In his book, Sur l’Islam [On Islam], Rémi Brague gently mocks Pope Francis’ 2013 statement that “true Islam and a proper interpretation of the Koran are opposed to all violence.” “True Islam?” In this fascinating book tinged with caustic humor, striking by its erudition and its clarity, Rémi Brague puts things in their right place: by seeking to apprehend Islam under its different facets, without any positive or negative a priori, he shows that there is no “true Islam” and that it cannot exist because it does not recognize an authoritative magisterium, as it is the case in the Catholic Church. The Islamic terrorist who kills “unbelievers” can claim to be a “true Islam” just as much as the Sufi who is immersed in his meditations.
In order to understand what Islam is, therefore, what the Islamic vision of God and the world is, Brague explores its “fundamentals,” and in particular the Koran, which, since the Mu’tazilite crisis of the ninth century, has been fixed as the uncreated word of God dictated to Muhammad. This essential aspect explains an important part of the Muslim reality. The Koran contains a number of legal provisions, often extremely precise and dealing with daily life in some of its smallest details, making Islam more than a simple religion, “a legislation,” writes Brague—a “religion of the Law.” “In this way,” he continues, “when Islam, as a religion, enters Europe, it does not do so only as a religion…. It enters as a civilization that forms an organic whole and proposes well-defined rules of life.”
In Islam, reason can in no way be the source of the obligation of law, the law comes directly from God, via the Koran itself, the uncreated word of God. And when contradictions arise, they are resolved by the theory of “abrogation” which gives primacy to the most recent Koranic verse, which is always more severe than the previous one—thereby relativizing the more tolerant passages towards Jews and Christians that are usually put forward.
Thus, since there is only God’s law, the concept of natural law is meaningless and there can be, in theory, no common rules for Muslims and “unbelievers.” The consequences of this approach to law, a discipline that dominates all others in Islam, are important, notably through its repercussions on morality and the relativization of principles that we consider universal: what God wants is good; therefore what the Koran requires can only be good, including what Muhammad did, who is the “beautiful example” that God recommends to follow (Koran XXXIII, 21). Thus, murdering, torturing, conquering by the sword, lying (taqiyya), multiplying wives (including very young ones, since Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha when she was only 9 years old)—none of these actions are bad since they were done by the “Prophet”. Of course, no Muslim is obliged to do the same, but at least he can do so without betraying his religion.
Islam and Europe
Another theme on which Brague sets the record straight: the contribution of Islamic civilization (in which Christians, Jews, Sabians and Zoroastrians played a significant role) to Europe in the Middle Ages. Admittedly, the Arab sciences, at that time, were more developed in the Islamic than Christian sphere, but, tempers Brague, “Islam as a religion did not bring much to Europe, and only did so late,” while Western Christianity never completely ceased intellectual exchange with Byzantium, which enabled contact with Greek culture to be maintained, and which Islam in no way sought to assimilate.
For about five centuries, Islam, as it were, interrupted its cultural development and gradually allowed itself to be overtaken and dominated by Europe, causing intense humiliation among many Muslims—this is what Brague calls the “ankylosis” of Islam. Today, if it were not for the manna of oil, the Muslim countries, scientifically and militarily weak, would have no bearing at the international level. Their asset is nevertheless their strong demography, coupled with massive immigration to Europe, which has allowed the installation of vast Muslim communities, financed by the money of black gold. This is another, more patient but undoubtedly more effective way to win and thus take revenge on the past. When will we realize it?
Christophe Geffroy publishes the journal La Nef, through whose kind courtesy we are publishing this article.
In his most recent book, Common Good Constitutionalism, Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule presents two big ideas. The first idea is a very good one. Unfortunately, this good idea depends entirely upon the success of idea number two. Idea number two is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard. Taken together, the good idea crashes and burns because of the bad idea.
Professor Vermeule calls his two-idea combo “common good constitutionalism.” But common good constitutionalism, as Professor Vermeule explicates it, will bring about uncommonly bad constitutionalism. And a lot worse besides. Although of course Vermeule doesn’t say so, and surely would be repulsed by the idea, what he is asking for is the Führerprinzip, a leader strong enough to steamroll all opposition. Vermeule doesn’t like liberalism. Fair enough. But he would have the state overcome liberalism’s various contradictions. This is not constitutionalism, but its opposite.
First, however, Vermeule’s good idea. That idea is the title of the book. Professor Vermeule argues that the United States should return to the pursuit of the common good in the life of the law, and that this pursuit will help us all leave behind the fruitless debate between progressivists and originalists over the interpretation of the United States Constitution. (Vermeule was once a clerk for the original originalist, the late Antonin Scalia (1936-2016).) The classical legal tradition in the West, the ius commune, Vermeule writes—“the classical European synthesis of Roman law, canon law, and local civil law”—can help Americans recover the distinction between lex and ius. This distinction, and the moral jurisprudence that can flow from properly making it, can be, Vermeule hopes, common good constitutionalism. In other words, let’s stop fighting over what the laws do and don’t really say, and let’s start pursuing justice for all, a better America freed from the stale constitutional battles of the previous century. This is, indeed, a good idea.
Lex and ius may not be familiar terms, however, so let us clarify. Lex is not the villain from Superman, but, Vermeule writes, “enacted positive law,” that is, the law on the books, the law which legislators and (to foreshadow the bad idea) administrators promulgate and which judges interpret and executives enforce. Ius is “the overall body of law generally, including and subsuming lex but transcending it, and containing general principles of jurisprudence and legal justice.” If you use ius to guide lex, and if ius is morally sound, then, Vermeule is saying, you may get something much better than the originalist-progressivist muddle we have now. You may get a legal dynamic that effects real social good in the land.
The recovery of ius, Vermeule argues, will entail a return, in part, to the natural law. Vermeule also wants to “draw… upon the classical [law] tradition,” as well as, “in limited ways… the parts of [Ronald] Dworkin’s [(1931—2013)] jurisprudence that are consistent with the classical view of law and that explain and illuminate the latter’s commitments.” Why Dworkin? Vermeule wants to use him “in the negative, invoking him as the unsurpassed modern critic of positivism and originalism in Anglophone legal theory.” In many ways, Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism is a creative extension of Dworkin’s “law as integrity” insights. Vermeule takes Dworkin’s arguments about the centrality of legal principles and buttresses those arguments with a deep history of law in the West as moral touchstone.
So far so good. I agree completely with Vermeule that the rediscovery of the natural law, of ius both more generally and more narrowly, will pave a royal road between originalism and progressivism, that is, between obsessing over the lex of the United States Constitution from, respectively, the political right and left. It would be a fine thing were the United States to return—and Vermeule says it is not really so long, approximately the middle of the twentieth century, since we left it—to the sincere pursuit of the common good.
But there’s a catch. Vermeule thinks the way to do this is by reclaiming the “ragion di stato” tradition in early modern Europe, which articulates the central goods at which constitutionalism should aim.” “Ragion di stato” is a Continental idea from the 1500s and after which calls for a strong monarch (Vermeule translates this into a strong chief executive/administrative state for the American milieu) to act decisively for moral ends. I understand Vermeule to be explicating ragion di stato as the police power with a social justice teleology. Uh oh. It is on this very point, right at the pivot of the argument, that Vermeule’s good idea swings around and smashes headlong into his bad one. At the moment of Vermeule’s triumph, on my reading, he fails.
Let us look closer to see what’s gone wrong. What are the “central goods” of the ragion di stato tradition? Classically, Vermeule writes, they are three: “peace, justice, and abundance.” (Emphases here and elsewhere in the original.) Very nice. Let us certainly have as much of all three as we can get.
But wait. Vermeule does something remarkable—one is almost tempted to say foolhardy—to the three central goods of yesteryear. After listing peace, justice, and abundance, Vermeule adds: “which I extrapolate to modern conditions to include various forms of health, safety, and economic security. I also elicit from the tradition the key principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.”
I thought I was reading a book about the recovery of ius, of the natural law, of a regard for the common good. But Vermeule, in seeming to argue for a return to the classical legal tradition, in fact dismantles that tradition, putting in its place a triad of justifications for the modern administrative state. “Health, safety, and economic security”: in one sentence, perhaps the most important one in his book, Vermeule leaps from the classical legal tradition to the New Deal. The rest of Common Good Constitutionalism is an attempt to make that leap seem like a smooth transition, and to justify the enormous federal apparatus necessary to effect a permanent social transformation.
This is where the second idea, the bad one, comes in. It’s like a Mack truck plowing at breakneck speed into a tulip garden. All the good stuff scatters and all that’s left is pure aggression, with no concern for the consequences. Vermeule wants peace, justice, and abundance, as do I. But he wants the administrative state to ram those through, and to top it all off with health (shall I read here “forced vaccinations at the pleasure of a health bureaucracy in the pockets of Big Pharma”?), safety (“so long, Second Amendment, and First”?), and economic security (“central planning”?). Elsewhere in Common Good Constitutionalism, Vermeule adds other items to his revision of the ragion di stato. For example, we later get “health, safety, and a right relationship to the natural environment.” The Incorruptibles at the EPA, too, apparently, are to lord it over us. This is all very, very concerning. Common decency would suggest that Vermeule’s vision of common good constitutionalism be shunned.
A clear-eyed understanding of the nature of the state might have led Vermeule to suggest that the good things in human life come in direct and inverse proportion to the size of the government. What Vermeule presents instead is what others have termed, rightly I think, Vermeule’s “baptism of the state” and “Deep State constitutionalism.” Vermeule counters that “abusus non tollit usum.” Yes, but “abusus” here implies a Dworkinian discernment, does it not? Grace completes nature, but how much grace does it take before any state will act humanely? This is to say that there are limits to how much a thing may be said to have been merely misused before one is forced to admit that the thing itself is harmful.
Ignoring his own calls for ius to trump lex, Vermeule twists the arm of sound logic to make it seem to support statism. Vermeule writes:
In a globalized world that relates to the natural and biological environment in a deeply disordered way, a just state is a state that has ample authority to protect the vulnerable from the ravages of pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change, and from the underlying structures of corporate power that contribute to these events.
Vermeule then rejects the notion that the “main aim of common good constitutionalism” is “the liberal goal of maximizing individual autonomy or minimizing the abuse of power.” Instead, the main aim of common good constitutionalism “is to ensure that the ruler has the authority and the duty to rule well.” Abusus non tollit usum be damned.
Once this logic is in place, and digested, readers should not be surprised to find Vermeule patiently building up to an homage to “a central statute, indeed a super-statute, that bears out Dworkin’s view [on ‘the growing importance of “general statements of principle”’] by embodying general statements of high principle: the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).” The APA was passed in 1946 to accommodate the federal bloat which Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s statism had brought about. It is not even the elected statists who are to rule over us, Vermeule posits, but the unelected legion who answer to no one but themselves. If this is common good constitutionalism, I want no part of it at all, and I pray that no mortal ever suffer what Vermeule would unleash.
Now for something completely different. I should clarify here that, while I am adamantly against what Vermeule is expounding in Common Good Constitutionalism, I nevertheless highly recommend his book. Vermeule writes beautifully, and he knows much. The history of the APA, the legal wrangling among those who fought against the ballooning of the administrative and those who fought for it (including, as Vermeule mentions, former Harvard jurist Roscoe Pound (1870-1964), who variously found himself on both sides), which Vermeule lays out is fascinating. It is well worth the price of Common Good Constitutionalism to witness a Harvard Law professor sort through the threads of intellectual influence which now make up the huge and sprawling patchwork of administrative law. As legal history, Common Good Constitutionalism is grand.
