Thought, at the University of Chicago. Can you say a few words about the way in which they impacted you, and how influential you think their works are?
JC: The task of historians is to commune with the dead, and I do just that with these great men. When teaching courses on historical methodology to graduate students in the USA, I would distribute photographs and obituaries of these and other such greats (Butterfield, Elton) in the hope that my students would reflect on their work, and come (however distantly) to stand in the apostolic succession. Their effect on me was that of intellectual liberation; they did not ask me to follow their doctrine, but implicitly showed me how to escape the orthodoxies that were all around me when I was an undergraduate.
ZJ: You gained the reputation not only of being “an eminent English historian of English history,” but, if you don’t mind, “enfant terrible” of English history, which I take to be a high praise, and, given your contribution to the history of England, well deserved. Your English Society is a book that no scholar of English history can bypass.
JC: Historians are seldom good at reconstructing their own intellectual development, and I am sure that I would be well below average if I tried systematically to do so. As to the ‘enfant terrible’ phase, I can say that I came on the scene in the 1980s when modernism was breaking up, and its senior exponents found it convenient to blame others for this; it was easier, and safer, for them to revile their juniors than to understand what was happening. On reflection, there may have been other historians of my generation who were as infantile, or as terrible, but it would be ungenerous to name them. We all have our faults. At least I try not to criticize those who are junior to me in years, if I can possibly avoid it.
Your Revolution and Rebellion was released in 1985, your opus magnum, English Society, in 1986, when—I want to emphasize—you were only in your mid-thirties. Was it just you (your historical ingenuity, so to speak), or your Cambridge education that made you into the historian you are now? What is your background, experiences, schools, and, most importantly, what motivated you to rewrite the history of English society in the 17th and 18th centuries? I am not a historian, but have heard from others that, controversial as your thesis is, no student of 17th- or 18th-centuries can by-pass it? You “derailed” English historiography, didn’t you?
JC: Others must judge. But I may have been in the right place at the right time when it came to the intellectual developments that you refer to. Especially, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English society played a key role in the twentieth-century account of modernism. At least I criticized my seniors, who were all too able to defend themselves by the means normally employed in academe.
ZJ: Your name, like that of Roger Scruton, is associated with the term “Conservative”—conservative in the British or continental sense. I remember, however, that in a short piece you wrote for a Bulgarian journal named Panorama more than two decades ago, you said something to the effect that the labels of Conservative, Liberal, Radical, only complicate our understanding of history, and that you hope that we can get beyond them. But one could say that, in so far as they persevere in existence, they point to our cultural and political legacy, whose origins can be traced to the French Revolution of 1789.
The old labels—Liberal and Conservative—assumed, however, new names: Politically Correct and non-Politically Correct. In today’s language, the first one means the enemy of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, and chauvinism. As an ideological weapon, they are much more effective than the old labels, and serve to morally discredit the opponent. In the past, you could be a conservative or a liberal, without being accused of moral wrongness. Today, if you are not Politically Correct, you are not against the “phobias” and “isms,” which means, you are in the “moral wrong.” Would you agree that they are much more potent than the old labels?
JC: My project was always to understand these old labels historically, rather than to defend or adopt any one of them for myself. Certainly, to understand them historically is a profoundly subversive enterprise. Perhaps the recent discrediting of the claims to timeless applicability of the political language new in c. 1815-48 is one reason why a variety of present-day reformist or revolutionary initiatives meet with such ineffectual opposition from political parties calling themselves Conservative.
ZJ: Could we say that those labels literally mean blindness to all differences? Do you think that, in so far as those terms aim at erasing differences, they are the children of the idea of equality, and to be against equality is to be in the “moral wrong”?
JC: Such labels are intended to claim that those whom they identify are possessed of a coherent ideology. But were they, and are they? I am skeptical about that; everything changes. I am also cautious about accepting ideologies on their own terms: for me, equality is a theological position, to be debated as such.
ZJ: Could we say that, to the degree that the terms I used are operational, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution is still very much alive, and that we’re seeing the unfolding—perhaps for the last time—of the consequences of the 1789 events?
JC: One might say that as we better understand the history of the American and French Revolutions, and of eighteenth-century thought (not ‘the Enlightenment’), we are emancipated from the mythologies that grew up to sanitize these things. Perhaps that merely frees us to make different sorts of mistake.
ZJ: If I am correct, one of your major historical claims, which also explains the American Revolution, is that the doctrine of equality of all men (all Men are created equal) comes from those thinkers who were most eager to attack the Anglican doctrine? Secondly, the American Revolution has little to do with democracy. As you point out, the idea of universal suffrage arises much later. Can you elaborate on these points?
JC: For my thoughts on these difficult matters, please see my book Thomas Paine. There I accept that equality is an idea the origin of which needs to be explained; it does not itself explain the American Revolution. The same is true of the idea of universal suffrage. But to make these points in simple terms is insufficient; the point is to substantiate them. I look forward to a debate.
ZJ: Another topic or term which occupies today’s social and political conversations is nationalism. If I am not mistaken, your claim is that nationalism, as we understand it today, is a product of 19th century cultural and political vicissitudes, and that the 18th century form of nationalism is not applicable to our understanding. Is it correct to say that the basis of nationalism, under the “ancien régime,” is law and religion?
JC: Law and religion, as systems of ideas shaping shared historical experience. I suggest that ‘blood and soil’ nationalisms were continental European innovations of the early nineteenth century; I do not subscribe to them.
ZJ: When did we start using the term “nationalism” and why? Given that under the Ancien Régime the sense of nationality was different, what are the consequences of it?
JC: Later than we think. The consequences? If patriotism led to war, nationalism additionally led to genocide.
ZJ: Let me ask you about the American Revolution. Was it a revolution? As far as I know, you have very unique interpretation of what it was and why it happened. Can you explain your position?
JC: It began as a revolution in a much older sense (as the term was applied, for example, to the change of government in England in 1688). But it ended as an unanticipated social upheaval, the extent and implications of which were not fully appreciated until events in France after 1789 could be reflected on. The term ‘revolution’ remained; its content developed fundamentally.
ZJ: Other terms, very closely related, which I would like to talk about are hierarchy and privilege. Today, they sound like an echo from a foreign land. Both terms, however, belong to the history of the world and our Western tradition, and were alive and well not long ago (roughly two hundred years). Can you explain what happened? How did they fade away?
JC: I used to explain to my American students that the difference between US and UK society was that UK society seemed very formal and hierarchical from the outside, but that once you were inside you appreciated that it was remarkably informal and egalitarian. Whereas US society made a great profession of informality and casualness, but was in reality rigid, authoritarian and stratified. Paine’s critique of hierarchy and privilege allowed elites to disown the terms, but retain the things.
All societies are built around hierarchy and privilege. The difference is who enjoys these things and what their premises are. Today, the highest paid employees of US universities are the sports coaches.
ZJ: Let me take you back to the mid-1990s. You may not remember, but I want to remind you of a small incident. I visited you at All Souls College in Oxford, where you gave me a tour through the College. All Souls is not open to visitors, and if you want to see the beautiful courtyard, you can peek through the cast-iron gate. I said to you, “Jonathan, I heard that as a fellow you have a right to walk on the lawn.” To which, you responded, very sincerely, and in a somewhat agitated voice, “I have a privilege.”
Every time I hear the word “right,” I recall this little incident. What you said struck me as something so rudimentary, and yet I, and ostensibly many others, have never thought about it. We stood on the grass while the porter was taking a picture. There were a bunch of tourists looking at us through the openings in the gate.
What I understood is that a privilege is a right based on merit, limited to a small group of elect people; whereas a right is a privilege extended to everyone, regardless of merit. If all people had the right to walk on the lawn in All Souls, the lawn would be destroyed within a week, and thus the idea of a right to walk on the lawn would be flawed.
To use an analogy, would you say that one of the gravest problems of the world today is the idea of rights? Everybody has a right to everything regardless of merit, which must lead to the destruction of institutions, just like the lawn.
Recently, a few schools in the US abolished distinctions, and the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is the basis for admissions in many schools) is under attack. One can be pretty sure that it will be done away with, and then we will have no criteria to distinguish between students of greater or lesser intelligence, and low-level students will have the same right to attend prestigious schools as the high-level ones.
All this leads me to my question: can a civilization go on living if we do not return to the idea of privilege, merit, and thus hierarchy, which it would naturally recreate?
Implicitly, I am recommending a return of the meaning of rights to older ideas of privilege. The language of universal human rights, I suggest, is less and less effective in delivering good things to suffering humanity.
ZJ: Would you agree that the biggest fear of modern Western societies is inequality? It appears that all social and political structures aim at bolstering equality, and that any allusion to hierarchy or merit is met with dread?
JC: Inequality is everywhere in present-day advanced societies. The question is how it can be made acceptable to a wider public opinion. Today, it is hidden by the liberal rich from the traditional poor chiefly by geographical distance. This defence cannot be relied on.
ZJ: Let me take you back to the beginning of Western history: Plato’s Athens.
In his Republic, Bk VIII, Plato says: “I suppose that when a democratic city, once it’s thirsted for freedom, gets bad winebearers as its leaders and gets more drunk than it should on this unmixed draught, then, unless the rulers are very gentle and provide a great deal of freedom, it punishes them, charging them with being polluted and oligarchs.” “Yes,” he said, “that’s what they do.” “And it spatters with mud those who are obedient, alleging that they are willing slaves of the rulers and nothings,” I said, “while it praises and honors—both in private and in public—the rulers who are like the ruled and the ruled who are like the rulers. Isn’t it necessary in such a city that freedom spread to everything?” “How could it be otherwise?” “And, my friend,” I said, “for it to filter down to the private houses and end up by anarchy’s being planted in the very beasts?” “How do we mean that?” he said. “That a father,” I said, “habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents—that’s so he may be free; and metic is on an equal level with townsman and townsman with metic, and similarly with the foreigner.” “Yes,” he said, “that’s what happens.”
As Plato explains next, anarchy follows, which ends by the appearance of a tyrant who reintroduces order. The lesson we learn from the Athenian philosopher is that equality works like an acid, which dissolves hierarchy or authority, and produces anarchy. Tyranny is the natural outcome of democratic equality.
Looking at the West, and America in particular, everywhere we see signs of greater and greater lawlessness and dissolution of authority. Plato, probably, would not have a problem recognizing what the Future holds for us. Since your historical expertise made you somewhat of a prophet when we talked twenty-six years ago, what is your prophesy for the future?
JC: That anarchy and stability are not an either/or choice; it is a question of degree. Statistics of gun-related homicides, and of citizens shot dead by the police, are useful indicies of the degree to which anarchy is already with us. The authority of parents over children is hard to measure, but contemporary observers remarked on the transformation in this respect brought about in the Thirteen Colonies by the Revolution. I suspect that the future tends to be like the present, only more so.
ZJ: You are English. An overwhelming majority of the population in the UK is fond of monarchy. Partly, I presume, the reason is the deep-rooted English attachment to tradition; partly, because of the personality of the Queen, who fulfilled her role with incredible dignity for over half a century. However, my question to you is of a historical nature. Given the mess in which your country has found itself with Brexit, shouldn’t we have doubts about the efficacy, or even the validity of a parliamentary system (the same can be said of the US Congress, which can hardly pass any piece of legislation, and is always stuck in a gridlock)?
JC: The UK constitution is flexible, and continually changing. I would not be surprised if it changed in significant ways to adjust to exit from the EU. Members of the UK Parliament have fallen into considerable disesteem for their handling of this matter; the monarchy will survive, but many of them may lose their seats. Whereas the US Constitution is relatively inflexible, and members of Congress very hard to remove; this does not bode well.
ZJ: One cannot imagine a similar situation if we lived under constitution or limited monarchy. There are quite a few countries in Europe which have monarchs: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. I doubt many people would take my suggestion seriously, but don’t you think it’s time to reconsider our intellectual assumptions about political systems?
One could cherish, as did John Stuart Mill in the 19th-century, and the American Founding Fathers (particularly Jefferson, who was extremely hostile to monarchy), the idea that democracy is the hope for the future, and will eliminate monarchy’s problems. However, when you look around, it appears that we have too much of it, and Plato would agree with us, saying that we are heading toward anarchy.
JC: I would suggest that the US system, combining the roles of head of state and head of the executive, has created a post that almost no-one has the talent to fill (cf. the position of Roman Emperor).
ZJ: Thank you Dr. Clark.
The image shows, “A Private View at the Royal Academy,” by William Powell Frith, painted in 1883.
The Polish version of this interview appeared in the January issue of Arcana.
This month the Postil is most pleased and honored to present this interview with Professor Jeremy Black, the prolific and influential British historian. Professor Black has added greatly to our understanding of Britain, Europe and America within the context of international affairs, as well as, diplomatic, military and cultural history. He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, author of several books on Descartes and a forthcoming book Homo Americanus. The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America.
I missed “a few books”—or, more precisely, I did not list the 80 other books you wrote! In your bio, I found that you have authored 100 books. That’s more than what Paul Johnson, Arnold Toynbee or Guizot wrote. It is more than most, even very well-educated people, will ever read, let alone by a single historian. Are you writing, thinking what the potential reader should know, or are you answering your own questions?
Jeremy Black (JB): As you suggest, I have written more history books than any other British writer. I do not count them, but I think there are about 140 single author books, as well as three co-authored and quite a few edited. I obviously have a compulsion, but there is also a determination to rewrite what I think is poorly covered, at the very least offering a different interpretation so that no one can pretend that there is only one view, which is a flaw of the zeitgeist approach.
ZJ: In his The Idea of History, Robin Collingwood, following Voltaire, says that the idea of “Philosophy of History” means “a critical or scientific history, a type of historical thinking in which the historian made up his mind for himself instead of repeating whatever stories he found in old books.”
The Positivists claimed that there are general laws governing the course of events. Thucydides, Joseph Flavius, Dio Cassius, Procopius of Caesarea, and others on the other hand, say that the task of history is to preserve great human deeds from falling into oblivion. Do you subscribe to any of the above “schools”?
JB: I do not think that there are general rules in the writing of history, as it depends on the complex interaction of cultural and temporal contexts, individual approaches, and the particular issues at stake in specific topics. For each book, I consider the task I have set and the audience I have in mind, and I try to write and reason accordingly. The space available is also a key point. The analysis of documents can be scientific, but that of humans is necessarily more limited.
ZJ: So, let me follow up on your claim that there are no general rules in the writing of history. John Stuart Mill, who is hardly ever mentioned as a philosopher of history, claims that most of mankind has no history properly speaking. What he means by that is that history is more than chronology, and to turn chronology into history there must be an engine that drives it for history to develop. Otherwise we deal with static civilization, like China, which he uses as an example. Several thousand years and nothing, or not much. The same can be said about ancient Egypt, which Mill does not mention, but which falls under the same category of static civilizations.
If we look at, for example, sculptures, they seem to be the same for two thousand years. If we go to ancient Greece and compare the development of sculpture and vase design, from the white geometric style in 800-700 BC, to the Classical period, and the almost flamboyant, expressive, emotional Hellenistic style in 4th-century BC (Pergamon reliefs, for instance), we see fantastic “progress” or change in design and expression. Greece changed; China and Egypt did not.
Is Mill’s insight essentially correct? That is, to have history we need to inject the idea of progress into chronology?
JB: I see History as the Past, how we tell stories about the past. Neither in my view is inherently progressivist and I would argue separately that that is the conservative position; but then I am a committed conservative.
ZJ: Let me move to something you wrote about in The British Seaborne Empire. There you claim that in the middle of the 19th-century, Britain applied the new technology more successfully than other European powers, and its industrial production motivated the Empire to expand. However, this insight explains 19th-century expansion. What were the earlier motivating factors, and were they the same that made others seek to build empires?
JB: A quest for trade, a sense of destiny and a feeling of Christian providential is the same three for Portugal and Dutch.
ZJ: You mention what you call “gentlemanly capitalism,” which places emphasis not only on manufacturing of goods, but on finances, insurance etc., what we could call today infrastructure, which is connected with social values. Those values were propagated by the graduates of the British schools. Would you say that there were in fact two empires: one heavily industrial and the other “cultural,” which disseminated the British values (not necessarily intentionally), and that in doing so the British exported their value system to one fourth of the globe?
JB: I would agree entirely. To be effective an imperial system has to have an attractive ideology, else it relies on force and coercion which does not work in the long term as the continued free spirit of Poland shows.
ZJ: Here is a fragment from the description of your book, English Nationalism: A Short History: “Englishness is an idea, a consciousness and a proto-nationalism. There is no English state within the United Kingdom, no English passport, Parliament or currency, nor any immediate prospect of any.” Sir Roger Scruton in his England: An Elegy made what I believe to be a similar claim: England did not succeed in creating a nation, but, rather, Home for the English.
JB: That does not mean that England lacks an identity, although English nationalism, or at least a distinctive nationalism, has been partly forced upon the English by the development in the British Isles of strident nationalisms that have contested Britishness, and with much success.
So, what is happening to the United Kingdom, and, within that, to England? I look to the past in order to understand the historical identity of England, and what it means for English nationalism today, in a post-Brexit world. The extent to which English nationalism has a “deep history” is a matter of controversy, although he seeks to demonstrate that it exists, from ‘the Old English State’ onwards, predating the Norman invasion.
I also question whether the standard modern critique of politically partisan, or un-British, Englishness as “extreme” is merited? Indeed, is hostility to “England,” whatever that is supposed to mean, the principal driver of resurgent English nationalism?
The Brexit referendum of 2016 appeared to have cancelled out Scottish and other nationalisms as an issue, but, in practice, it made Englishness a topic of particular interest and urgency, as set out in this short history of its origins and evolution.
ZJ: What you said makes me wonder whether the reason for Asian civilizations not expanding or building empires lies in a very different character of Eastern religions. After all, around the same time, say 1500, Asia (China, Japan, India) was in some respects more advanced than Europe: Small continent, very divided, small kingdoms, principalities. Asia, viewed from above, appeared to be a better candidate to dominate the world than the West.
JB: You are absolutely correct. They were predominantly courtly and rural and hostile to mercantile interests.
ZJ: The British of 18th- and 19th-centuries did not study business, administration, finances, etc., the disciplines that are popular today. Yet, “reading” the classics or history, as you say of the UK, was fundamental in creating a frame of mind that was conducive in preparing a host of people to run the empire. What role did Classical education play in it?
JB: The Classical education that was dominant in England provided in the shape of Rome a model of imperial behaviour that was seductive in terms of British imperialism, but the mercantile order instead focused on experience-led understanding of opportunities.
ZJ: Since you invoked Poland, let me quote something that an Australian friend of mine wrote me recently: “I admire your energy, but cannot share in any optimism about the immediate future of the US or Western Europe – perhaps something from Central Europe, even Russia might be born – but I am with Kafka – yes there is hope but not for us. I am not trying to convince you – or anyone on this, I am just sharing what I see and feel about now and the future.”
Do you share my friend’s sentiment? I hear it often; the West—the US, Europe etc.—is lost; letting millions of immigrants who cannot assimilate was a mistake, the West abandoned its commitment to Tradition, history, values. Eastern European countries resisted and are in a better position to defend themselves.
JB: There is certainly a cultural crisis in the West, one linked to grave social issues; but the uncertainty of developments, the prime law of history, makes it impossible to predict the future.
ZJ: Does your claim about the rise of industrial production in 19th-century, which made Britain look to expand the empire, apply to China today? The new Silk Road, etc. inscribes itself well in what you said in your book. Is the mechanism the same, similar?
JB: China today has parallels to Britain’s pattern of growth, but is far more authoritarian.
ZJ: Let me move to another topic, but before I do, I would like to give you a few examples. In October 2017, Christ Church in Alexandria, VA, of which George Washington was a founding member and vestryman in 1773, pulled down memorial plaques honoring him and General Robert E. Lee. In a letter to the congregation, the church leaders stated that: “The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.”
In August 2017, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 to designate the second Monday in October (Columbus Day) as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” According to the critics of Columbus Day, we need to “dismantle a state-sponsored celebration of genocide of indigenous peoples.” Some of the opponents of Columbus Day made their intentions clear by attaching a placard on the monument: “Christian Terrorism begins in 1492.”
In June 2018, the board of American Library Association voted 12-0 to rename the Laura Ingall Wilder Award as the “Children’s Literary Legacy Award.” Wilder is a well-known American literary figure and author of books for children, including Little House on the Prairie, about European settlement in the Midwest. In a statement to rename the award, the Board wrote: “Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”
What is happening in America today sounds, to me, very familiar. As a former denizen of the Socialist paradise, I have the déjà vu feeling. Monuments were torn down, awards were renamed, etc. How do you explain these stunning similarities? To me, and I do not have a better explanation, things come down to History, the understanding of its essence.
History is seen as progressive, has a logic of its own and destroys its past; it condemns itself, its infancy for being immoral and discriminatory. The examples I gave you are American, but similar problems can be derived from the UK. I remember a controversy over the monument of Cecil Rhodes (the founder of a very prestigious scholarship for American and Canadian students) at Oriel College, Oxford, except that Oxford did not give in to the activists’ demands to remove it.
JB: I would prefer not to repeat what I covered in several books on the memorialisation of the past, which I commend to your attention, not least as they offer an account of historiography that is not limited to the narrow world of intellectuals. So, can I add a few contextual points? A facile and inaccurate approach is to argue that battles over identity reflect the failure of the Marxist narrative and the competing ideologies of the twentieth century.