However, I am afraid I cannot join Vermeule in his view that the bureaucratic maneuvering and fiat rule-making—this is my caricature, of course, and not Vermeule’s—in which the administrative state has indulged these past hundred and more years have been done in the spirit of “a jurisprudence of principles.” Nor can I follow Vermeule even further afield when he says that “such principles are ius, in all but name.”
On Vermeule’s own terms the administrative state seems not to clear the bar which Vermeule sets for it. Recall that Vermeule threw subsidiarity and solidarity into his de novo interpretation of the ragion di stato. Solidarity and ragion di stato would appear to be prima facie contradictory, so I leave the solidarity business at that. A good definition for subsidiarity, in the Catholic context from which it emerged as a social principle, comes from The Acton Institute’s David A. Bosnich, who writes:
One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.
For good measure, Bosnich adds:
This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
This would all seem to be bad news for Vermeule’s vision for common good constitutionalism. Here we have a pope from Vermeule’s lifetime, in an encyclical no less, dropping the hammer on statism. How does Vermeule deal with this contradiction? How does he justify a strong administrative state, on subsidiarity grounds, when subsidiarity would seem to necessitate a devolution of power away from the center and toward the lowest rungs on the social ladder?
Vermeule is not at all insensitive to the difficulty. He gets around it by inverting the definition of subsidiarity. “The core original meaning of subsidium is the military reserve that stands ready to enter battle if the front line faces a crisis,” Vermeule writes, citing a Latin dictionary from 1879. Very well, but the above definition of subsidiarity above comes from 2010, and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical is of course from 1991. Furthermore, “centisimus annus” refers to the hundredth anniversary of John Paul’s inspiration for the document, Pope Leo XIII’s (1810-1903) Rerum Novarum. To be fair, Rerum Novarum does not contain the word “subsidiarity” (although it does crack down hard on socialism, another stumbling block for Vermeule). The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which as the title suggests was issued in 1931 on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, does have a nice discussion of subsidiarity, however. Vermeule is aware of all of this of course, and cites research highlighting “the neglected positive aspect of subsidiarity” in the Catholic tradition. I would counter that a plain reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on subsidiarity (which draws on some of the documents mentioned above) frustrates virtually all of what Vermeule calls for in Common Good Constitutionalism.
Rebuffed by Rome (with the notable exception of Vermeule’s favorite encyclical, the 2015 ecostatist Laudato Si’), Vermeule seeks refuge with Catholic jurist Carl Schmitt’s (1888-1985) ‘state of exception’ idea to buttress his argument that the subsidium, the reserve power of the administrative state, should intervene whenever lower-down orders of hierarchy come up against limits to their power. It would be unfair to bring up the Führerprinzip right after mentioning Schmitt and Vermeule in the same sentence, so I will leave that be. Note, however, that Vermeule (like your humble correspondent) is also a Catholic, a fairly recent convert. On this note, it is worth mentioning that Vermeule’s book inadvertently calls into question something which passes for almost a natural truth in Catholic political philosophy, and one which Vermeule appears to endorse in Common Good Constitutionalism (see Vermeule’s discussion of epikeia, e.g.), namely that the state is an organic outgrowth of the family and the polis. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274) argued this, we are told, as did his philosophical model, Aristotle (384—322 BC). Only, St. Thomas didn’t do so blindly. Aristotle, for his part, never met Jeremy Bentham. And Catholics ought to remember their St. Augustine (354-430), whose understanding of government was basically Rothbardian.
Vermeule nevertheless rejects what he calls “the libertarian sense of ‘subsidiarity’” (he might just as easily have called it “Augustinian”), connoting
a negative limitation, according to which the public authority should not intervene if a given function is more appropriately carried out at a lower level. This view is not invalid; it is a corollary of the positive sense, a statement of the limitations inherent in the positive grant of power for certain purposes and under certain conditions.
“But the corollary should not be mistaken for the main theorem,” Vermeule closes, accusing libertarians of doing precisely what he has just done.
Even more worrisome is that there are echoes of Plato’s Republic in Vermeule’s upending of subsidiarity and glorification of the state. Plato’s ghost clings closest when Vermeule waves aside scruples about philosopher kings by appealing to the degrees on the wall of the person arguing in favor of them (or as one). For example, Vermeule quotes Catholic social philosopher and theologian Johannes Messner (1891—1984), who opined that:
Where the will to moral responsibility in a society shrinks, the range of validity of the subsidiarity principle contracts and the common good function [of the state] expands to the extent that the moral will to responsibility in society fails. In such cases, even dictatorship may be compatible with the principle of subsidiarity.
“This sounds alarming, of course” Vermeule allows, in a way that, for me at least, serves only to compound my alarm,
but we should understand that Messner with his massive classical erudition is certainly best understood as speaking not at all of the modern strongman or junta, but rather within the tradition of the carefully cabined Roman model of dictatorship—a fundamentally legal and constitutional authority, limited by term, granted for a certain purpose, and authorized by the Senate.
I certainly do not have Johannes Messner’s, or Adrian Vermeule’s, massive classical erudition. But I remember, hazily, somewhere between learning that Hannibal crossed the Alps and that Gaul is divided into three parts, that the Roman Senate was a one-stop-shop for bribery, warmongering, intrigue, and assassination. It was also more often than not cowed into silence, even fake adulation, by abuses of imperial power which shock the modern conscience even across a score of centuries. I hope I will be forgiven a rube’s clarification, but, that Senate?
I will also mention, for what it’s worth, that Anthony Fauci was also presented, by our own spotless political assembly, as having a massive erudition. Not in the classics (although Fauci’s education was Jesuitical), but in the language of the administrative state. Adrian Vermeule wants that administrative state to force you to take the coronavirus “vaccine,” the one which the massively erudite Anthony Fauci pushed (at great personal financial gain) upon a populace which had long been waiting in Lochnerian darkness for just such an administrator as he to save them. To be fair, however, and at the risk of getting sucked into another subsidiarity-like whirlpool of definitions, I am not sure whether Professor Vermeule still holds these views now that the data would seem to confirm, in spades, the skepticism on the part of the hoi polloi about those fabulous serums. Or maybe ragion di stato means never having to say you’re sorry.
At any rate, Vermeule, along with his colleague (and Obama-and-Biden-era Richelieu) Cass Sunstein, has a good answer to this kind of nay-saying. He would categorize such talk as above as “conspiracy theorizing” and have the federal government put the kibosh on it.
Finally, there is abortion, an area where Vermeule and I largely agree. I am very much with him in celebrating the 2022 Dobbs decision ending the federal government’s involvement in nearly fifty years of inhumanity. But that’s just where Vermeule and I disagree, too, and doubly so. First, the administrative state has been a champion this past half century of the practice which it now, second, remands to the oversight of the several states. Dobbs did not end abortion in America. It simply shifted the onus for it from one capital to fifty-odd. The common good appears to have been lost somewhere among the bureaucratic hedgerows. I don’t know how to square with “common good constitutionalism” Roe, Dobbs, and administrative state superstar Kathleen Sebelius. Perhaps Vermeule can enlighten me.
These are details, however. As for the overall thrust of Vermeule’s argument, which in nuce is that the administrative state can and should wring ius from lex and return us all to the straight and narrow of the natural law, I would like to refer readers to Ludwig von Mises Institute powerhouse David Gordon’s review of an earlier Vermeule book, one with a very similar theme. Speaking of The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic, which Vermeule co-authored with Eric A. Posner, Gordon writes:
“The authors’ defense of the Führerprinzip is repellent; but the book has at least the value of showing how the world looks to a cast of mind enamored with power.”
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured: Zwervers in de duinen (Vagrants in the Dunes), by Jan Toorop; painted in 1891.
The Crusades have long been a contentious topic, and over the years scholarship has largely fallen into two camps: those that view this enterprise as European aggression (Ur-colonialism) and those that view it as a response to relentless Muslim aggression. The former view tends to predominate, especially in popular culture, where films, television shows and novels favor the trendy explanation of the Levant falling victim to “European violence.” Given the wide reach of media, such simplistic views have become “settled history.” Various efforts are made to counter this ideological reading of the Crusades (and the Middle Ages in general), but with little effect. The mainstream narrative yet holds sway, and in the popular mind the Crusades are evidence of innate European belligerence unleashed upon the world. One of the major problems with this narrative approach is Presentism, which then poses the “East” and the “West” as two irreconcilable monoliths that can only but continually clash. Saner scholarship recognizes the silliness of such an approach and has slowly been trying to make a difference by showing that the medieval world was neither ignorant nor parochial, and in which violence was more controlled than in our own day. The most recent example of such scholarship is Helena P. Schrader’s latest book, The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilization, 1100-1300.
This eloquent book is a comprehensive narrative history of a unique Christian civilization in Palestine—the Crusader States. It is also a noble and honest effort to “set the record straight,” by presenting the entirety of the crusading effort as one of interaction, in which the East and the West met and fashioned a unique civilization. In the words of Schrader:
“While historians of past centuries portrayed the Latin Christians living in these states as a tiny, urban elite afraid to venture into the countryside out of fear of their subjects, there is a growing consensus among the scholars of the twenty-first century that the majority of the population was Christian, not Muslim, and that the degree of intermingling and tolerance between Latin and Orthodox Christians was much higher than had been assumed” (xxxiv).
Towards this end, the book seeks to be as meticulous and well-researched as possible, in which it aptly succeeds. It begins with a 24-page chronology that details the history of the Levant within the context of Christianity (which brought Catholics, commonly known as the “Franks” or “Latins,” into the region, who then established various principalities, or “Crusader States,” which were politically linked with each other and with Europe) and Islam (which eventually gave the Turks enduring dominance in the Holy Land).
The book is divided into two parts, wherewith the analysis moves from the larger to the particular. Thus, Part I, “A Short History of the Crusader States,” describes the process through which the Franks came to the Levant and set up religious, political, cultural and military structures which would ensure that the Holy Land would remain territory essential and important to the Christian faith. This meant the establishment of permanent settlements, or what later became known as the “Crusader States,” or “Outremer” (“Overseas”), as the people of that time called this settlement. Schrader carefully traces the course that needed to be followed to ensure success in this undertaking, and as such follows the rise and fall of the Crusader States, from 1099 (when Jerusalem came under Frankish rule) to 1291 when Acre fell and Frankish influence contracted and eventually disappeared from the region.
The importance of Part I is that it gives the reader a thorough understanding of the complexity of the Crusades in their entirety, while never neglecting the dynamics at play in the Muslim world, where Mongol, Turk and Egyptian rivalries held sway. It is truly commendable that Schrader offers an all-inclusive review of the forces in contention in the Levant over a two-hundred-year period. What emerges is the real picture of the Crusades—that they were a massive investment of effort, talent, money and most of all of faith which allowed for a unique civilization to emerge and flourish, becoming an envy of the world in so many ways.