I am less sanguine. In part, I see a continuation in a new iteration of anti-Western Cold War narratives, especially of the Maoist type; in part The Long March through the Institutions, in part a narcissistic preference for present day emotion and sentiment over continuity, reason , and an understanding of the fecklessness of much current commitment, and in part a brilliant way by self-important monochromatic thinkers to advance their careers through polemic; monochromatic referring to a failure to see a full spectrum of arguments and polemic chosen rather than rhetoric.
ZJ: On September 1st, 2018, the Editors of a prestigious British Magazine the Economist, published “A Manifesto” to “rekindle the spirit of [liberal] radicalism.”
In it, we read: “Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling to solve the problems of ordinary people… For the Economist this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish progressivism’ of American university campuses or the rightish ‘ultraliberalism’ conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”
However sober the Economist’s statement appears, it is reminiscent of past declarations by the Communists (in 1956, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1980). After each crisis, they made their declarations to keep the faith in the health of communist ideology by blaming the former Party executive committee. The declarations found the classic expression in the slogan: “Socialism Yes, distortions No!”
Once again, as a historian, do you see analogy between Socialism and Liberalism?: “Liberalism Yes, distortions No!” Same problems, same explanations, same idea of blaming someone: the kulaks, the party members, the corrupt elites—but never the Idea, be it the Communist idea or Liberal idea.
JB: Liberalism, like Conservatism, is a mood as well as an ideology, and practices as well as precepts. Inherently, a Liberalism predicated on individual freedom had much to offer and there are contexts in the nineteenth century where Liberalism or at least Liberal causes were meritorious and remain attractive. Anti-slavery, opposition to censorship and support for religious freedom are prime instances. It is ironic to a degree but also a reflection of the ideological essence of the last century, that these ideas are now best advanced by Conservatives while the progressivist dimension of Liberalism has been transmogrified into an authoritarian statism that owes something to Socialism but is not restricted to it.
ZJ: Can there be a healthy conservatism in the US? As our friend Jonathan Clark argues, Americans have problems answering the question what should be conserved. The new country was founded as a rebellion against the Past, against the hierarchical order.
JB: The differing natures of ideological parameters are suggested by the contrast between The USA and Europe. In the former case, the competition has been between different conceptions of individualism with the ability to choose and change religious affiliation at will, a key form of individualism. Conservatism tends to be expressed in terms of hostility to government, hostility which indeed can have an anti-societal perspective and notably so if social norms are imposed. In Europe, notably Continental Europe, the understanding of society places less of an emphasis on the individual.
ZJ: We tend to see the PC movement in the US as an aberration, even insanity, and there is every reason to consider many of the claims made by the advocates of PC as insane. One can hear the call to dismantle “power structure” daily. Listening to the liberal rhetoric one often gets the feeling that oppression is real, as real as it was in 18th c. However, from a broader historical perspective one can see what is happening as further unfolding of the principles which were at work in 18th-century America
JB: There is no correct format, that indeed being a characteristic of Conservatism, being more pluralistic than the doctrinaire nature of the Left. As a British Conservative, I seek a middle way between the two, which incidentally helps explain my support for leaving the European Union. I am wary of government but keen on society.
ZJ: Let’s dwell for a moment on what you just said: As for the first part of your statement (“Conservatism tends to be expressed in terms of hostility to government”), the same thing can be said about Liberalism. You remember how German socialist, Ferdinand Lasalle, described the limited or Liberal government: Nachtwächterstaat—a night-watchman state, or, in the words of the British historian, Charles Townshend, as a “standard-bearer.” If I remember correctly, the opponents of the liberal states called their supporters the “minarchists.”
The sole duty of such a state was to prevent theft, enforce property laws, and provide security. This is not the reason why the Conservatives are hostile to government; they, as you said, are afraid of the government because it can be an instrument of the imposition of laws and regulations which are fundamentally hostile to the “natural order of things.” Can one say, then, that both parties differ with respect to what they see the function or role of the state should be, or why the state is there in the first place.
JB: The interaction, indeed melding of traditional conservatism and liberalism, has varied greatly and will continue to do so. In large part, this reflects contingent circumstances and the way in which they are debated and recalled, in short, the weight of history, but there is commonality of the issues posed by democracy and democratisation, as well as the particular inroads and challenges of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism. To a degree, these developments made classic liberalism redundant unless in a conservative context.
ZJ: With respect to how Liberals and Conservatives perceive the role of the State, can one say that the difference between the two lies in that the Liberals use the state to impose abstract social norms, whereas the Conservatives see the state as a guardian of the inherited order of the Past. Edmund Burke saw it when he talked about the “Empire of Reason,” “cold hearts.” This way of thinking underlies the idea of social engineering, that is, finding a method of molding reality into what the abstract reason, unrestrained by tradition, history, the Past, wants it to be. Thus, the Past—national history, national identity—is no longer something worth preserving, but a piece of clay in the hands of “experts” who know what social and political life should be like.
JB: You have expressed that very well. Macron is a liberal in these terms.
ZJ: Going off of what you just said. (In large part, this reflects contingent circumstances and the way in which they are debated and recalled, in short, the weight of history, but there is commanality of the issues posed by democracy and democratisation, as well as the particular inroads and challenges of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism. To a degree, these developments made classic liberalism redundant unless in a conservative context).
This raises a few interesting points, which I would like to phrase in the following way: First, redundancy. The appearance of the Socialist idea made Liberalism, or some of its propositions, redundant or even obsolete because socialism (not in the Stalinist version but in socialist-democratic version) could be said to have proposed them all, or made them look even better. Second, your redundancy thesis against the Conservative background also helps to explain why Liberalism appeared to be benign and made Conservatism look like a proposition which does not have much to offer.
For as long as Communism was threatening, Liberalism appeared to be attractive because it fought for individual liberties against its collectivist rival. With the collapse of Communism, Liberalism lost its urgency to defend the individual against the democratic collective, which de Tocqueville feared so much. Would you agree?
JB: I would agree completely, and would add that the challenge from liberalism has become more serious because of the ability of left liberals to control the mechanisms of the steadily larger public sector. This provides a different ethos for statism to that of Communism, but it is statism nonetheless.
ZJ: I want to quote something to you. It surprised to me how few people noticed the similarity between Marxist and Liberal understanding of history. Here is the first passage: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations..”
And here is another passage: “The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex.”
The second passage comes from the very end of Mill’s Utilitarianism. Marx talked about laws of historical development; Mill in his earliest writings –”Perfectibility,” “Civilization,” “The Spirit of the Age” – talks about “tendencies” (i.e., the spirit).
What is the goal of History to Marx and Mill? Essentially an egalitarian world, a world without polarizing impulses which divide people, and which create hierarchy. History, as it unfolds itself, eliminates hierarchy and leaves “no one behind,” as we say in America.
First, how does such a proposition of a non-hierarchical order of things sound to an eminent historian like yourself? Second, given the “equality” of results—that is, the fact that liberalism is turning into soft totalitarianism—should one see the progressive vision of history as the source of oppressiveness of the two socio-political systems?
JB: To be succinct, equality of outcome, as an impossible result, can only be the objective of the misguided and/or totalitarian. That encompasses liberalism and Marxism, both of which are based on the flawed proposition that mankind must be made equal, and that all else is a false reaction and/or consciousness. Thus, the false consciousness that the Left propounds is in fact its condition.
ZJ: A typical liberal response to your answer about equality of outcome is: we want equality of opportunity. When I hear it, I tell my students: “do farmers in all places have the same opportunity, the same fertile soil and good climate? The same goes for fishermen, and so on.” My second response is: “consider your situation: you have equal opportunity in my class to learn from me; do all of you take the advantage of it? The majority of you did not even do the reading for today.” Some of them seem to understand what I am saying; others resist it. How do you respond to it?
JB: I agree entirely with your observations about teaching. Moreover, the pursuit of equality only creates more inequalities, not only in the determination of an alleged problem, but also in the measures pursued by means of implementation and with reference to the likely outcomes. As a consequence, we are in the world of fleas on fleas.
More subtly, the quest to end inequality inevitably destabilises the precarious equality between state and society, and between government and the individual.
ZJ: Let me put forth a suggestion here, and please do not hesitate to correct me if I am wrong. England is not exactly a home of Liberalism. True, we can talk about the project of broadening the franchise through the Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1884–85. But they can be said to be fundamentally democratic claims. Yet Mill’s Liberalism, as a panoramic, all-embracing vision in the context of 19th century English political thought, occupies a rather exceptional place. Mill’s ideology, because that is what his system is, inscribes itself better in the Continental way of thinking.
Could one say that Liberalism came to England through the back door, through France? I do not mean by that a commonsensical claim, which says that we all are influenced by ideas which come from different geographical places. But that Mill created a political philosophy that had little chance of being created out of “natural” English soil? One could literally point with a finger to places in his On Liberty which Mill “borrowed” from Guizot, in whose General History of Civilization in Europe he found a progressive scheme of history, as much as he borrowed from Wilhelm von Humboldt and Alexis de Tocqueville.
JB: English political thought and practice are traditionally accretional, with the ad hoc quality owing much both to the specific nature of case law and to its use in a parliamentary context on a contingent basis arising from particular challenges. As a result, Mill’s systematic prospectus prefigured the challenge of the later stages of the EU in providing an account that left no real role for the granulated character of English life and institutions: An excess of philosophical idealism cut across the organic development of the nation.
ZJ: You call yourself conservative. Can you explain what it means to you today?
JB: Change in the form of adaptation is an obvious necessity of the human species, but a conservative knows that in itself change is not a moral good, and that change ought to be referential to the past and reverential of it. The social and psychological benefit of continuity is as one with an ideological commitment to the value and values of the past. That is not reaction, but a key element of the trust between the generations that is a necessity for us as individuals and as part of a broader group.
ZJ: You wrote 140 books, including the history of the world, which means you know more history than any single individual on the planet. Historians by the very nature of their profession should care about the Past. Many of your colleagues seem to use history to invalidate Tradition, Culture, the Past—History. How do you explain their attitude? Is it the hatred of oneself—mankind—as Herr Freud would have it? But to be serious: could we say that they are unhappy about who we, as human beings, are?
JB: I fear we are looking here at a profession which is disproportionately attached to identity politics of a peculiarly destructive form, in large part because of a combination of facile Post-Modernism with doctrinaire Socialism. Existing systems are rubbished in terms of an alleged false consciousness.
ZJ: The Walters Museum in Baltimore, where I live, announced (proudly) that this year they will not purchase any pieces of European art; only the art by minorities. They are looking for funds to by art created by “minority” cultures. Decisions like that could be considered insane, but they are made by people in charge of serious cultural institutions.