It is the quality and quantity of this “Crusader” or “Frankish” civilization that Schrader turns to in Part II of her book, which is sub-titled, “A Description of the Crusader States.” Here, Schrader really comes into her own as she takes the reader on a captivating “journey” into the world of Outremer. Each chapter presents facts and analysis, so that a lot of the popular myths about the Crusades are laid to rest. For example, we learn that the population of the Levant was predominantly Christian and not Muslim, as widely and mistakenly assumed. Indeed, the Christian population of what is now known as the Middle East and even Central Asia was heavily Christian. It was only in the fourteenth century that the Christians of the East were methodically annihilated, and the area became what it is today—the final chapter of this annihilation was the Armenian Genocide (which occurred in two parts: 1890-1909 and 1915-1917). Of course, this topic lies outside the scope of Schrader’s book.
Next, Schrader examines the complex polity that emerged in Outremer, the concept of the “nation-state,” which of course had a direct influence on the life of the West in the centuries ahead, down to our own time, where the nation-state is the prime form of civilization. In other words, Outremer was a two-hundred-year long success story—it was hardly colonial “occupation.” The reason for this success, as Schrader shows, is the stability of the institutions that were rather quickly established, such as the very effective judiciary, in which the Muslim peasantry prospered (unlike Muslim peasantry in Islamic-run jurisdictions), as well as the establishment of churches and monasteries which allowed culture, learning and the Christian faith to flourish, especially the ease of pilgrimage (which led to the rise of Holy Land “tourism,” and all of the support industries that tourists need).
Diplomacy was another key component of the success of Outremer, whereby a balance of power was effectively achieved and maintained between the various rivals, namely, Mamluk Egypt, the debilitated Byzantine rule, the many fiefdoms of the Turks, and the Mongol Empire. It was the Crusader States who “micro-managed” this balancing act, so that trade between the East and the West flourished, despite the ambitions of particular rulers: “The willingness… to treat with the religious and strategic enemy on a short-term tactical basis meant that de facto peace reigned in the crusader states far more frequently than war” (193) , because “the Franks maintained sophisticated and largely effective diplomatic relations with all the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean” (196).
As Schrader also points out, the Levant was a backwater before the Crusaders came—but because the land was holy to Christianity, it saw a massive input that transformed the region into a going concern: “Investment into infrastructure revitalised the rural economy and enabled the expansion of trading networks. Existing cities grew, and ancient cities such as Caesarea and Ramla, which had gone to ruin, were revived. Indeed, entire new settlements and villages were built. The larger cities, such as Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli and Antioch, became booming urban centres with larger populations than the capitals of the West. Not until the mid-thirteenth century did Western European cities start to compete in size with the cities of the Latin East” (197).
As well, this investment returned strategic importance: “Most importantly, the Franks connected the traditional oriental trade routes with the growing, increasingly prosperous and luxury-hungry markets of Western Europe” (198). The reason for this flourishing trade was the building of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and water management. Trade agreements were struck and banking practices introduced, which then led to manufacturing. Sugar, textiles (especially silk, samite and siqlatin), soap, wine, olive oil, leather goods, glass were all manufactured in the Crusader States.
Given this revitalization program, agriculture returned to this land long considered barren, so that cities began to flourish, and a distinct Outremer culture emerged, such as icon painting, book production, shrines and holy places where the faithful came in droves to receive blessing in the land trodden by God Himself, as the famous 13th century Palestinalied (Song of Palestine) relates: “Ich bin komen an die stat,/ dâ got menischlîchen trat (I am come to the city where God trod as a man).” This spiritual “currency” lay at the heart of this region, a “currency” that could never be depleted. And here the work of charity was paramount, which saw the building of hospitals, caravanserais, inns, as well as monasteries, churches and many chapels by confraternities and monastic orders.
The cities themselves were well-planned, with effective sewage systems, baths and even flushing toilets. Trade supplied the many open-air and enclosed markets. There were orchards and gardens surrounding each city, with aqueducts, pools and fountains to supply water. It is important to note that many of these cities were not fortified—that is, they did not lie inside protective walls—cities such as Nazareth, Hebron, Nablus and Ramla. This detail is important—for it points to the fact that life was, in fact, very peaceful, which flies in the face of the usual and popular trope of Crusader brutality.
But this not to say that the military aspect was not important, for defense was necessary, given the endless ambitions of the rulers of the time (Mongol, Mamluk and Turk). Thus, Frankish Levant saw the emergence of unique castle styles, chief and most impressive of which was the concentric castle, the best examples of which is Krak de Chevaliers and Belvoir which overlooks the Jordan valley (“Belvoir” in Old French means, “Good view”).
Frankish architecture was unique also because it did not destroy what originally existed: “Beyond their sheer scale and number, one of the most striking features of these various projects was the degree to which the Franks sensitively and respectfully incorporated the remains of earlier buildings into their renovation projects. In sharp contrast to the prevailing view of crusaders as bigoted barbarians, when it came to architecture, the crusaders sought to preserve rather than destroy. This was true of Muslim structures as well as Christian ones” (233).
One of the greatest achievements of Outremer was its art and its literature, both little known and studied. There survives, for example, the exquisite Melisende Psalter, with its illustrations that perfectly combine Byzantine, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic and Latin elements to produce a style that is original to Outremer. And then there are the frescoes of the 12th century Church of St. Jeremiah at Abu-Ghosh (the biblical Emmaus), which are the finest expression of Crusader art (despite their Byzantine “look”), although they now survive in a much damaged condition.
This comprehensive book ends with the history of the Ibelin family who typify the kinds of people that came to Outremer and made it the splendorous civilization that it was: “…while the Ibelins were undoubtedly exceptionally successful, they were also in many ways typical. They embodied the overall experience, characteristics and ethos of the Franks in the Holy Land. They came from obscure, probably non-noble origins, and the dynasty’s founder can be classed as an ‘adventurer’ and ‘crusader’. They rapidly put down roots in the Near East, intermarrying with native Christian and Byzantine elites. They were hardened and cunning fighting men able to deploy arms and tactics unknown to the West and intellectuals who could win wars with words in the courts. They were multilingual, cosmopolitan and luxury-loving, as comfortable in baths as in battles” (267).
But why did this great civilization in the Holy Land end, after two hundred years of great success? The answers are as varied as the scholars who seek to give a response to this question. Schrader is accurate in her own conclusion—that Outremer was a victim of its own success. Because it was such a “shining city on the hill,” others fought to possess it. But more tragically, the bane of Frankish rule was the incessant in-fighting, where factions vied for power and where loyalty was circumscribed by personal ambition. As well, the latter rulers had divided loyalty—they were more interested in maintaining their holdings and influence in Europe than looking after what previous generations had built in the Holy Land. It is that old cycle of civilization—the generations that inherent wealth effectively waste it and lose it.
And the legacy of Outremer? This is how Schrader summarizes it: “… the crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law” (305).
For its scope, its depth and its variety of subject matter, this book truly succeeds as a work of exceptional narrative history. By glancing at the past, we may well learn something about the narrowness of our own age.
C.B. Forde confesses to being a closet history buff, that is whenever he can tear himself away from the demands of the little bit of land that he cultivates.
Featured: The Last Judgment, a fresco in the Church of St. Jeremiah (Emmaus), in Abu-Ghosh, Israel; painted in the latter parts of the 12th century.
The accomplished humorist, Eduardo Aguirre Romero, author of the magnificent books, inter alia, Cine para caminar (Walking Cinema), Blues de Cervantes(Cervantes Blues); Cervantes, enigma del humor (Cervantes, The Enigma of Humor) prologued by the writer Víctor Fuentes, has just published his masterpiece, Entrevista a Cervantes(Interview with Cervantes), which is dedicated “with gratitude and affection to the memory of the architect Jesús Martínez del Cerro (1948—2022), builder of the two prototypes of the machine to detect false readers of Don Quixote.”
“Don Quixote opened the way to a more humanitarian comicality”
In this context, it should be emphasized that Eduardo Aguirre Romero, journalist at the Diario de León, offered a reading workshop in the León City Hall, entitled, “Don Quixote for the elderly,” and he promotes the language of sweet Spain, by way of his first-rate works, in which, to better understand the life and works of the “King of Spanish Literature, he gives special emphasis to the humor of Cervantes, a subject of capital importance but very little studied by scholars.
But, before continuing, it is important to add a word about Cervantes, enigma del humor (2017), in which Aguirre Romero (who is originally from Madrid and now based in León since 1985) clearly deduces that in Don Quixote, humor rhymes with both love and pain and states that Cervantes’ humor is a multifaceted one, as “it does not evade your reality; it helps you to interpret it” (Cervantes, enigma del humor).
The insightful wit of Aguirre Romero accurately detects that “in these uncertain times, Miguel de Cervantes still has a lot of light to offer us.” As well, he meditates on the origin of humor and comes to the conclusion that “the best thing would be to ask Cervantes himself” (Cervantes, enigma del humor).
Consequently, in his Entrevista a Cervantes, “a work in progress,” the Cervantes-enthusiast from León converses with the genius of Spanish literature, not only because the immortal Miguel is still alive but also because the interviewer wishes to give the biography of the glorious man of La Mancha, in order to learn about the trajectory of his enigmatic life. Therefore, Aguirre Romero brings Cervantes to life, in flesh and blood, gives him a voice with all the freedom of expression and opinion; and without disguising the truth, even if it is unpleasant, he gives a biographical sketch of the famous Alcalá native.
Regarding his economic situation, Miguel maintains that “I had good times… but in my last years, if it wasn’t for the Count of Lemos and the Archbishop of Toledo, I would end up in a corner with a monkey and a goat. Isn’t that poverty? I had it tattooed on me since childhood” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 48).
“All that can be forgiven, and more. When the time comes”
When asked about the words of the Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), who belonged to the “Generation of ’98″—”’Don Quixote is immensely superior to Cervantes,’ what do you think?” The peerless novelist answers that “He is worth more than me… and more than almost all of us, because he does not condense. And Sancho also condenses us. But read, read, for sure there is more material to cut” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 50).
Referring to Avellaneda, Aguirre Romero asks, “Can that also be forgiven, that in addition to murdering the book, he defamed you in the prologue? He even bragged about wanting to take away your profit, besides making certain allusions to… your horns.” Miguel replies that “all that can be forgiven, and more. When the time comes” (Cervantes, enigma del humor, 57).
“Thank you, O Lord, for you have revealed these things to the simple and you have hidden them from the wise.”
Similarly, the journalist sheds light on the doubts surrounding the character of Cervantes, who does not mince words and confesses that “I was wounded in my self-love, many times. Battered, too. I was even tempted to give up… but I was never rancorous. Nor vindictive, except for a few blows in this prologue or in that sonnet, because we are not of the same mind” (Entrevista, 58); and further on he declares that “one can be very intelligent and not understand anything. In fact, it is often those who understand the least. There is a very beautiful phrase of Jesus: ‘Thank you, Lord, for you have revealed these things to the simple and hidden them from the wise'” (Entrevista, 64-65).
The humorist Aguirre Romero notes that “Cervantes was the first to combine with genius the dramatic and the comic; that laughter was more than laughter… and no one before had so united comedy with depth and compassionate tenderness, though Cervantes himself often ignores such potential… and to perceive it, he had to fall in love with his characters, to feel responsible for them… There is not a comic Quixote and a serious Quixote. It is a single book. That is the marvelous multifaceted condition of Cervantes’ humor. A single humor, with numerous registers” (Entrevista, 34-35).