Looking from a broad historical perspective, one could say, there is nothing surprising in it; the Americans are repudiating, and disposing of, the Past, they continue the 1776 Rebellion. In the middle 1980s they started repudiating education by doing away of what used to be called in the US Western Civilization courses, or Great Books programs; 35 years later we see the intellectual devastation not just in the educational realm but public realm. American students do not know anything. Compare them to students from Kenya, Nigeria, Nepal, Pakistan, India and other places…
Once again, the comparison with Communism comes to mind. They too, were selling “the bourgeois” art in the 1930s. American museums are full of the paintings the Hermitage sold, including a great Poussin in Philadelphia.
JB: Yes, see also the sales by the Newark Museum. The destruction of a great heritage is serving fashionable interests deploying an anti-colonial agenda, so-called, in order to justify their sectional and partisan political agenda. It has no intellectual purpose, but is a deliberately iconoclastic movement which delights in disorientating culture and society
ZJ: Here is a sentence from a recent email by my former (female) student: “I had told you once: We are all on the same conveyor belt headed to the slaughterhouse, just some are further down than others. I’m just trying to save my soul.”
First, what I see in her email is a sense of desperation—the same sense of desperation that people under communism felt—the Roller of History will crush us, thus we need to “adjust our thinking to the official views.” It explains why so many intellectuals compromised, sold themselves, their intellect, talent, integrity… to the ideological devil. More importantly, my student’s reaction is emblematic of how the young and thoughtful American feels.
I used quotations from Marx and Mill to make a point. What is the goal of History to them? An egalitarian world, a world without polarizing impulses which divide people, and which create hierarchy. History eliminates hierarchy and leaves “no one behind,” as we say in America.
JB: The presentation of history as uni-totalitarian is morally flawed and empirically wrong. It is a present, not conceit that seeks to extol a particular perception at the expense of the complexity of the past and the role of free will and choice, both moral and otherwise. The idea of determinism underlies such teleological visions, but they empty life of choice and therefore moral compass.
ZJ: Thank you, Professor Black.
The image shows Captain Ewart capturing the eagle standard of the French 45th Regiment, at the Battle of Waterloo, by Denis Dighton, painted 1815-1817.
This interview was prepared for the Polish magazine Arcana and appears with permission.
The America of 2020 is a country in financial ruin. Its twenty-three trillion debt is the greatest of any country in history. Its political and social decline is obvious to anyone over fifty. Its universities, including the most distinguished ones, once the envy of the world, have been turned into meccas of ideological indoctrination.
Almost every aspect of America’s past greatness is gone. Until recently, one area of its cultural strength was unquestionable: Museum collections. American museums were once greatly admired by the curators of important European museums. But things are changing.
Some American museums embarked on a mission to suspend the purchase of European art, to sell items from their collections, or put them (temporarily) in storage rooms, in order to display the works of minority artists. In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Arts, sold seven artworks “to make way for pieces by contemporary artists of color and women.” Years ago, the Walters Museum, made the decision to acquire more “Black Art.” “The new acquisitions,” we read, “reflect the efforts of the museum, established at a time when the city was predominantly white, to evolve with the city, whose population now is predominantly black.” This year, the Walters suspended the purchase of European art. What is happening in Baltimore is a wider trend that is sweeping across America.
Last year, when I went on my monthly visit to Baltimore Museum of Arts, five of my favorite rooms, one containing Corot and Couture’s portrait of a woman with exposed breasts, were closed. What I found instead were mediocre contemporary paintings of Black slaves in chains by a local contemporary minority painter. To make sure that the visitor gets the message, the paintings were accompanied by very long statements by the painter, written in activist gobbledygook.
Contrasting what I saw with my previous experiences, the sense of quiet joy that a museum visit causes, I felt deeply irritated. I had a strong feeling that whoever responsible for the decision of taking down the great masters had robbed me of something that my soul longed to see. Instead of peacefully enjoying the beauty of the old artists, I was punched with a loud social message. It was consistent with the “1619 Project” of The New York Times. However, what is justified in the case of a politically engaged newspaper should have no place in art museums, for that is where we go to contemplate Beauty.
Clearly, beauty is of no interest to the new generation of curators, who believe that a social massage is more important than the intrinsic, artistic value of the old masters. They do not see themselves to be guardians of Beauty, and of the past that must be very carefully preserved. They see themselves as propagators of their ideological vision of America.
American museums are becoming ideological peddlers, and if they will follow in the footsteps of educational institutions, we can expect the same disastrous results. Old masters, like the classic writers, will be replaced by “underrepresented” minority artists, or sold off and forgotten by the public.
This is what happened under communism. The Stalinist curators would store old masters’ paintings in storage rooms and display Socialist Realist paintings, or they would sell them. Philadelphia Museum, for example, acquired a Poussin that Leningrad museum sold in the 1930s. But as Socialism is making inroads into American life, we should not be surprised at what is happening in our art institutions. “Art must be ‘engaged’” was the message of Socialist Realism.
Why that was so is easy to understand, if we turn to the writings of the Founding Father of the Socialist Idea. As Marx taught us, art is an expression of social consciousness, and as the latter changes so does art. Standard art history books written by Marxist art historians in the former countries of real socialism would tell you that the medieval mind was the prisoner of a religious Weltanschauung, and that the medieval paintings, saturated with the Biblical scenes, are expressions of it.
Renaissance art, on the other hand, represents a shift in social consciousness, and a step in the right direction: The painters broke with the medieval idea of anonymity, and the exclusively religious worldview made room for non-religious topics, marking the birth of the individual. The painter no longer saw himself as someone whose talent is to be devoted to the glory of God, but as an individual who expresses his own individuality.
We were told, for example, that the presentation of the human body, or the nude, was an affirmation of this world. Afterlife was pushed out by the beauty of earthly existence. Another shift can be observed in 17th-century Dutch painting. Thousands of portraits of rich merchants and important men of politics marks the birth of the bourgeoisie—the new social class oriented not toward the hereafter but earthly concerns: money and politics.
Even the poor shepherds are no longer presented as humble folk who made their way into paintings in the scenes of the manger with the baby Jesus and the Holy Family. They can be seen on green meadows attending their grazing animals.
The story of the development of social consciousness continued till it reached the peak in what came to be known as Socialist Realism. Its main heroes were the neglected and forgotten: the worker and the peasant. Former socialist underdogs are today’s American minorities. Their images can be seen everywhere on mural paintings.
How important is Marx’s insight for our understanding of art? It isn’t. It says something obvious. To be sure, one can trace the trajectory of changing social consciousness just by looking at the products of the past epochs: They tell us something about the people who made them, the ideas that motivated them, and how different they were from us.
But Marx’s theory of social consciousness tells us nothing about art’s aim — Beauty. In making us believe that what we see in paintings is social consciousness, Marx made us forget its most fundamental aspect: Beauty, the way it is presented, the changing technique. The theme is important but it cannot be more important than the artistic execution.
The paintings of Delacroix, for instance, have a political dimension, but if we admire them it is hardly because they carry a political message. Delacroix was simply a great painter.
This is what the new curators seem to forget, and they need to ask themselves a very simple question: Are the canvases they spend millions on art or ideological statements? And if they want to educate the public, they will not succeed by making the public look at bad art. They have to know what clear-cut criteria of aesthetic judgment are.
They may be unaware of it, but they are behaving like the followers of Marx for whom History is a battleground between the oppressors and the oppressed, and it unfolds itself through various historical stages. Therefore, what we see in art of the past epochs is the record of forms of oppression, the way in which oppression operated, from its cruelest forms to its most subtle expressions of submission, as John Stuart Mill taught us in The Subjection of Women. Art, according to this theory, is not about “perfecting Nature,” as Aristotle would have it.
At best, it is a means of plastic expression of a social message. The old idea that the artist is a creator who expresses eternal Beauty with his brush or chisel is long gone. He is an unconscious peddler of false or unliberated consciousness, expressing the social values of his epoch. He is like a bourgeois jurist, who, in designing laws, is building ever-newer punitive devices that protect the privileged classes against the oppressed, rather than being someone who wants to bring universal rules of justice to the City.
Similarly, a painter, who is painting, say, a naked woman, as we learn from feminist criticism, is objectifying women (according to the standards of his epoch). “Objectification,” even if it is a mental act, or assumes the form of a painting, is oppressive. This reasoning leads us straight to Marx’s idea that History is a struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.
If you still wonder why a mediocre painting could replace a Corot or a Couture, the answer is simple: A mediocre painting of a slave, “a man objectified,” breaking chains, shows the viewer a fight against alienated consciousness, social injustice, whereas Couture’s painting of a blushing woman with exposed breasts is likely to be interpreted as female submissiveness.
Feminists have been unambiguous in their claim that the female nude is an expression of “the typical male attitude,” of seeing a woman as an object to own. Hundreds of 19th-century Academic and Orientalist paintings, showing naked women sold at slave markets in ancient Rome or the Middle East, is supposedly a testimony of such an attitude of the male painters. Jean-Léon Gérôme (“Roman Slave Market”), Remy Cogghe (“Female Slaves Presented to Octavian”), or Hermann Corrodi (“The Slave Market”) may be invoked here as illustrations.
In each painting, a beautiful naked woman is presented to the buyers by the sellers. Orientalist paintings are more likely to be a rendition of what 19th-century Arab countries were like than the imaginary constructions of the Academicians who conceived of Roman slave markets. However, the question is not about the accuracy of the actual practice of slave trade in Rome or Middle East, but intentionality of artistic presentation.
Among many 19th-century paintings presenting naked slave women for sale, one seems to stand out. It is Henryk Siemiradzki’s “The Vase or the Woman.” The painting received the gold medal at the 1878 World Fair in Paris, and the painter was awarded the French Legion of Honor. The painting was very much liked by the Dutch-English painter, Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema.
The painting presents an older Roman patrician and his son. The older man is sitting, looking at the vase, while his son is looking at the young beautiful woman. One of the traders is showing the vase to the patrician; the other, a very tall Black man, is pulling a white long cloth covering the woman’s body. In what appears a gesture of covering her shame, the half-naked woman is putting her hand on her face and eyes, as if she wants to defend herself against the shame of her nudity.
What makes Siemiradzki’s painting different from similar paintings is that the buyer must choose either the woman or the vase.
How can one equate a woman with a vase, one can exclaim, unless one reduces a woman to the level of an object. But to say that is to miss the point Siemiradzki makes here. The woman and the vase are on the same level, if – and only if – there is a common denominator between the two. This denominator is beauty.
However, once we recognize it, the only logical choice left is to choose the vase. Its beauty will outlast the beauty of the young female body. It will live for centuries, long after the beauty of the girl and the girl herself are gone.
As we look at the painting, we notice that the beautiful young woman is of greater interest to the patrician’s son, who is glaring at her, rather than his father—an older man, who seems to prefer the vase, which he is holding.
However compelling, logic can be complicated. The young man would choose the vase but only if he followed Plato’s advice from the Symposium: “He who aspires to love rightly should from his earliest youth seek intercourse with beautiful forms.” But youth has its own logic. Its interest is passion: intercourse with a bodily form; interest in the intercourse with Beauty itself, or beauty of art comes later, in older age, when “the devil” (sexual passion), as Socrates teaches us at the beginning of the Republic, is gone.
Looking at Siemiradzki’s painting, one learns an important lesson: Art is not about lessons in raising social consciousness, nor is it about politics, social justice, representation of minorities. It is about Beauty. Unless present-day museum curators learn this lesson, they will quickly fill our museums with “loads of rubbish,” as the British say. The old elites which feed themselves on Beauty will look at it with predictable scorn, and the minorities which are the intended target of “minority art” will conclude that there are better things to do. Alas, they are likely to be right
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): The first time I came across your name was in the second half of mid 1980s. I found an article you wrote in the English Conservative magazine, The Salisbury Review, edited back then by Sir Roger Scruton. It was an anti-feminist article – an article written by a female scholar of antiquity. Yet you wrote several books about women in ancient times, in tragedy. One can’t think of Greek tragedy without women. My question is: Where does your interest in ancient women come from? Clearly, given your stance on feminism, it was not just a fashion: A woman writing about women.
Mary Lefkowitz (ML): That article was one of several articles which I wrote about revisionist histories. In the seventies and eighties some feminists were using Greek myths to argue that early in human history there had been peaceful matriarchal societies that were eventually usurped by men, and I tried to show why myth couldn’t be used as historical evidence. I can’t imagine that there ever was a time when women were in continual charge of their societies. Until relatively recently in human history, anatomy was destiny.
ZJ: When you look at your antifeminist articles, your book Not Out of Africa, and watch today’s academic landscape, do you think fighting it, writing against it, changed anything? I can come up with a few names of female scholars in your field (Mary Beard and Edith Hall) who write about the Greeks and the Romans as if feminism and Marxism were an orthodoxy. Beard’s popular history of Rome reminds me of the Marxist interpretations of Roman history which I read in Communist Poland: Roman masses are her hero. Now the same message comes from the most prestigious British universities.
ML: Feminism, Marxism, and Afrocentrism are like religions; believers are not persuaded by arguments based on known, warranted facts. But (as I think I said) I’m not against feminism per se. Rather, what I object to is the use of mythology as history.
ZJ: The position of women in Greece was not the same as in Rome. There is no Greek Livia, Augustus’ wife, who—if we follow Robert Graves’ account —was the real force who shaped Augustus’ politics, and so many others. Given different stature of women in Greece and Rome (Greek women, from what we know, did not yield the same power, even behind the scene), how do you explain the importance of women in Greek tragedy? Did the Greeks see some fundamental difference between men and women which the tragedy explores?
ML: In fifth-century Athens women certainly did not have any political power, but women in Sparta had considerable political influence, and Artemisia of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor commanded her own ship fighting against the Greeks in the battle of Salamis. But in the Hellenistic Era, there were powerful women rulers who had even more power than Livia, e.g. the Macedonian Greek Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Such women were all from royal or aristocratic families.
ZJ: What is striking about Greek tragedies is the importance of female characters. Neither Ismene nor Chrysothemis in Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra seem to have much to contribute to the plot. They serve as a contrast to Antigone and Electra. What I mean by contrast is the personae of Ismene and Chrysosthemis—their femininity. They want to live, have families, children. Antigone and Chrysosthemis, on the other hand, are obsessed with one idea: vengeance. But for it to work, they have to turn off their emotions, forget about their feminine charm, their feminine nature. There must be a reason why both playwrights chose women to be there, why they constructed the pairs of women to act this way. Do you think there is something about women, their psychology, their nature, that Sophocles and Euripides saw and explored? After all, one could use a male character there, but they did not.
ML: I suspect that Greek women, then as now, had plenty to say, even though they weren’t officially in change – that’s apparent even in Homer. Contrasting strong women with weak women allows the dramatist to show that women can be as heroic as men in life and death situations.
ZJ: Unlike in a number of other disciplines, there are and were many outstanding female scholars of antiquity: you; Jacqueline de Romily in France; in my native Poland there were several; Lidia Winniczuk, H. Kronska, Maria Dzielska. There is Grace Harriet Macurdy, professor at Vassar College, whose book Hellenistic Queens was published in 1932! One can also invoke the name of the 18th century translator of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Mrs. Carter. And, of course, Edith Hamilton, the author of very popular books on Greece and Rome. You can probably come up with many more names. What attracts women to Greece and Rome? You said, “Contrasting strong women with weak women allows the dramatist to show that women can be as heroic as men in life and death situations” Is it just a question of weak versus strong women? Why should we assume that the strength of women lies in their being “as heroic as men”? Why should we measure strength of women by analogy of what is valuable in men? Why not assume, as we did even in the Enlightenment period, that the virtues of women – of which Rousseau in his Emile or La Nouvelle Heloise and Laclos in his Education of Women wrote – are different and they should be measured as such? Would you not agree that to judge women against men – whether they can be like men – is to capitulate to the democratic idea of equality.
ML: How do we measure qualities like courage? How can we measure courage? Or constancy, or determination, or whatever other qualities we can think of? More men have been greater mathematicians and physicists than have women, but is that because men have more testosterone in their systems than women, or because women have not had the same encouragement or opportunity?
I suspect that what attracted women to the study of antiquity is what has attracted men to the study of antiquity: the challenge of learning difficult languages, the excitement of reading great literature. In my own case, learning Latin helped me understand the structure of English grammar. Greek seemed to me to be particularly interesting because the words seemed to be more literal, closer to what the parent language must have been like. I tried to make myself study something more practical, like Chemistry, but couldn’t stop wanting to read Sophocles. So that’s what I did.
ZJ: T. S. Eliot once said, tragedy is impossible in the Christian world, or Biblical world – I cannot remember. But the Old Testament story of Job seems to indicate that he had both in mind. I made it my habit to teach the Book of Job to students to draw a contrast between the Greeks and the Hebrews, and, more precisely, between Job’s attitude and Epictetus or the Stoics. My standard questions after reading the two texts is: “Was Job a Stoic?” If you were to look at Job from Mars, you would not know whether he reconciled himself to his fate because he had faith in God or whether he reconciled himself because he was a Greek Stoic philosopher, a man who accepted life “as it happens.” “Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen,” says Epictetus. Perfect one-line expression of the Greek mind. Was Eliot right? Tragedy in the Biblical tradition—whether the Jewish or Christian versions—seems impossible. No savior, no messiah. The universe is blind and deaf, and thus, human life is tragic!
ML: Eliot was right. You can’t have tragedy in a universe where divinities are supposed to promote human welfare and cooperate with one another. Ancient Greek deities disagree with one another. Hence the Trojan War, the death of Hippolytus, Juno’s wrath against the Trojans in the Aeneid.
ZJ: If you think of what happened to Oedipus, he does what he was bound to, but then when he discovers what he did—killed his father, slept with his mother—he blinds himself. Another proof: Fatum is blind, we must account for our “sins” even if we did not know, which makes me think of Agamemnon and the origin of a fundamental issue in European culture: Justice.
The Trojan war. It starts with the abduction of Helen. The Greeks gather at Aulis. Agamemnon goes hunting; crosses the sanctuary of the Goddess of Nature, Artemis, who demands sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia; reluctantly, he does it because the winds will not blow; he goes to Troy, comes back, he gets killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, who, to avenge the death of their daughter, kills him. The filial duty falls on Orestes and Electra, the two children, who kill their mother, and who must be killed. It is a domino effect. Those involved in the killing must suffer too. Why? Because Agamemnon unknowingly crossed the boundaries of the Goddess sanctuary. Ignorance, like in Oedipus’s case, is no excuse in the eyes of the gods. Finally, Apollo intervenes because Orestes and Electra would have to be executed for killing their mother, which they had to do.
The moral is: Vengeance is not mine; to do justice we have to transfer it to the impersonal entity, the State; family members cannot exact justice. Is this so? Is this the point where and when European civilization begins – with the recognition of creating a system where emotions must be turned off? Would you agree with such a characterization?
ML: I wouldn’t put it quite that way. Fate isn’t blind; we are. Hamartia doesn’t mean “sin,” but rather “missing the mark,” “making an error in judgment,” which is what Oedipus did when he thought he could avoid fulfilling the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother by leaving Corinth, and the people he thought were his father and mother, which enabled him to fulfill the oracle by heading for Thebes. Tragedy reminds us of this fundamental human weakness. We always know less than we think we know. Tragedy allows us to turn our emotions on, and to reflect on the limitations of our own knowledge.
ZJ: Let me continue by moving to a special topic: Western Civilization. In Aeschylus’ Persians, the playwright makes the Persian king listen to his advisor, to understand that the Greeks govern themselves in an incomprehensible way: they are governed by the many, not one king. The explanation comes when the Persian defeat is just about to happen. Let me point out, if the Greeks were to lose, there would be no democracy, no republic if the Persians were to invade and conquer Italy, no system of government that we take for granted today.
Western civilization is a complex entity, built over two thousand years but the question is what are its foundations, the ingredients without which it would not exist. When I teach I use an image of what we call in America: a melting pot, but it is a Western Civ. pot: here are my ingredients: The Jewish/Biblical One God, love your neighbor, in the Christian form, love of all others, other nations; Greek ingredient is philosophy, mathematics, architecture, tragedy, and democracy; my Roman ingredient: Roman law, administration, architecture (arches; aqueducts, dome), republican form of government (two chambers). You mix it, you get the basic dish: European civilization from which the Middle Ages and Renaissance sprang. In it you have the foundations of Modern Europe.
Yet, all of this is today under attack: colonialism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy. Why are we so ungrateful to the Greeks and Romans? You spent your life in Ivory Tower. Life of the mind is the most precious thing, and yet, it is the academics who are destroying it.
ML: Academe hasn’t been an ivory tower since the student revolutions of the late 1960s, as the result of which curricula became increasingly politicized. Academics and students wanted to study society’s problems so they could do something about them. They wanted action and had no time for reflection. What they didn’t and still don’t understand is that knowing something about the past and human nature could help them better to understand the present.