However, the key question that the author poses to Cervantes is:
Aguirre: “Where does Cervantes’ humor come from? You were poor in fits and spurts, you were crippled in a battle, you were imprisoned for five years, you were jailed several times for alleged embezzlement, you got along badly with your daughter… in old age you had to ask for help to survive… With that biographical background, where did you get the vital forces to write the universal masterpiece of humor?”
Cervantes: “Precisely from there… from pain.”
Aguirre: “Does his humor come from pain?”
Cervantes: “From pain and love. When he had the worst time… he laughed. And not only that, he was capable of making others laugh… Only fools need to smile when things go well for them. [If they steal your humor, they will have defeated you (Entrevista, 65).
“My humor comes from pain and love”
In all honesty, Entrevista a Cervantes is a well of wisdom, where humor and truth emerge, which characterize the writing of Aguirre Romero, who always follows the proverb of Cebantes, that brilliant soldier of the Elite Special Forces of the Spanish Tercios Viejos: “Be brief in your reasoning, because no one is pleased if it is long;” and he hides “an ace up his sleeve: there is also pain and love hidden behind what—a priori—only seemed funny” (Entrevista, 34).
Before concluding, it is my great honor to congratulate not only Eduardo for his excellent work that carries much of him within it, but also for his proclamation of vital joy—and that of the believer—in a period of great economic concerns due to the crisis, from which he has not been spared, but also to Professor María Fernández Ferreiro, the editor of Entrevista a Cervantes, for her excellent series of books that she has gathered, and the extraordinary Grupo de Estudios Cervantinos (GREC) at the University of Vigo.
Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, this masterpiece of our admirable Eduardo Aguirre Romero, “dedicated to society hit by a long economic crisis and a crisis of values” (Entrevista, 37), which fills the heart with greater joy, has managed to combine the funny with the serious. The characters and themes are identified with those of Cervantes’ works, while the entire work stems from a healthy and wise humor, which captures the soul of the reader, and makes us better people.
All this proves that Entrevista a Cervantes is a flagship and this book belongs to the whole world. Congratulations!
Laus in excelsis Deo.
Krzysztof Sliwa is a professor, writer for Galatea, a journal of the Sociedad Cervantina de Esquivias, Spain, and a specialist in the life and works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and the Spanish Golden Age Literature, all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles and reviews in English, German, Spanish and Polish, and is the Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Cordoba and Toledo.
Featured: Miguel de Cervantes, Gustave Doré; published in 1863.
Would you like to be a dictator? It isn’t very hard. You needn’t be particularly clever. Ruthlessness helps. Sociopathy is better. But these are optional. All you really have to do is be willing to act as a stand-in for the frustrated ambitions of a group of people. Friends are verboten; intimacy of any kind is out of the question. Simply go along with an unhinged political drama (one already unfolding, or create your own if none exists to work with) and let waves and waves of sycophants fall at your feet in craven, self-abasing adoration.
If the above sounds like something you can manage, then you might just have what it takes to be a dictator.
The above is the greatly foreshortened takeaway from historian Frank Dikötter’s remarkable 2019 volume How To Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. Dikötter, native of Holland, is Chair Professor of the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a prolific author of scholarly and popular-press works on modern China. His “People’s Trilogy,” a richly-researched record of how communism burns holes through the fabric of ordinary lives, includes the 2011 Mao’s Great Famine, a book on the Communist-made catastrophe of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dikötter estimates that as many as forty-five million people died early deaths during approximately four years of famine and state violence. Other researchers put the number even higher. At any rate, Mao Zedong was a dictator’s dictator, and Dikötter knows the ins and outs of the Mao years like the back of his hand. Suffice it to say that when it comes to writing about dictators, Dikötter knows whereof he speaks.
In a bold departure from his Asia-focused work, in How To Be a Dictator Dikötter puts his remarkable archival and analytic skills to use examining the lives of eight figures from the disastrous twentieth century, only two of whom (Mao and Kim Il-sung) are Asian. The rest—Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Ceaușescu, and Mengistu Haile Mariam—hail from other hellholes which the twentieth-century cult of personality created.
Aha, here we get to the rub. As How To Be a Dictator’s subtitle suggests, the cult of personality is Dikötter’s theme. In eight very different case studies, Dikötter tracks how a cult of personality was built up around psychologically damaged political demigods, a hivelike polity formed around a living image of statism personified. In retrospect, all eight of Dikötter’s subjects appear unworthy of not only a personality cult, but a second glance in a crowded train station. All eight are singular only in their mediocrity. All eight were, in short, pitiful losers. The political center was built around mere mortals, and not very impressive mortals at that.
And yet, twentieth-century politics raised each up into the statist pantheon. It is a puzzle with no solution. At the end of How To Be a Dictator, I was left wondering, as I believe other readers will be, how in the world anybody could have been cowed into hero-worshipping any of the eight rogues in Dikötter’s gallery. As Dikötter qualifies, not all dictators have personality cults. “For two years after [Pol Pot] took power [in Cambodia],” Dikötter explains, “even his exact identity was in dispute” (xvi). But Dikötter also agrees with “historian Henri Locard,” who finds that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge suffered badly for not having apotheosized their mercurial leader. “Failing to induce adulation and submissiveness,” Dikötter quotes Locard as writing, “the Angkar [‘Organization,’ shadowy ruling junta of Cambodia] could only generate hatred” (xvi). Cambodia is the exception that proves the rule, then. Dictatorships seem to require personality cults to outlast whatever political frenzy initially ushers a dictator into power. But no dictator, no human being, is equal to the political god-making required to keep dictatorships in business. But still dictatorships perdured.
Perhaps the puzzle needn’t trouble us any longer. Dikötter ends his book on a faintly hopeful note, remarking that:
Dictators today, with the exception of Kim Jong-un, are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their populations at the height of the twentieth century.… Even a modicum of historical perspective indicates that today dictatorship is on the decline when compared to the twentieth century. Most of all, dictators who surround themselves with a cult of personality tend to drift off into a world of their own, confirmed in their delusions by the followers who surround them.… As hubris and paranoia take over, they seek more power to protect the power they already have. But since so much hinges on the judgements they make, even a minor miscalculation can cause the regime to falter, with devastating consequences. In the end, the biggest threat to dictators comes not just from the people, but from themselves (206).
To an extent, yes. But that somehow doesn’t feel like the real end of the dictatorship story. Dikötter, to my mind, fails to see how much the state has metastasized since the dictatorial heyday wrapped up in the 1980s with the shudder and fall of the Soviet Union and its equally evil satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Dr. Anthony Fauci had a personality cult of his own as recently as a year or so ago, for instance. There was, apparently, a Tony Fauci fan club at the former propaganda clearinghouse known as Twitter. Fauci was not standing on a parapet firing rifles into the air and crying out to the masses to go out and defend the motherland. His press conferences were, nonetheless, political theater, and Fauci has equated himself with “the science” in a way that dictators used to equate themselves with the regime or with the nation as a whole. The old style of dictatorship—think fatigues and Mao suits, towering statues and frenetic military parades—is definitely passe. But has the cult of personality really gone the way of the six-hour May Day speech? I don’t think so.
But I digress. Let us return to the wretched twentieth century, and to eight of the worst people who darkened it.
Dikötter’s first subject is Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who “in 1919… launched a movement that would become the Fascist Party” (3). When Fascism failed to catch on, Mussolini grew dejected. But then, in September of 1919,
the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio [sic: should be D’Annunzio] [(1863-1938)] led 186 mutineers in a raid of Fiume, a city to which Italy had made a claim in the wake of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy a year earlier. Mussolini realised that the power he had failed to obtain through free elections could be seized through brute force. But d’Annunzio also inspired Mussolini in other ways. In Fiume the flamboyant poet pronounced himself Duce, a term derived from the Latin word dux, meaning leader (3).
Here we glimpse what I believe to be a trait common to many twentieth-century dictators, namely a flair for the melodramatic. In this Mussolini was unrivaled, making him, to my way of thinking, the twentieth-century dictator par excellence. Here’s more of Mussolini’s antics:
Mussolini… wanted to develop the myth of a March on Rome, one in which he entered the capital on horseback, leading his legions across the Rubicon to impose his will on a feeble parliament (4).
This is of course silly, but it is almost everything one needs to know about Mussolini, and, writ large, most of what one needs to know about twentieth-century dictating. Mussolini, like the dictators who followed him, was basically an actor in a historical recreation skit. In Mussolini’s case his role had him imagining himself a new Caesar and his gaggle of Blackshirt goons a new Roman army. (The press, Dikötter says, “acclaimed” Mussolini as “the Cromwell of Italy, the Italian Napoleon, the new Garibaldi in a black shirt” ). To state the thing so baldly is to show Mussolini to be a deluded, pitiable mummer, which indeed he was. He was the saddest clown, a failed actor who used, as a last resort, the heady atmosphere of unhinged post-WWI politics as his stage.
Consider this paragraph:
While Mussolini occasionally professed to dislike the cult around his person, he was actually its main architect. He was a master of the art of projecting his own image, carefully studying certain gestures and poses. He rehearsed in Villa Torlonia, a vast, neoclassical villa on a sprawling estate which became his residence in 1925. In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance. Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor. Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him (9).
What is truly disheartening for us in 2023 is not that Mussolini took himself so seriously, but that nearly everyone else did, too. What does it say about human nature that such a man was lauded as an Olympian deigning to live in the plains below? Dikötter samples some of the effusive words of praise which those who should have known better reserved for Il Duce. René Benjamin (1885-1948), for instance, a French literary sensation, was “won over” by Mussolini’s “broad grin.” Another French man of letters, Maurice Bedel (1883-1954), wrote a whole chapter about Mussolini’s smile: “Does he ever stop, even for a few brief moments, being a demi-God carried by a violent destiny?” So, rhetorically, asked Bedel. “The poet Ada Negri thought [Mussolini’s eyes] were ‘magnetic’,” and that his “beautiful hands” were “psychic, like wings when they unfold” (13). This is a lot of stuff, but it gets worse. “Mohandas Gandhi, who visited [Mussolini] twice, pronounced him ‘one of the greatest statesmen of the time’, while Winston Churchill in 1933 described ‘the Roman genius’ as ‘the greatest law-giver among living men’” (13). Mussolini, apparently, was not the only one daydreaming that the glorious past had snapped back to life again in the person of a former schoolteacher. “Thomas Edison,” Dikötter writes, “called [Mussolini] the ‘greatest genius of modern times” after a short meeting” (13).
One winces now to read these encomia, but in a sense perhaps Edison was right. Mussolini was, in his own way, a very modern genius, with a real skill at getting others to clothe him in their unrealized ambitions. That seems to be what at least half of the cult of personality is all about. The past is gone, obliterated by modern times. But we can have the past again, we can touch the old Roman emperors right in the here and now, if only we make believe that Benito Mussolini is Vespasian or Augustus. It was suspension of disbelief that made the whole thing go. (“The [Mussolini] regime’s motto,” Dikötter recalls for us, was “‘Mussolini is Always Right’”).
What’s more, Mussolini appeared to believe the now ridiculous-sounding comparisons of himself to Napoleon and Garibaldi, and the elevation of his mortician-faced “Il Duce” schtick to the level of genius. This is all precisely, Dikötter I think is telling us, how dictators get to be dictators. If there is someone so lost, I would put it, or so divorced from reality, as to believe what flatterers and hangers-on say in even the giddiest flights of political hyperbole, then more and yet more flattery and sycophancy will flow to him. If someone says, with a straight face, that I am a world-conquering genius, and if I, with a straight face, give him to believe that he has not gone nearly far enough in his estimation of me, then we have all the makings of a personality cult. You think I am Charles Martel and Genghis Khan all rolled into one. I tell you that you had better throw in Ramesses II and then put me higher than all three. Now, give me a radio and a Stasi and I will give you a dictatorship like you have never seen. Voila, the cult of personality, where delusion and delusion merge.
In Mussolini’s case, Dikötter opines, his personality cult
was also tinged with superstition and magic. In a country steeped in religion, people projected onto Mussolini feelings of devotion and worship characteristic of Christian piety. There were holy sites, holy pictures, pilgrimages, even the hope of a healing touch from the leader. His photograph was sometimes used as a talisman, carried around to bring good luck (27).
Such fanaticism is jet fuel for a would-be dictator’s handlers. But popular fanaticism is much fickler than one might imagine, and at any rate no dictator banks on being loved over being feared. “As Emilio Lussiu, a committed anti-fascist, noted in 1936,” Dikötter continues,
the regime demanded expressions of popular consent, and the blackshirts pursued these, bludgeon in hand. When the Duce gave speeches, people turned up on orders from the police and cheered on command, “like extras in a cast of thousands, so that papers could publish photographs of public sites full to the brim with exulting people” (27).
A cult of personality will thus acquire a gravity field (more like a sucking black hole) of its own, helped along by raw and thuggish violence as needed, and farce will then follow ruinous farce until it all comes crashing down around everyone. This happened for Mussolini and his fascist Italy in 1945. And it happened for Dikötter’s next subject, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).
There has been so much written about the half-mustachioed Austrian who helmed the third German Reich that I did not expect there to be much new in How To Be a Dictator about Hitler. And yet, Dikötter delivers, focusing not only on the platoons of Sieg-Heil-ers which eventually bristled around their Führer, but on Hitler’s powers of public address. Hitler was a failed artist, that is well known. And it explains much of how Hitler saw politics, namely as an aesthetic testament to the collective will of the German people, a Volk which had also failed, but which nevertheless longed to be recognized for its inherent greatness. But Hitler was, in that sense, not a failed artist at all, but an unmistakably successful one. He curated his own image as such, but couched the self-praise in terms of German destiny and political revenge such that those who heard Hitler and read his words in print agreed with his auto-caricaturing in Mein Kampf. Hitler and the Germans were, in other words, in a very unhealthy co-dependent relationship. As Dikötter puts it, readers of Mein Kampf found Hitler described as
A genius child, a voracious reader, a born orator, an unrecognised artist driven by destiny to change the fate of a people. A man overcome by a passion like no other, one that allowed him to recognise the words that would ‘open the gates to a people’s heart like the blows of a hammer’. A man chosen by heaven as a messenger of its will. As a close follower put it, Hitler was an oracle, a Traumlaller, one who speaks prophetically in his dreams (37).
And the readers, by and large, ate up every word. That it was all hoo-hah was beside the point. Germans needed to believe something again. Hitler needed them to believe it through him. The result was Stalingrad. The result was also Auschwitz.
The way this all hung together was through performance, the state acted out in the person of the spittle-flecked corporal. Hitler was an actor, as was Mussolini, and a devoted student of the possibilities of the new mass media of image and sound. Dikötter notes that it was Mussolini who inspired Hitler to up his game after “the Duce upstaged him” in Venice in June of 1934 (23). “A pale, insecure Hitler,” Dikötter writes, “in a baggy yellow coat and patent-leather shoes, had watched [Mussolini] from a balcony in a neighbouring palace, mesmerised by a man so adored by his people” (23). Hitler would not make the same thespian mistake twice. Hitler’s, and his National Socialist Party’s, mass rallies in Nuremberg under the stage production of architect Albert Speer (1905-1981) are, let us admit, masterpieces in the genre of political theater. (45) But long before that, Hitler had relied on a man named Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957), a photographer who ran a shop in Berlin, to record his heroic figure for the masses and for posterity (37). What Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) did for the Nazis’ image, not least through her 1935 Triumph of the Will film of Nuremberg, Hoffmann did for Hitler’s, and in a much bigger way.
Hoffmann’s photos of Hitler were everywhere. They were officially endorsed by the Führer himself. Hoffmann’s photographs overcame whatever negative press was thrown against Hitler, rescuing him from scandal and rehabilitating him when party politics did not bend to his iron will (38-41). Hoffmann’s photographs made of Hitler both a soaring political deity, and an approachable, right-living human being. And Hoffmann made a fortune off of the arrangement. “Since the Führer’s image was protected by law,” Dikötter explains, “the court photographer [i.e., Heinrich Hoffmann] had a virtual monopoly over the market” (49). Sales of Hitler’s mug printed on “portraits, postcards, posters and calendars” as well as in book form sold hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of copies (49). Dikötter’s foregrounding of Hoffmann in his chapter on Hitler is a very welcome departure from the usual dreary rounds of the Hitler biography (although, to be sure, the Hoffmann angle is if anything even drearier). A cult of personality requires an endless supply of images (recall that Anthony Fauci spent many of his waking hours on TV for a couple of years), and Hoffmann gave Hitler exactly what he needed to keep the cult in motion.
But every false god will fail. No photograph can paper over the stark political reality of bread lines and disappeared neighbors. Dikötter therefore also does readers a service by focusing on the climate of skepticism vis-à-vis Hitler which spread over Germany as the consequences of the Führer’s political maneuvers began to bite at home. American philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), in Germany during 1936, observed that “‘Germany is silent, nervous, suppressed; it speaks in whispers; there is no public opinion, no opposition, no discussion of anything’” (53-54).
Skepticism at home is easily checked by secret police. All that Hitler needed by the late 1930s was for foreigners to buy his performances. Which, in at least one notorious case, one did. In September of 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) “travelled to the Obersalzberg, where his host,” that is, Adolf Hitler,
received him on the Berghof’s front steps. Halfway through a three-hour conversation, Hitler suddenly switched roles, transforming himself from an unpredictable megalomaniac who threatened war into a perfectly reasonable negotiating partner. Hitler pledged not to use force against Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain agreed to the cessation of the Sudetenland, signing the Munich Agreement two weeks later. ‘He looks entirely undistinguished’, the prime minister admitted to his sister, but Hitler was ‘a man of his word’. Hitler clapped his hands in sheer delight the moment Chamberlain left the Berghof. The Sudetenland was occupied without a shot being fired (55-56).
The cult of personality can catch even the most levelheaded of statesmen unawares.
Dikötter’s next subject, Josef Stalin (1878-1953), is often presented as Hitler’s dictatorial counterpart (see, e.g., 83), but the way that Dikötter frames things it is Mussolini and Hitler who should be seen as a pair of theatrical rivals. I agree. Stalin, as Dikötter makes clear, was much more concerned with inheriting the shade of Lenin than with competing with Hitler and Stalin for best performance in a political play, and Stalin made full use of his own obvious inferiority to Lenin as the very mechanism by which he stole Lenin’s mantle and then used it to bring post-revolutionary Russia under his dominion (see p. 67). False humility was Stalin’s Venus flytrap, drawing in those who dared challenge what he saw as his non-negotiable title to be Lenin’s heir. And as Stalin stepped deeper and deeper into Lenin’s shadow, as it were, he was able to be bolder and bolder in reshaping Lenin’s revolution into a personality cult redounding to Stalin’s power.
Much of that power Stalin used to effect revenge on his enemies. He built a propagandistic case against Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), Grigory Zinoviev (1883-1936), Lev Kamenev (1883-1936), and others against whom Stalin had developed, or long nursed, a grudge. (69-70) By 1929, Dikötter writes, “The party [i.e., the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], under Stalin’s leadership, was now sacrosanct, the party line presented as a mystical will that was beyond debate. Stalin became the personification of that sanctity, the vozhd, or great leader, a term previously reserved for Lenin” (72). Anyone who dared cross Stalin effectively tread on Lenin’s own grave. Stalin wasted no mercy on those who could be crushed under the weight of Stalin’s wrath and Lenin’s borrowed ghost.
In this atmosphere, in which Stalin’s mood was life or death, fear became the baseline of human existence. Rafts of breathless and completely over-the-top praise for Stalin reverberated into a kind of standing wave of surreal man-worship.
The usual dupes from abroad made their obeisance, too. In 1931, “the socialist author George Bernard Shaw received a military guard of honour in Moscow and a banquet to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday,” Dikötter writes.
He toured the country, visiting model schools, prisons and farms, with villagers and workers carefully drilled to praise the party and their leader. After a two-hour private audience, masterfully staged by Stalin, the Irish playwright found the dictator a ‘charmingly good-humoured fellow’ and proclaimed: ‘There was no malice in him, but also no credulity’. Shaw never tired of promoting the despot, and died in 1950 in his bed with a portrait of his idol on the mantelpiece (75).
That a professional playwright, most of all, could not see through the masquerade is perhaps the most damning confirmation of Dikötter’s cult-of-personality thesis in the whole book. Remember also that Walter Duranty (1884-1957), once a darling of the perennial fake news outlet the New York Times, won a Pulitzer for pretending that Stalin had not induced famine in Ukraine—a famine the victims of which Duranty had seen with his own eyes. Like Hitler, and like many other dictators since, Stalin had the strange power to inspire in foreigners the sincere love and even worship which his countrymen begrudged him. As if to confirm that it had all been a tragically empty vaudeville act, the cult of Stalin, and the show trials and Great Terror and bloodbath Great Patriotic War that followed in its train, was over in almost an instant when, in 1953, Stalin mercifully died. “One month after his funeral Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers” (92). No one wants to remember how cowardly he has been or how little he respects himself, even to the point of pretending that a Georgian hooligan is a man of steel. A cult of personality is, in many ways, a survival technique, discarded as soon as it is no longer needed.
(And Duranty got to keep his Pulitzer Prize.)
Dikötter writes next of Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Hitler once felt upstaged beside Mussolini, and Mao, standing on one of Stalin’s flanks “when Stalin appeared at the Bolshoi Theatre to show himself to the cameras for his seventieth birthday gala,” had, it seems, a similarly uncomfortable experience. “Mao looked dour, awed by his counterpart in the Kremlin but resentful at the way he was being treated. He had expected to be welcomed as the leader of a great revolution that had brought a quarter of humanity into the communist orbit, but had been met at Yaroslavsky Station by two of Stalin’s underlings who did not even accompany him to his residence” (93). (The person on Stalin’s other flank, by the way, was Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the man who would lead the ”de-Stalinization” campaign later on, a sort of smelling-salts gambit to get the Communist Party to quit swooning over personalities.)
Mao was made to feel insignificant standing beside Stalin, but he might have seen such a slight coming. “For the previous twenty-eight years,” Dikötter points out, “the Chinese Communist Party had depended on Moscow for financial support” (93). Mao’s rival, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), had been on the communist dole, too. And the Comintern was deep in the politics of China this side and that, making decisions about small things and big. Between Stalin and Mao, few, if any, in Moscow had any illusions as to who was boss and who was supplicant.