ZJ: Several years ago, I came across the name of a Saudi Arab intellectual Ibrahim al-Buleihi, former Saudi Shura Council Member, who in an interview titled “Western Civilization Has Liberated Mankind” said many things that few professors in America would have the courage to say. Here it is: Buleihi: “My attitude towards Western civilization is an attitude based on obvious facts and great accomplishments; here is a reality full of wonderful and amazing things. [Recognizing] this doesn’t mean that I am blindly fascinated. This is the very opposite of the attitude of those who deny and ignore the bright lights of Western civilization. Just look around… and you will notice that everything beautiful in our life has been produced by Western civilization: even the pen that you are holding in your hand, the recording instrument in front of you, the light in this room, and the journal in which you work, and many innumerable amenities, which are like miracles for the ancient civilizations. If it were not for the accomplishments of the West, our lives would have been barren. I only look objectively and value justly what I see and express it honestly. Whoever does not admire great beauty is a person who lacks sensitivity, taste, and observation. Western civilization has reached the summit of science and technology. It has achieved knowledge, skills, and new discoveries, as no previous civilization before it. The accomplishments of Western civilization cover all areas of life: methods of organization, politics, ethics, economics, and human rights. It is our obligation to acknowledge its amazing excellence. Indeed, this is a civilization that deserves admiration… The horrible backwardness in which some nations live is the inevitable result of their refusal to accept this [abundance of Western ideas and visions] while taking refuge in denial and arrogance.”
‘Okaz: “Sir, you can admire this civilization as much as you want, but not at the expense of others, especially our own civilization.”
Buleihi: “My admiration for the West is not at the expense of others; rather, it is an invitation to those others to acknowledge their illusions and go beyond their inferiority and liberate themselves from backwardness. [Those others] should admit their shortcomings, and make an effort to overcome them; they should stop denying the truth and closing their eyes to the multitude of wonderful achievements. They should be fair towards those nations that achieved prosperity for themselves but did not monopolize it for themselves and instead allowed the whole world to share the results of this progress, so that other nations of the whole world now enjoy these achievements. Furthermore, Western civilization has given to the world knowledge and skills which made it possible for them, the non-Western nations, to compete with it in production and share markets with it. Criticizing one’s own deficiencies is a precondition to inducing oneself to change for the better. Conversely, to glorify one’s backward apathetic self is to establish and fortify backwardness, to strengthen the shackles of apathy, and to eradicate the capabilities of excellence. Backwardness is a shameful reality, which we should resent and from which we must liberate ourselves.”
What is your reaction to al-Buleihi’s statement?
ML: I agree with what he says. The students who chanted “Western Civ has got to go” were only considering the downside of Western Civ, which is pretty much the downside of human nature generally, anger, violence, self-aggrandizement, etc. Plato and Aristotle showed us ways in which all people could lead more constructive lives, but their visions did little to address social issues, like oppression of certain people, such as slaves.
ZJ: There is a tendency today to just go over religious traditions (plural) as if religion was never part of any culture. Why do we operate in this religious vacuum and how does it obfuscate our understanding of both Antiquity and Modernity? You probably know the movie Troy with Brad Pitt. It is, in my opinion, a very well-done movie. However, same thing: no gods! Last year in November, Joseph Epstein wrote a nice piece for the Wall Street Journal about Thucydides. I always enjoy finding something like that. The title of it is “History Made by Men, not Gods.” To ignore gods is to miss the point of the Iliad. Gods are as important as humans. I remember Sir Moses Finley’s several articles about Socrates, whose trial, according to him was motivated to a large extent by the suspicion that he really did not believe in the gods, and the Athenians, remembering well the plagues that visited Athens and devastated population during the war, thought disbelief was a serious problem. What is your view here when it comes to taking religious views seriously? Can one understand culture, Greece and Rome, in particular, by simply saying – myths, gods…
ML: I believe that you cannot understand ancient Greek literature, history or philosophy unless you take account of ancient Greek religion. Although it’s hard for us to understand, Greek theology (I prefer that term to mythology) assumes that the gods exist for their own benefit and for the benefit of human beings, and that they often work at cross purposes from one another. It provides a means of understanding why bad things happen to good people, and the forces of evil are so often successful.
ZJ: Is what I implied in my previous question a matter of changing world-view (un-religious, a-religious, atheist, skeptical, scientific, or whatever else you want to call it or; ignorance, or a-historicity), which makes us create worlds of the past that do not correspond to historical reality and from which we can’t learn.
ML: We could learn from ancient Greek religion that there is only so much we can do to shape the courses of our own lives, much less the lives of our communities or nations.
ZJ: When did the awareness of the Ancient world start dying in the US, in the West? Complaints go back to the 19th century. I have in front of me two wonderful little books by Henry Nettleship, a great scholar of antiquity: The True Aim of Classical Education and The Moral Influence of Literature, and The Moral Influence of Literature:Classical Education in the Past and at Present. Two Popular Addresses. Both books aim at explaining the importance of the classics. The decline of interest can be traced, I think, to the late 1970s. The map of heavens is Greco-Roman, so were all space programs: Geminin Apollo, etc. Then, things changed. No Greeks, no Romans. Columbia, Challenger, etc. and the nail in the coffin was… Jessie Jackson in 1988: “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western culture’s got to go.” So, the Greeks, the Romans, the West are gone. You as a teacher of the Greeks in a prestigious college are well qualified to explain: Should we feel more sorry for the Greeks, or for ourselves?
ML: For ourselves, of course. Western Civilization has many shortcomings. Greek philosophy has not solved all the world’s problems, because it is essentially elitist and relies on the existence of a working underclass. But the critical thinking that it encourages offers the best means of finding equitable solutions for the disparities in our society.
ZJ: This leads me to the question that made you to be probably the most known classicist in America. The controversy in which you were involved. It concerned the book by Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Can you briefly say what the book claims before I ask you about your role in this controversy? You responded to Bernal’s book with your own book: Not Out of Africa: How “Afrocentrism” Became An Excuse To Teach Myth As History. Something must have deeply gotten to you that made you write an entire book to debunk a myth. Was it just scholarly integrity or something else? After all, not all scholars of Antiquity bothered to write a sentence. Why did you pick the fight? What do you think motivates people like Bernal to write such books?
ML: I believe that Bernal (an Englishman) resented the prestige associated with studying Greek and Latin in British public schools (=of course, elite British private schools) and may have had an unimaginative Classics teacher at his school, because he believed that learning conjugations and declensions numbed the minds of anyone who studied Classics. My experience with learning Latin was just the opposite: it helped me understand the structure of the English language and encouraged me to think about the etymology of words. Greek was even more exciting because it was even more foreign and harder to put into English. The first Greek text that I bought was the New Testament, which I was able to read on my own because the syntax was easier than that of earlier Greek prose writers. Reading the first sentences Gospel according to John in Greek helped me understand how much had been lost in translation.
ZJ: We’ve come to the point in our conversation when I have to ask you about PC in America, at American universities. It is a destructive force. No one, perhaps with the exception of Allan Bloom in the 1980s, understood how influential and destructive certain trends can be. Serious academic life is close to being gone, and it is not only because of myths about African origins of classical civilization, or relativism, that Bloom was concerned with. No one even uses this term today. Today we look at everything through the lenses of sexism, racism, misogyny, feminism, colonialism (the last term is a bit passé).
ML: Political correctness is an orthodoxy, like that of a monotheistic religion. (Ancient polytheism was much more open: new gods could be added ad lib.). Monotheists look down on polytheism as superstition. Any questioning of orthodoxy is heresy, punishable by exclusion, exile, etc.
ZJ: Do you think we can survive this level of intellectual barbarism which we see around? It is a total disregard for truth, scholarly procedures, life of the mind, and it is not an ordinary American on the street who is supportive of it, but the academics.
ML: We survived the orthodoxy that existed when I was a schoolgirl and an undergraduate (1940s and 1950s) and for a few decades afterward. White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism was the norm, so Catholics and Jews were treated with caution and some suspicion, African Americans were segregated even in the North; all of these were subject to quotas as students and faculty members at many schools and universities are in this country.
ZJ: I started my university education there, in Poland, not in Stalinist times, to be sure, but never experienced what my students are experiencing in America today. Some of them see that something is not right, but are too afraid to say anything. Only last week, a female student came up to me and said, “Dr. Janowski, do you realize you are the minority of one here; in other classes students who disagree with professors are berated; other students attacked me.” My student’s feelings are now common. Many of them are afraid. Do you see a way out of it?
ML: The way around it is to do what you are doing, to encourage students to think independently and to question orthodoxies.
ZJ: What role can and should Classical education play in rebuilding sanity? Is there a way of explaining the importance of classical education to the general public, to give support to what appears obvious to me and you.
ML: Learning about foreign and ancient cultures requires us to think, to use our imaginations, and to get out of ourselves into very different worlds. Ancient Greece and Rome are particularly worth studying because their writing and thinking and art have had such a profound influence on Western culture. But I am not suggesting that we should regard those cultures uncritically; quite the contrary. And we should acknowledge their debts to other ancient cultures, such as those of Egypt, India, and the different civilizations in Asia Minor.
ZJ: Let me finish this conversation with something I tell students. I make them take a map of British Empire—the massive Empire. I say, look at it and ask yourself how one little country could colonize such vast areas. They must have had skilled people to do it. What do you think they studied? There was no department of Administration, Foreign Affairs, Public Relations, etc. They, as the Brits say, “read” Classics and History. Both give you intellectual skills to understand many things that no specialized, narrow discipline will never give you. Even today, plenty of people in the City of London, graduate from Oxbridge and make big money without a degree in business. What do you think?
ML: I agree with you. Studying ancient Greek and Roman literature is a great way to prepare for any number of careers, first because the process makes you get away from yourself and the times you live in, and reimagine other, different societies and ways of thinking, and then because the subject matter allows you to understand something about the beginnings of European civilization, and its good and bad characteristics.
ZJ: Thank you, Professor Lefkovitz.
The image shows, “Ulysses and the Sirens,” by John William Waterhouse, painted in 1891.
“Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go …” (Jessi Jackson, Stanford University, January 15, 1987).
Defending Classical education, or the Classics, is not easy. Many attempts have been made, but they were rather unsuccessful. Even the best arguments of distinguished classicists and scholars of Antiquity sound like desperate plea for survival. One can also wonder why it is only the classicists who defend their discipline. One does not hear, for example, the Medieval or Renaissance scholars weeping over lack of interest in their periods, and low enrollment in their courses.
One explanation is that they know that as important as the knowledge of their historical period is, their epoch is a closed chapter, and the ideas those periods generated have little significance for our lives. This does not seem to be the case with the Classics, particularly the Greeks. Their world is, or that is what the Classicists believe, as important today as it was over two thousand years ago.
Before I explain why Classical education is important and why it died, or is dying, let me briefly recount a few historical facts. If one looks at the history of roughly six centuries in the West, the Classics had many moments of good fortune.
The first was the Renaissance, the epoch which resurrected Classical or Greco-Roman antiquity, and whose literal definition is “Rebirth.” It was a rebirth of the Greco-Roman world, the world whose institutional structures collapsed in 476 AD. However, the Renaissance was not only a rebirth. It was also the time in Western history when, after almost a thousand years, Europe achieved a comparable level of cultural development which we find in the late Roman Empire.