But as Dikötter shows, Mao was, for all his dependency, a formidable cultivator of personality cult in his own right. Of the eight people featured in How To Be a Dictator, Mao deserves, I think, most credit for keeping and grooming his cult by himself. Mao was not one to be pandered to or flattered into distraction. Although he had his ghostwriters (Dikötter mentions Chen Boda (1904-1989) ), Mao was also, as the legend goes, a poet, wooden and bombastic by turns but an impassioned versifier all the same (see 105). And, to be sure, Mao wrapped even the worst and most devious elements of society around his little finger as he built his power base and policed the thoughts of the masses. Kang Sheng (1898-1975), for example, was surely one of the most dastardly men in all of twentieth-century China—a real achievement considering the competition (99). But all the while Mao was writing out a kind of political epic, his verse the fluttering rows of students waving the Little Red Book in the air, his ink their blood and the blood of those whom he sent them out to murder. Mao did all that. Not his handlers. Mao.
Mao had his Hoffmann, too, a “handpicked… photographer named Hou Bo. She had joined the party as the age of fourteen, and her pictures where soon printed in the millions” (104). The famous 1955 image of “Mao Zedong Swimming Across the Yangzi” was from Hou’s lens. Many other shots were, too. Her photos, Dikötter reveals, “were among the most widely distributed images of the twentieth century” (104).
But as garish as Mao’s political tastes ran—he was a foul-mouthed yokel at heart who interspersed half-masticated Marxist-Leninist claptrap with earthy slogans rich in the vocabulary of the barnyard latrine—he wisely avoided having roads and buildings and whole cities named after him (104). He was to be, Dikötter says, a “philosopher king of the East,” which I think captures Mao’s ambitions to a T (104). He was good at dissembling, convincing even the rope-hearted Richard Nixon (1913-1994) to come and pay him homage in his Forbidden City (120). And he was good at getting others to take the fall for his own bad ideas, even when those ideas—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution being two of the worst ideas in, I think, human history—left whole fields of corpses in their wake. Mao’s cult of personality built and built, as it consumed one lieutenant after the other—Lin Biao (1907-1971), Peng Dehuai (1898-1974), Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969). Those who know the history of “philosopher kings of the East” will know that Mao was every inch their equal.
What Mao did best of all was to involve everyone in his cult of personality in a full-contact way. Mao encouraged all of China to get into the business of fighting for the purity of the revolution (which was exactly the same as fighting for the primacy of Mao). Old scores were settled under the convenient and universally-available pretext of revolutionary zeal. The Red Guards, street punks, who in a saner society would have been in reform school, fought openly in the cities and the countryside. Other factions in other places went for each other’s jugulars, too (117). Once the violence had turned almost all-consuming, Mao stepped in and reminded the country that he was the arbiter of all force, for example overseeing a half-million-man army as it paraded through Tiananmen Square in 1967 with, out front of the goose-steppers, “an enormous silver-coloured, plastic figure of Mao pointing the way forward” (117-118). Either you were on Mao’s side, or you were a counter-revolutionary and thus marked for death. It was probably the most murderous and heavily populated personality cult of the twentieth century.
And it goes on today. As Dikötter notes, Mao’s “portrait still hangs high in Beijing, while his face beams from every banknote in the People’s Republic” (122). Not every cult of personality has a built-in stop-date with the leader’s death. Xi Jinping, many say, is the new Mao. In graduate school, I had professors who were proud to call themselves Maoists. (The professors fancied themselves philosophers—Mao wins again). So maybe cults of personality are also fungible when the circumstances are right and ambition burns brightly enough to outstrip restraint.
Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), the North Korean tyrant, was very different from Mao. Mao was sui generis, a man who had a Patton-like sense of his having been coughed up by Hegelian Geist and put on Earth to do the will of capital-H History. Kim was a Soviet puppet in the beginning, and then, when he and his clique ginned up a cult of personality in the 1950s, Kim became in many ways a plaything of the very political religion of which he was the putative apex. Mao inspired the Chinese people to police one another, to lacerate one another’s deepest thoughts so as to maintain a high-pitched devotion to the poet-philosopher in Beijing. Kim ruled with a secret police and labor camps (although Mao had plenty of both of his own), and was constantly, unlike Mao, going among his people to present the smiling face above the iron fist which kept everyone fearful and in line (131).
Kim also emulated Mao in some ways, to be sure, such as the 1958 “Chollima Campaign, named after a mythical winged horse that could gallop a thousand miles in a day… designed to propel North Korea into the future… without economic assistance from the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic” (133). This was, obviously, a Great Leap Forward with Chosen characteristics (133). And, like Mao, Kim was indifferent to the suffering of everyone but himself, for example doubling down on the “Juche Thought” campaign of self-reliance, even as North Koreans starved (135-136). The usual cycle of sycophancy followed, increasing in direct and inverse proportion to the failures of the dictator, and before long Kim was, like others of his profession, hailed as a “genius,” as this or that heavenly body, as a liberator and a force of history in his own right (136). Again, Mao redux.
But Kim could see that Mao was reckless, that the Cultural Revolution, for example, was “chaos” (136). Mao fought the Americans in North Korea, but Kim knew when to pull back from the brink. Kim skirted war with South Korea and with the United States in 1968, with his generals sending commandos to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) and seizing the USS Pueblo in the same year (137). But Kim was far too smart to push his luck any farther, and he settled for the fortress-socialism in one country of which his grandson is sole proprietor today. Mao left no dynasty. Kim did. Pro tip for those who would be dictators: as Celine Dion might have crooned, your cult can go on and on.
Dikötter doesn’t say so, but I cannot help but think that the cult of the Kims, which its inflationary rhetoric of loyalty-signaling and its gargantuan statues and other monuments to the three incarnations of the Kim dynasty thus far, is a kind of compensation for the failure of the Kimist revolution, despite its supporters’ bluster and bad behavior, to export communism anywhere, even to the other half of the Korean Peninsula. Communism was supposed to take over the world. In North Korea, it barely keeps a grip on the fifth-rate capital Pyongyang. Hence the huge statues, huge in the way that some older men buy red Ferraris. Also scarring is the fact that the Kims relied heavily on forced donations and forced repatriated labor from Japan (139). Perhaps this explains the Kims’ terrorist campaign of kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
In any event, like Stalin, few truly grieved when Kim Il-sung died. “One five-year-old spat in her hand to wet her face with saliva, making it look as if she was crying,” Dikötter writes of average Koreans during the “ten-day mourning period” after Kim’s 1994 demise (144).
If Hitler and Mussolini are counterparts, political actors in the most literal sense, in Dikötter’s book, then so are his next two subjects. François Duvalier (1907-1971), dictator of Haiti, and Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989), sad-sack tyrant of Romania, seem equally out to sea in Dikötter’s telling, equally unaware of the political realities enveloping them and equally unable to control the flow of events as they unfolded.
Duvalier is by far the more fascinating psychological portrait of the two. On Dikötter’s reading, Duvalier saw himself as a kind of Voodoo paragon of blackness, a second act of the career of Dumarsais Estimé (1900-1953), under whom Duvalier had once served as “director general of the National Public Health Service” (147-148). Estimé was deposed by an upper-crust, army-backed military man named Paul Magliore (1907-2001) in 1950, but when Magliore met his inevitable fate in the turnstile of Haitian politics Duvalier was able to seize power and avenge his former mentor (147-149). Duvalier had his Hoffmann as well—American journalist Herbert Morrison (1905-1989), whom Duvalier appointed “director of public relations” (149). He also had his secret police, the fearsome “tonton macoutes, a Creole term for bogeymen” (151).
Duvalier also had something that perhaps no one else in How To Be a Dictator had, namely, a sincere, if clearly pathological, belief that he was, in all actuality, a living god, even God Himself. Duvalier disported himself in black like “Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead and guardian of cemeteries” (151). He saw himself as a “houngan,” a Voodoo priest (151). But he didn’t stop there. “On radio,” Dikötter writes, “where his voice was heard regularly, Duvalier portrayed himself as the personification of God, exclaiming ‘and the word was made flesh’” (156). Later, “a poster appeared, showing Christ with his hands on the shoulder of a seated Duvalier: ‘I have chosen him’” (157). Duvalier idol-worshiped the former Haitian freedom fighter Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), “who had declared himself emperor in 1804” (158). but he also seemed to think that he was a metaphysical force as well as a human or even world-historical one, “the spiritual leader of the black world” (159). He proclaimed that he was unafraid of weapons, because “bullets and machine guns capable of frightening Duvalier [(he had taken to referring to himself in the third person)] do not exist.… I am already an immaterial being” (156). Newsweek stated the obvious when it wrote that Duvalier was “utterly, irretrievably mad” (156).
Duvalier made the usual rounds of executions and terror-campaigns (161-162), but of all the dictators in Dikötter’s book, I am guessing that Duvalier’s body count was lowest. He executed his enemies and had others shot for good measure and to keep the people in line, of course. And the macoutes were a terror and a scourge to the average impoverished Haitian. But still, Duvalierism was, violence-wise, mild compared with the hecatombs offered up to, say, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. And yet, the terminology used to describe Duvalier, some of it virtually verbatim from Catholic teaching and liturgy only with Duvalier’s name transposed with that of the Deity, is surely the most outlandish of all. That Duvalier had outlawed the Catholic Church might explain, in part, his felt need, as perhaps it was, to act as understudy for the God he had exiled (151, 154).
Duvalier tried the dynasty thing, too. Like Kim Jong-Il, Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc,” turned out to be even more unsavory than his insane father. When Jean-Claude died in 2014, the Duvalier dynasty died with him.
In comparison with Duvalier, Nicolae Ceaușescu was a regular stick in the mud. Although he sat like a knob atop a nightmarish killing machine, Ceaușescu was as nondescript as surely any dictator in the twentieth century. His wife, Elena (1916-1989), was, it seems, the real hate behind the throne. Not that Nicolae was innocent, though. He was certainly party to, and in part author of, the horrors carried out in his name. But still Ceaușescu seemed too dense to understand what was going on around him. He sat by rather stupidly, acquiescing, for example, acquiescing as the most preposterous lines of obsequiousness were printed and read out loud about him. The communist paper Scinteia said of Ceaușescu, for example, that he was “Julius Caesar, Alexander of Macedonia, Pericles, Cromwell, Napoleon, Peter the Great and Lincoln… our lay God, the heart of the party and the nation” (174). On his sixtieth birthday, in 1978, Romanians fell over themselves to laud him: “He was ‘the measure of all beings and things in this blessed country called Romania’. He was the Christ-like incarnation of the people, ‘a body from the people’s body, a soul from the people’s soul’” (175). He was compared, in addition to the historical figures just listed, to “Mircea the Elder, Stephen the Great, Michael the Brave, all rulers of medieval Wallachia” (178). Ceaușescu was not floridly insane, like Duvalier, but he still went along with the political psalmody about him, smiling lamely and appearing only moderately discomfited by the idiocy surrounding him.
But even if Ceaușescu was all that the people and his government lackeys said he was, and more, the Romania over which he lorded it was in ruins, and getting worse. There was not enough food, not enough anything. As the economy collapsed and people went hungry and cold in the dark, the cult of personality surrounding Ceaușescu became ever more frantic (179). This is another very strong feature of cults of personality. “The greater the misery,” Dikötter pithily sums up the dynamic, “the louder the propaganda” (179). It was, ironically, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022) who helped bring Ceaușescu down (183). Ceaușescu had always postured as a communist purist over and against the various heresies of the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu amped up this rhetorical line when Gorbachev came to power, with the latter’s talk of perestroika and his “la[ying] out a vision of democratisation in January 1987” (183). But by setting himself, and with himself the political destiny of Romania, against the historical tide, now turning in favor of democratic revolution instead of communist, Ceaușescu sealed his own fate (184). And that of Elena. In late 1989, Christmas Day to be exact, the husband and wife were shot. One day before that, during a disastrous speech, it had become apparent that the Ceaușescus had lost their psychological grip on Romania (185). Yet another cult of personality evaporated in a moment. Yet another living god had failed.
With Mengistu (1937- ) Dikötter comes to the last float in his sad dictator parade. I find the Mengistu float to be the least interesting, to be honest, even duller than that of Ceaușescu. Not that it was all bland. Mengistu—who may have had Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) killed—later “had the emperor’s remains buried underneath his office, placing his desk right above the corpse (189). As should be apparent from this macabre revelation, Mengistu should be seen as a kind of Stalin, an unworthy slipping into an exalted shade. But there is something even more past-ripe about Mengistu than even Ceaușescu, the latter a diehard true-believing communist who, according to Dikötter, apparently sang the “Internationale” as the firing squad prepared to dispatch him and his wife. (Elena, we are told, remained in character to the end as well, shouting at the firing squad, “Fuck you!” ). Mengistu was railing against “feudalism,” unleashing the already-cliched “Red Terror” on Ethiopians, “modell[ing] himself on Fidel Castro,” and interpolating his revolutionary portrait among those of Engels, Lenin, and Marx (189, 191, 193, 195). It was all old hat before Mengistu even got started. By Mengistu’s day, a Marxist revolution was just hopelessly outdated.
But what was new was, I think, the global response to the horrific famine which Mengistu, his disastrous communist policies, and his obsessive persecution of war with Eritrea and with internal foes had caused (200-201). As the Eritrean forces reached within striking distance of Addis Ababa and Mengistu, revolutionary manque, fled to the protection of a much more interesting dictator, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (1924-2019), in 1991, the old Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist brand was already staler than week-old toast. What was increasingly in vogue was the kind of soft-pedaled globalism of the 1985 “We Are the World” celebrity charity campaign for all of Africa, a campaign held in large part to help the Ethiopian people survive the famine which their dictator had helped cause. The charity initiative countering Mengistu-ism was a new kind of internationalism, one driven by business, fashion, and PR. Personality cult was the essence of the Western schmaltz. Michael Jackson, himself a moonwalking demi-god, was in his hair-sprayed pantheon, and Mengistu was entirely outclassed. There is more than one kind of Marxism, and more than one kind of ready-made idiom of global control. Perhaps the revolution was televised after all.
And there is, as the King of Pop reminds us, more than one kind of personality cult. What I mean is that not all personality cults center on dictators. When we look back now and wonder how anybody could have been so slavish toward Ceaușescu or Stalin, perhaps we ought also to ask how anyone ever took seriously Kim Kardashian. Not that the latter is a dictator. But cult of personality is a funny thing, and hardly confined only to the hyperventilating world of theatrical politics. You buy toothpaste and automobiles because famous people tell you to. Don’t you?
Frank Dikötter’s How To Be a Dictator is, of course, not a how-to guide for the aspiring despot. But it is a reminder that human beings are the bearers of a pretty weird psychological makeup, and we are never really inured against becoming enablers of dictators in our own time. When a ruler rules through fear, many people will get by by flattering the ruler to save their own skins, or at a minimum keeping their heads down and playing along. That phenomenon became especially pronounced in the twentieth century, when mass media and concomitant advances in the organization of mass groups quickly gained in power. A dictator could, through his image and voice, be everywhere at once. His spies and informers, and jailers, could do the rest.
Dikötter thinks that dictators are on the wane. Is this true? To his great credit, Dikötter skirts the Trump question so handily that I was left wondering if the book was not a very subtle jab at those who spent the four years of the Trump Administration breathlessly insisting that we were on the verge of another Reichstag fire. Or perhaps Trump is to be made conspicuous by his absence.
Notice one more absence from Dikötter’s book: Vladimir Putin. Putin is a strong leader, that is unquestionable. But is he a dictator? He has no cult of personality, which would seem to go far, on Dikötter’s rubric, toward disqualifying Putin from dictator status. To argue in 2023 that Putin is not the Slavic Hitler, however, is to invite those who cultivate personality cults along the Potomac River to level charges of “disinformation,” “working for a foreign power,” and “undermining our sacred democracy.”
You can see, then, why I am not so sure I agree with Dikötter that dictatorship is on the way out. Communication technology is a couple orders of magnitude beyond what was available to opinion manipulators in, say, the 1930s. And as the Twitter Files have made clear, the conglomerates which throttle our communication are perfectly willing—eager—to cooperate with naked political power. Naked political power returns the favor. Want to know what’s really going on behind the media-Democrat-academic curtains? Try mentioning “Ukraine,” “vaccines,” or “FBI” in public and see what happens.
Also, one of Dikötter’s sub-themes in How To Be a Dictator is that dictators are often messiahs for people who have stopped believing in revealed religion. Unless the world recovers faith in God, we are all sitting ducks if anyone comes along promising this-worldly salvation. Anyone can be a dictator in a Godless country. Ask Joe Biden, kingpin of a crime family and occupier of a stolen office. But all is well, dear reader, in Washington. So saith the anchors of the evening news.
To my mind, How To Be a Dictator is much more than work of history. It is also a word of warning.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured: “Long Live! Long, Long Live Chairman Mao, the Reddest and Reddest Sun in Our Hearts!” Poster, ca. 1967.
Thomas Michaud’s book, After Justice: Catholic Challenges to Progressive Culture, Politics, Economics and Education, is an attempt to address the decline of Western Civilization. Michaud believes that this decline has occurred incrementally, and he is intent on identifying the reasons for it. Convinced that ideas have consequences, Michaud records how competing ideologies have upset the West’s moral compass. The most conspicuous of these ideologies is Progressivism. For the author Progressivism is something of an umbrella term covering several left-leaning visions of individual and communal life.
Since this volume is a kind of polemic, one might expect it to have a bellicose tone, followed by a mournful quality. But to the contrary, Michaud’s book is curiously bright and hopeful, despite its critical aims. Michaud’s polemic is buoyed by its enthusiastic reliance on Catholic social teaching and Catholic wisdom in general. Michaud is confident that the long historical arc of Catholic wisdom provides the resources to teach how the decline of the West can be arrested.
Michaud discovers in the Catholic tradition the principles of a rich theological and philosophical personalism. On this earth God’s glory is most manifest in a human life fully lived. In personalism the wonder of the mysterious depths of human person as an embodied soul, endowed with intellect and will, is the metaphysical foundation for explaining human nature and civilized life. Accordingly, personalism, comprehensively understood, is the remedy for what ails culture. This book is basically a reminder that Western Civilization is at its heart Christendom, a vision of society built on Jesus Christ as the standard of humanity. Personalism applies its principles on cultural, economic, and political life, since the triad of culture, economics, and government constitutes society and its development. Michaud’s volume shows that Western Culture now is in distress because it has forgotten the person as the proper foundation of this triad.
Upon summarizing the book’s structure, an Introduction and Seven Sections of essays, one can see how Michaud in his own way prosecutes this triad. The Introduction provides autobiographical details which illuminate key elements of Michaud’s own pilgrimage as an educator, philosopher, and Christian intellectual. Next follows the book’s seven broad sections, each containing a “Section Introduction,” which is exceedingly helpful. The Sections cover a wide variety of subject matter. Section I: Lectures and Editorials treats issues ranging from electoral politics to sports. Section II Marcelian Perspectives speaks to the influence of Gabriel Marcel on Michaud’s philosophical work. Marcel’s influence is evident one way or another throughout the entire volume. Section III: Leadership Formation summarizes reflections on the nature of leadership, a subject on which Michaud has lectured extensively, appreciating that principles of leadership disclose how organizations, including civilization itself, can succeed. Section IV: Environmentalism and Realism, a discussion Michaud takes up because of the many ideological assumptions implicit in the environmentalist movement. While environmentalists profess to be green, they also tend to be red since they hope to commandeer big government to advance their various agendas. Section V: Critiques of Progressive Politics, Pluralism, Political Economy and Revolution is a set of essays wherein Michaud speculates about the reasons for social decline. Out of the plurality of essays in this section, Michaud recommends five of them for special consideration: “The Problematic Politics of Postmodern Pluralism,” “Diversity within the United States’ Culture and Politics.” “Democracy Needs Religion” “Blasts from the Preclassical Past: Why Contemporary Economics Education Should Listen to Preclassical Thought,” and “Anatomy of the Progressive Revolution.”
The first two of these five essays express Michaud’s conviction that tolerance and justice have been altered by Progressive culture to insinuate a social philosophy akin to Marxism, especially in the form of identity politics. These essays also suggest Michaud’s agreement with John Adams that America will thrive so long as her citizens remain a moral and religious people. As a group, these five essays consider how Left-Wing ideology depersonalizes society, the effects of which are evident in the past few generations. Michaud salutes the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville and Michael Novak for their implicit personalism, especially evident in the way they worry about the erosion of morality and the dignity of the person in economics. The fifth essay reminds us that Progressivism is not just a movement aiming at reform but seeks transformation of Western Culture.
Section VI: Progressivism’s Challenges to Education and Millennials’ Happiness relates how questions of social organization impact individual happiness. The book closes with a fascinating Short Story which narrates an event from Michaud’s autobiographical record.
The persistent theme percolating throughout Michaud’s book is that political correctness is a toxin. Political correctness is not just an annoyance caused by ideological busy bodies. It is an assault on truth by the manipulation of language. By means of that manipulation, people become confused and social standards become transformed, which causes confusion as people habituated in traditional language are bemused by its change. Political correctness in its extreme is Orwellian, represented by Winston Smith conceding in 1984 that indeed 2 + 2 = 5. By control of language, authorities can control thought. This outcome is now evident in the way universities equivocate on truth and turn education into indoctrination.
A keen insight is Michaud’s observation that in recent times, champions of political correctness have refined two social tools to serve their purpose of transforming Western society. These tools are (1) a modified, ideological adaptation of tolerance and (2) an alteration of fairness in the form of social justice.
Tolerance and social justice are subtle devices since they exploit the hope that people will assume that tolerance and social justice today mean what they have meant for centuries. Who would oppose openness and fairness, which principles tolerance and justice imply? However, tolerance today and social justice are a new kind of pluralism and fairness and are effectively equivocations on the ancient meanings of those terms. The politically correct are clever, which is demonstrated by using terms which have appeal because people think they signify what they have traditionally meant. But by the sleight of hand of Leftist ideologues, the meanings of justice and tolerance have changed.