The 17th-century was by no means a continuation of the Renaissance. Despite the fact that 17th-century thinkers attacked the ancients, 17th century was a classical age par excellence. It was an “age of eloquence”; an age of French theatre, of Corneille and Racine, who applied strict classical rules in their plays and rhetoric. Were it not for the genius of Shakespeare, who broke those rules, the ancients would have been indisputable winners in this contest. Painters (Paul Rubens, Nicholas Poussin, Claude Lorraine, and many others) made Greece and Rome the subject of their many works.
The 18th-century was different, but equally lucky. Rome seized the imagination of the artists, major and minor. One can easily discern Classical motives in Baroque and Rococo ornaments. Giuseppe Vasi was obsessed with antiquity, just like his student, Giovani Baptista Piranesi. He was particularly taken by Rome; so were his successors Luigi Rossini and Gabriele Ricciardelli. Those who are lovers of Roman antiquity cannot free themselves from the memory of the dark ink dripping from Piranesi and Rossini’s engravings.
Late 18th-century “inventory” of antiquity, initiated by German historian and archeologist, Johann Joachim Winkelmann, was at the root of the West’s second love affair with the world of Greece and Rome. Prints with details and measurements of ancient temples and sculptures became a commonplace at the end of the 18th century. Their cheaper, less illustrious versions flooded the printing and book market in the first half of the 19th-century.
“Greeks are Us,” was the motto of all European Romantics, from Goethe to Byron, to Keats and Shelley, to Chateaubriand and Valéry, to Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki. Some of them could even compose their poems in Latin. In contrast to copper plates, which were used in the 17th- and 18th-centuries, the invention of steel-plates in the 19th century made it possible for thousands of ordinary readers of weekly magazines to familiarize themselves with the images of Greek and Roman architecture.
Albums with steel plates illustrations were printed in countless editions, and their prices were sufficiently low for anyone interested in antiquity to purchase them. The last act in the Greco-Roman tragedy of decline was the rise of the school of Neo-Classicism in painting and architecture. At the beginning of the 20th-century, the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans came to an end.
Paradoxically, this happened when Classical scholarship was at its peak, when complete critical editions of the ancient authors had been published. Individual editions were widely available, and Classical scholars could start working on their meticulous interpretations of each and every individual work that survived.
Proceeding roughly from the end of WWII, the number of hours devoted to studying Greek, Latin and the ancient authors would decline decade after decade. Today, learning Classics in most Western countries is not even required.
There are reasons why we find ourselves where we are and why the Classics have been demoted. The reading of Henry Nettleship’s “Classical Education in the Past and at Present” (1890) and John Stuart Mill’s “Inaugural Address to the University of Saint Andrew’s in Scotland” (1867), makes today’s reader aware that the mid-19th-century mind was already aware of the necessity of making room for science. The number of hours devoted to the study of different branches of science had to increase, but it was not the reason why the teaching of Greek and Latin started declining. The decline had roots in the rise of democratic mentality.
Modern times, modern liberties, Constant argued, are incompatible with the bellicose and aristocratic spirit of ancient republics; modern life is based on commercial transactions, the desire to cultivate the private realm, independent of the collective, characteristic of the ancient Greek polis. The famous painting by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon standing by a desk, under which there are two massive tomes of Plutarch’sLives, is an allusion to where the spirit of the Empire comes from: The Greeks and the Romans.
In 1864, the French scholar Fustel de Coulanges published an influential book, La cité antique (The Ancient City). In it, he argued, that the state and religion in ancient Greece dominated every aspect of individual existence. Ancient democracy meant collective sovereignty; not individual independence protected by individual rights. Imitation of ancient republics would mean, as it did during Napoleon’s reign, giving up individual freedoms for the sake of ancient virtues.
The insights we find in Constant and de Coulanges do not make a case against Classical education, but they do point to the differences between the Greek and Roman world and Modern commercial democracies. The message was rather clear: modern man’s commercial spirit, need for privacy, and independence are incompatible with the ancient way of life. If so, it appeared more and more clear, classical education was unnecessary, or even useless.
Modern life and modern democracy called for a new, practical, form of education. Education meant no longer education to virtue – this being different in men and women – but education to democratic citizenship. The works by Rousseau (Emileand La nouvelle Heloise), or Laclos (On the Education of Women) looked out-of-date in the new world, just like reading Homer and Plutarch. Enough to contrast 20th-century books for children with their 19th-century counterparts, which were still heavily influenced by the Classics and told children stories about virtuous Greeks and Romans, to see the difference. Contrasting them with today’s children’s books, one gets the full picture. The characters are ordinary “kids,” living ordinary life, having ordinary problems. Hardly if ever they are inspired by a sense of greatness or excellence that the classics taught.
John Stuart Mill who since childhood was steeped in Classical education was reconciled to the advent of democracy, but saw it as fundamentally lacking in excellence. In his analysis of the differences between the ancient and modern mind, he finds the modern mind to be superior only in one respect.
Modern poetry, Mill writes, “is superior to the ancient, in the same manner, though in a less degree, as modern science: It enters deeper into nature. The feelings of the modern mind are more various, more complex and manifold, than those of the ancients ever were. The modern mind is, what ancient mind was not, brooding and self-conscious; and its meditative self-consciousness has discovered depths in the human soul which the Greeks and Romans did not dream of, and would not have understood.”
This is certainly true, and in this regard, the Moderns, who invented the novel – a form of writing unknown to the ancients – could indeed claim superiority. However, Mill also notices that in the manner of expression, the ancients were superior.
Their superiority stemmed from the fact that they addressed their writings to a small leisure class: “To us who write in a hurry for people who read in a hurry, the attempt to give an equal degree of finish would be loss of time. But to be familiar with perfect model is not the less important to us because the element in which we work precludes even the effort to equal them. The shew us at least what excellence is, and makes us desire it, and strive to get as near to it as is within our reach.”
Mill was not isolated in his observation, and most likely borrowed it from the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who, during his visit to America, observed a degenerative tendency of literary style in democratic societies. The claim of the superiority of the ancients in the realm of style, eloquence and historical analysis, to which Mill refers, invoking Thucydides, Quintilian, Cicero, Demosthenes, could, it would seem, serve as a strong argument for the mandatory teaching of the Classics in a democratic society: If the modern democratic mind cannot achieve the same level of excellence on its own, then, it follows logically, it should and ought to learn from the voices of their ancient predecessors.
This is what the American writer Henry David Thoreau postulated in the chapter on “Reading” in his Walden (1854). “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave… Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind… No wonder that Alexander [the Great] carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics.”
Thoreau’s use of the word “aristocracy” reveals the essential point in the discussion over the problem of classical education in a democracy. When, in 1987, Allan Bloom, The University of Chicago professor and a lover of Plato, published The Closing of the American Mind, he was viciously attacked. His book sold over a million copies. Bloom, the critics claimed, was an “elitist,” which was another way of saying, Bloom supports hierarchy!
But Bloom’s “elitism” was of a strange kind. Bloom encouraged students to read the Classics to understand what virtuous life is. He understood that the Greek and Roman Classics contain a world’s greatest treasure which cannot be found anywhere else. Ancient Greece, and Rome which perpetuated and spread the Greek intellectual heritage, was not one of many civilizations. It was the civilization par excellence, a yardstick against which we measure every other civilization.
The college curriculum given predominance to the Classics, in the language of his critics, was “discriminating” and based on “exclusion” of other cultures. And they were right! What is an elite, if not an aristocracy, and a class? But this strange class was not, like in the past, a class with hereditary privileges, but a class of readers – readers of the Classics. Bloom’s American “aristocracy” was not an aristocracy of color, ethnicity, hereditary privilege. It consisted of several thousand diverse students each year who read Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Cicero and others.
Instead of imposing “the elitist” curriculum on all, turning the American youth into the “elite,” the partisans of change – with Rev. Jessi Jackson, a loud proponent of educational destruction — did the opposite: They decided to close students’ access to the Greek playwrights, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and others by doing away with Western Civilization courses.
Why did they do it? They did in the name of multiculturalism, which is nothing other than intellectual egalitarianism. It claims all cultures are equal and none should be privileged. Therefore, the authors from other cultures are as good as the Greeks and Romans. They perceived the existence of Great Books programs, as we call the Classics in America, to be a mechanism of perpetuating educational—and thus social and political—inequality. Paradoxically, in doing destroying the traditional curriculum, they did what the Founding Fathers feared.
Thomas Jefferson – the man whose obsession with equality and hatred of hereditary aristocracy finds no equal in modern times – thought of natural aristocracy as a pillar of the democratic system of government, one without which democracy is bound to degenerate.
In his letter to John Adams (October 28, 1813), he wrote “For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trust, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectual for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the office of government.”
A similar sentiment can be found in the English poet and a great literary critic Matthew Arnold: “We in England have had,” he writes in The Popular Education of France (1861; later published under the title, Democracy (1879): “in our great aristocratical and ecclesiastical institutions, a principle of cohesion and unity which the Americans had not; they gave the tone to the nation, and the nation took it from them… Our society is probably destined to become much more democratic: who will give tone to the nation then? That is the question. The greatest men of America, her Washingtons, Hamiltons, Madisons, well understanding that aristocratical institutions are not in all times and places possible; well perceiving that in their Republic there was no place for these; comprehending, therefore, that from these that security for national unity and greatness, an ideal was indispensable, would have been rejoiced to found a substitute for it in the dignity of and authority of the State.”
In contrast to Jefferson, who cherished the hope that we might find a mechanism to determine and select natural aristoi, Arnold understood that hierarchy is an indispensable component of every healthy society. Abolishing institutional hierarchy – written into the very fabric of society, either ecclesiastical or aristocratical – would mean to find an alternative mechanism that would make the wise govern. Reading Jefferson’s letter to Adams reveals that he had no clear idea how to solve the technical difficulty of finding democratic philosopher kings, without which – he, Hamilton, and Franklin thought — democracy could not last.
This asymmetry between democracy, understood as a universal right to vote, and the selection of the best (aristoi) from among the mass of enfranchised masses, has been resolved by neither Jefferson nor Mil. Retrospectively speaking, Arnold turned out to be more perceptive than Mill and Jefferson. He understood that aristocracy is not just a class of privileged people, but an idea, an idea inducing a sense of higher aspiration in ordinary people to ascend “higher” than where they actually are.
Such aspiration can be propelled only by the sense of greatness which the Classics teach us. When this sense of spiritual aspiration is no longer part of social and individual existence, a society is bound to lose the sense of cohesion and aspiration, and will slide into a moral abyss and lawlessness. And when it does, we will be forced to vest in the state power it should never have.
When undereducated, ignorant and vulgar citizenry lays claim to politics, one should not expect politicians to be anything other than demagogues. The annals of Greek political history are full of examples of demagogues, like the despicable Cleon. His power and influence were due, as we learn from Thucydides, to his understanding how weak depraved masses are and how to manipulate them. Anyone who happens to wonder why modern democracies display cultural malaise and galloping vulgarity in public and political realm should realize that there is a natural connection between virtue of citizens and the quality of public and political life.
In his quest for natural aristocracy in democracy, Thomas Jefferson reminds us of the Athenian philosopher Diogenes with a lantern in day-light. The latter was looking for an honest man; the former was looking for nobility in democracy. Their respective quests seem futile. After over two hundred years of modern democracy, one can say with certainty that we are unlikely to find nobility in democracy.
The only way to ennoble democracy is to teach young people the Classics. As Henry Nettleship wrote in hisClassical Education in the Past and at Present (1890): “It must be remembered that the classics have still more than a merely literary function to perform. Greece was the mother not only of poetry and oratory, but—at least for the European world—of philosophy. And by philosophy I do not mean merely a succession of metaphysical and ethical systems, but the active love of knowledge, the search for truth. Will it be said that this spirit is not now as necessary as element in civilized human life as it ever was? In the long run it would almost appear as if it were mainly this which saves society from degeneracy and decay. The charitable instincts die out in an atmosphere of ignorance, for ignorance is the mother of terror and hatred…This is an inheritance as precious as Greek art and literary form; nay, if the continuous life of the nations be regarded, an inheritance even more precious.”
As a society, we have a choice between voluntary obedience to moral precepts we find in the Classical texts, or being forced to follow rules and regulations imposed on us by the State. Classics are not just about reading outdated works written by Dead White European Males. They also teach us virtuous behavior.
According to recent economic data, the gap between the rich and the low-income people is bigger than ever before, and the level of inequality between Blacks and Whites is highest since 1989: “Whites have $13 for $1 held by African Americans” (The Washington Post on Dec. 3rd, 2014). The tone of the pronouncements is alarming, and, the claim goes, unless something is done, the wealth divide may become the cause of social unrest.
What goes unnoticed in the context of endless discussions concerning the growing income inequality is the galloping educational inequality where the blame cannot be assigned to the rich for the educational ills of the poor. In the economic realm one can tax the rich to transfer wealth to the poor, but one cannot transfer knowledge, that is, linguistic comprehension and social and scientific competence, of those who are highly literate to improve the comprehension of low-income children.
The last two hundred “democratic” years, which witnessed the spread of public libraries and learning institutions created for the use of ordinary citizens, abounds in examples of children from poor and modest backgrounds getting to the top of Western societies.
Twentieth-century — both in the democratic West and in the former Communist countries — demonstrates that one can elevate the uneducated masses to a historically unprecedented level of literacy and scientific competence. The key to success was teaching proper language – the language of educated classes (or elites – the word purged from American English) so that the masses of ordinary people could participate in High Culture and civic and scientific life of the country.
What we observe in Twenty-First-century America is an educational U-turn. We graduate masses of elementary, high-school and college students who are below the level of reading daily newspapers. Their comprehension is getting worse and worse each year, and the average present-day public-school student does not have enough vocabulary to read the same books that his counterpart did a decade let alone two decades ago.
We produce citizens who have no linguistic and thus conceptual skills to grasp the complex political, social, and economic problems that every nation faces in its history. The question is why? And if you think it is lack of resources or bad teachers, you are likely to be wrong.
Despite the recurrent media “witch-hunt” after bad teachers, teachers bear much less responsibility than one would like to assign to them. They are victims of cultural and institutional politics that pushed out the traditional methods of teaching and learning and replaced them by pedagogy, children’s psychology and, in the last decade, electronic insanity which makes children scroll through a text rather than read.
The last thing one sees is young people reading and what they read, if they read books at all, are books that bear semblance to literature, but they are not. They lack literary imagination characteristic of the Classics, the characters are psychologically flat, rarely animated by any virtues, and speak the language of the people from the street. Instead of making our children’s English better, more elegant, we perpetuate bad habits and cater to their existing vocabulary level, leaving them behind their richer counterparts.
If one wonders why foreign students, Asian, and many from former British colonies in Africa, are so successful in America, the answer is: they came from societies where educational habits did not change much for decades. Their parents brought with them traditional study skills and discipline – the two things which are absent here. Memorization and endless drills “till you get it right” are essential tools for getting high grades.
To some extent the same attitude still prevails in good private and most Catholic schools in the U.S. There vocabulary is still taught from serious vocabulary books in the old-fashioned way by memorization, drills, endless and relentless repetition and exercises. In some of those schools, students take Latin, French, sometimes German, which for an English speaker is the only way to learn grammar (since grammar is never taught).
As a nation, we need to realize that the wealth divide between “haves” and “have-nots” corresponds to “comprehends” and “comprehend-nots.” One cannot teach, for example, eighth grade science or history to students who operate on the fifth or sixth grade vocabulary level. If one’s comprehension is not up to the level of being accepted by a good college, one’s chances for social and financial advancement disappears from before one’s child’s eyes.
The educational abyss overlaps to a large extent with the financial abyss making America look like a “tale of two cities”: fewer and fewer well-educated rich and growing masses of semi-literate and helpless low-income people.
Unlike the acquisition of wealth which requires personal and rare qualities (industriousness, self-determination, etc.), all it takes to know one’s language well is reading good literature. Reading is what disappeared from American households and schools.
Few children from the poor backgrounds have heard of Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, Homer, Aesop, let alone Plutarch’s lives of great Greeks and Romans — the authors who formed the imagination and language of generations of readers in the Western world. Using a dictionary and reading Classics appears to belong to the remote past and is restricted to a relatively small group of richer children which makes them look like educational aristocracy.
Why do our youngsters not read the Classics? There are two answers to this question: Parents and younger teachers themselves did not read them, and the teachers succumbed to the ridiculous idea propagated by so-called “experts” in pedagogy that children understand literature best when they “can relate to” characters whose problems and language are theirs.
If so, how on earth can one explain how millions of girls of several generations ago could relate to Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Princess and the Pea” without sleeping on a pile of pillows, or Snow White? The answer is, we relate through imagination which is a vehicle to a more beautiful world and a way of getting out from the ugliness of our own environment and poverty.
No literary character is real. Literary characters are merely plausible, and literature is a promise that we can imagine being elsewhere in life. To illustrate my point, let me invoke an example of a poor Hispanic Brooklyn girl who became America’s Supreme Court Justice – Sonya Sotomayor. This is what she said in the January 13, 2014, NPR Fresh Air interview:
“One day talking to my first-year roommate … I was telling her about how out of place I felt at Princeton, how I didn’t connect with many of the experiences that some of my classmates were describing, and she said to me, “You’re like Alice in Wonderland.”
I said, “Who is Alice?”
And she said, “You don’t know about Alice?” I said, “No, I don’t.”
And she said, “It’s one of the greatest book classics in English literature. You should read it.”
“I recognized at that moment that there were likely to be many other children’s classics that I had not read. … Before I went home that summer, I asked her to give me a list of some of the books she thought were children’s classics and she gave me a long list and I spent the summer reading them. That was perhaps the starkest moment of my understanding that there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn’t know anything about.”
Justice Sotomayor’s words should be a cautionary tale for all present-day educators who by experimenting with new methods are in fact closing the door to the future before our children’s eyes.
How did we reach such low level of literacy? There are several reasons, of which the first one is the idea of multiculturalism propagated in the 1980s and 90s. According to it, a multicultural society should, or even must, represent minorities in educational curriculum.
This argument is similar in nature to the one I presented above: it is based on the false intellectual and moral premise that the work of art does not have an intrinsic value; its value lies in the fact that it was created by a member of a given minority, and the minority reader (or viewer of a painting or sculpture) is more likely to appreciate it if he is of the same sex, race, ethnicity.
But to make such a claim is tantamount to saying that there are no objective criteria of judgement. The criteria are subjective and determined by race or sex or ethnicity.
Secondly, multiculturalism is inimical to the idea of a nation. Americans may not be a nation in the same sense in which other nations are, and whose literature captures peculiar moments of a historical development, mentality and the features of its people.
It is unimaginable to be a German without knowing Goethe, Schiller, or Heine; French without knowing Racine, Corneille, or Moliere, Pascal and Descartes; Russian without knowing Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov, or Gogol and Pasternak. They are not just great writers; they are national monuments, of which Germans, French, and Russians are proud.
To be sure, America does not have national literature in the same sense. Knowing Thoreau or Emerson, Steinbeck or Faulkner, or C.S. Lewis does not make an American American. What does is the tacit intellectual commitment – inculcated in the educational process — to principles on which this country was founded, and which for a century or so was transmitted through what Americans used to call “Great Books.”
There are no American writers in it. What the American “Library of Alexandria” contains are the greatest treasures of European intellectual tradition which goes back to the Greeks, Romans, great Christian writers, such as, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Calvin, Luther, and others. But first of all, much of what one finds in this library is British or English, including the greatest works in the English language: the language of America and the language of its legal and political tradition.
As things stand, America appears to be in the final stage of repudiating its threefold past: British, Protestant and Western. Multiculturalism is not merely a failed promise of a providing a better education; it is a moral and intellectual disease, and that is how we should treat it. We need to repudiate it loudly by returning to our old “Library of Alexandria.”
Pouring more money into education will not solve the problem and will more likely make things worse. The money will be spent on organizing conferences on new methods of teaching, relating to students, buying new computers – all that is taking students away from reading. It is time to recognize the simple truth that there are no new methods in education but one: old-fashioned painstaking acquisition of vocabulary, learning grammar and reading good books.
It may not always be true that every rich person is educated but the majority of children from richer families or families where reading is a daily bread are the same who will graduate from top universities. They will acquire wealth while the semi-literate will remain financially poor because they will not be able to master subjects necessary to get jobs to get out of poverty and advance their social status.
There is also a place for the billionaires and richer members of our society to help the poor, not by squandering money on educational foundations, but by directly engaging in doing something: sponsoring children Classics book-clubs, giving incentives to children who read a lot, organizing serious foreign language classes where they could learn language and grammar.
Perhaps McDonalds and other food chains, which live off the low-income people, could promote Classics by putting books, like Starbucks does selling CDs with music, at the counter offering “voracious readers” awards, or giving a free meal to children who read X number of books. Education does not have to cost a lot, provided one knows what it is, but social costs of having millions of poorly educated citizens can and we should do something about it.
If we are serious about improving education, we need to go back to basics: a pencil, a sheet of paper, a dictionary, basic Latin and Greek, and classic literature with a teacher who should not be bothered by a continuous nonsense of improving methods of teaching. No method is a substitute for literary competence and imagination.