Justice classically means relating to people in a way that they deserve. But social justice is different. It interprets desert not in terms of merit but in terms of identity politics. Consider that political correctness adds an adjectival qualifier which alters meaning. When the word “social” modifies justice, a different meaning is attached to fairness. Traditionally, justice is an individual’s habit or virtue of being respectful of others, who deserve respect. Social justice, on the other hand, is a kind of identity politics, in which one divides people into groups and stereotypes them. Once the groups are stereotyped, the effort is made, often by means of government, to favor some groups and disfavor others. The virtue of justice classically understood implies impartiality and equality of standards in the application of fairness. But this is not how social justice applies today. Instead, social justice suspects traditional ideas about impartiality associated with meritocracy or earned desert. Social justice comfortably accepts partiality and inequality of application, which the politically correct call “equity,” a principle inspired by the aim of restorative justice, the remedy of past wrongs perpetrated by some groups against others.
Aware of these points, Michaud regards social justice as a Marxist trope. By using politically correct language, social justice insinuates that justice is about groups, not individuals. Because human beings are social animals, as Aristotle long ago observed, there has always been sociability implicit in the idea of justice. But the status and significance of the individual was nonetheless at the heart of the classical meaning of justice because it involved individual judgment and habit formation. Social justice, however, is a Marxist tool to eliminate the individual and reduce justice to a matter of group identities and relations. For example, when a teacher discovers that a student is cheating in class, he or she ought not judge that the student is an individual wrongdoer. That would imply that he has autonomy and moral agency. Such judgment is simplistic and does not consider how we are shaped by social forces. No, it is not the cheater’s fault. It is society’s fault, which has somehow made the student a victim. If schools weren’t compromised by an unfair social system, students wouldn’t cheat. Not surprisingly, victimology is common in the exercise of social justice, a point of view that echoes Vladimir Lenin’s conviction that the proletariat cannot commit crimes because of their disadvantage before bourgeoise power. Of course, the radical political implication is that when injustice occurs, social justice warriors cry out for big government intervention to remedy the problem. Hence, social justice becomes an excuse to expand government. As a tool of unbridled political correctness, it can encourage formation of a totalitarian state.
Tolerance is another classical virtue that has been malformed by political correctness. Historically, tolerance was understood as a virtue of justice which impels a person to allow something he disagrees with because, if he were to disallow it, a kind of injustice could follow. In the spirit of traditional tolerance whole peoples with profoundly different beliefs and values have gotten along and have even lived as neighbors. But this vision of tolerance is less popular today, especially when ideological disagreements are the issue. Today, those who profess to be among the most tolerant are often content to seek refuge in tribalistic separateness. Among Progressives, tolerance is a kind of virtue signaling, a way in which a person authenticates himself as an enlightened human being by accepting the directives of politically correct thinking.
Accordingly, Progressives, while preaching tolerance, often appear intolerant. For them, tolerance is not a species of traditional justice but a politically correct instrument to transform society. Of course, one could say that it is a species of social justice. In this way, tolerance conforms to the Leftist agenda to transform the West. Hence, the Progressive’s exercise of intolerance is quite coherent with their own worldview, even though it is out of step with the classical view of tolerance. Conservatives often do not understand this progressive application of tolerance, dismissing the Progressive’s attitudes and practices as inconsistent. But Progressives are consistent according to their own imperative: be intolerant of those who champion traditional tolerance, which is based on corrupt, benighted values. A tolerant person, as Progressives see it, is enlightened, and an enlightened person knows that intolerant people should not be tolerated. Intolerant people are unenlightened, and they are people who do not support or advance the interests of Progressive politics and culture. As a result, they are a social menace. So why should society tolerate them? An intolerant person, on their view, is indeed a regressive person, someone, like a practicing Christian, who tries to maintain traditional values and institutional beliefs that, while they pass as civilized, are, in fact, benighted.
Michaud’s book is a reminder that conservatives could help themselves by better understanding these nuances about tolerance in the Progressive movement. Instead, conservatives tend to complain tirelessly about inconsistency and censorship, failing to grasp and address the deeper motivations in Progressivism. Conservatives must recognize that they are dealing with a collision of worldviews. The Progressive worldview has endured longer than many conservatives realize, having emanated out of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideological heir was Karl Marx.
Conservatives would do well to appreciate how champions of political correctness play them. Michaud appreciates how political correctness has taken over universities. Allan Bloom, in his instructive book, The Closing of the American Mind, explains in detail how the University became a stifling culture against free thought, changing from an institution that sought to instill liberal education, freedom and independence of thought, to a system repressing the exchange of ideas. This happened, Bloom explains, as Leftists indoctrinated students in relativism, claiming there is no truth, and that no idea is more defensible than any other. Bloom explains that this relativism, akin to nihilism, would nullify educators’ efforts to instill moral and intellectual ideals in students. The only virtue, intellectual or moral, that students wanted taught, was openness, a curriculum without judgments. The students would pay a price as this relativism became the cultural norm at the university, an outcome Bloom captured in the subtitle of his book: How Higher Education Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Without moral judgment there is no nutrition for the soul.
Michaud understands that this is what happened to the universities. But, of course, the strategy of political correctness recognized that this nihilism was just an episode. No culture can exist without judgments and constraints. The politically correct just pretended for a while that the university was a bastion of non-judgmentalism. After removing traditions and curricula on grounds that they were biased, the new politically correct leaders took over most universities and imposed a bureaucracy of bias and censorship of their own, mainly through the formation of programs and committees that might make old-time fascists envious. For example, universities made traditional educators remove speech codes and standards. But they celebrated this removal only until they came to dominate the university and inflict innumerable speech codes, behavioral restrictions, and censorship rules of a sundry kind. The politically correct played the Rope-a-Dope game to perfection. The conservatives on campus, wanting to appear open, accommodating, and non-judgmental (in short, wanting to appear “Progressive-Lite”), fell for the strategy: from radical openness to repression in two generations.
Conservatives would do well to learn to resist political correctness at every turn and not play the game by its rules. This is one of the lessons of Michaud’s instructive book: conservatives must learn to fight back, and with intelligence.
Curtis Hancock is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit institution in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, where he held the Joseph M. Freeman Chair of Philosophy for twenty years. He has a B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Oklahoma, and a Ph.D. from Loyola University of Chicago. He is former President of the American Maritain Association and co-founder of the Gilson Society. He has published several books, including Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education. He has also published numerous articles and reviews.
Featured: The Liberation of St. Peter, by Antonio de Bellis; painted ca. early 1640s.
There are books that one hopes for or expects like certain boxing matches or a medieval chivalry tournament. We know that a fatal reckoning and a confrontation between opposing powers will take place, but also that at the end of the fight the darkest essence of the fight will be delivered to us as if by extra. The latest book of the philosopher Paul Audi, Troublante identité is one of those.
The denunciation of identity-based passions or struggles—whether on the part of the internationalist or alter-globalist left, cosmopolitan and progressive liberalism or the republican and universalist right—is certainly part of the obligatory obstacle course for a broad spectrum of the Western intelligentsia, on campuses on both sides of the Atlantic. Since the end of history announced by Fukuyama and his disciples in 1992 was constantly postponed indefinitely, an explanation had to be found, and still has to be found. Hence the persistence or revival of national, religious, ethnic, social or sexual identities is often summoned to the dock by our Kantian or liberal clerics to explain the postponement of the Sunday parousia that should have been that of the great reconciliation of globalized consciousness.
Usually, this kind of rhetorical exercise ends up as a kind of parody bullfighting without a kill: the muleta is painstakingly drawn up in front of the bullfighting monsters of the collective identity, but the matador’s sword never finds a firm enough place to end the fight.
Most of the time, progressivism is content to consider the narratives, representations or passions of identity as pathological illnesses caused by the harshness of global capitalism, the archaic wickedness of violent and radical beings, or by some confusing perversion of a misguided and vengeful cultural Marxism. Let’s suppress capitalism and/or Marxism, and the identity impulses, evanescent reflections of all the historical frustrations felt by the alienated souls or peoples, will disappear like the shadows of the Platonic cave in front of the sun of Truth.
Condemned to be Free
Paul Audi’s work is more interesting because it is at the same time more ambitious, more intimate, more original, more complex and more honest. Instead of reciting in a traditional way all the republican, liberal or revolutionary catechisms, in the name of which the ceremony of exorcism of the identity-demon whose tracking is required will be pronounced, the learned exegete of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Romain Gary or Thomas Bernhard (his three favorite authors, with Sartre and Lacan, which will be discussed later) prefers to start from his own personal experience: that of a young, uprooted Lebanese exile who arrived in France at the age of eleven, at the beginning of the civil war, in 1975, son of a famous and wealthy Greek-Catholic banker from the Land of the Cedars (Raymond Audi), naturalized French from adolescence, and who, out of love for his adopted country and hatred for his country of origin, tried to break all ties with any kind of filial allegiance or identity, whatever they may have been.
What is interesting (sometimes also exasperating, but one has to play the game) is precisely this bias assumed by the author, after all not very different from that of Montaigne or his favorite classical authors, to try to think through and fight the hold of national or religious identities—the others are of little interest to him, truth be told, from his own biography, from his own intimate discomforts, from his most personal or most obviously idiosyncratic recurrent anxieties, and from the painful and improbable fight he claims to have led for half a century, at the risk of psychic collapse, against the hold of his two separate, almost contradictory identities, the Lebanese and the French.
Strongly inspired by the philosophical work of Jean-Paul Sartre, in particular the famous and brilliant psychological analyses of sado-masochism and self-hatred deployed in L’Être et le Néant, but also in Les Mots or the critical essays on Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Flaubert and Genet, Paul Audi places from the outset the question of identity at the crossroads of two human experiences that he deems to be complementary and inseparable: those of self-love and shame, the morbid antechamber of self-hatred.
The Syndrome of the Naturalized
These psychological experiences can affect almost everyone; but according to him in a particularly painful and ferocious way those torn between two distinct cultural and historical worlds, one of which comes from an ashamed and forever twilight family past (Lebanon, he says, ancient Phoenicia, became in the twentieth century the “Finicie,” the artificial, bloody and clan-nation which never stops agonizing and sacrificing its sons), and the other one (the republican, Hugo’s or Gaullist France) from a literary, personal and phantasmatic mythology, elaborated since the first narratives of the Levantine childhood.
This is what he calls the “syndrome of the naturalized;” this uneasiness of the soul that strikes any allogeneous citizen, fearing that he will never be sufficiently assimilated in the eyes of his new compatriots, fearing therefore to be brought back in spite of himself under the effect of the glance of the others in the confinement of ancestral identity that he wanted to flee at all costs (Arab, Lebanese, Catholic uniate, great bourgeois).
In a rather evocative passage, Audi compares himself to Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, when he understands, in front of the ruins of the Statue of Liberty abandoned on the banks of what was once the Hudson River, that it is indeed his own race, and not that of the cruel apes, which is responsible for the disaster present before his eyes since the end of his space travel. All his life, Audi claims to have felt the feeling of despair and shame of Pierre Boulle’s hero each time the past of his family or his native country managed to destroy the self-respect and the self-esteem that he thought he had consolidated by the virtue of his French, academic and secular “baptism.”
A great reader of Jacques Lacan (one understands why: nothing of what concerns foreclosure is foreign to him), Paul Audi attempts a coup de force, like a deserting janissary, left alone to attack the fortress of the sultan.
The national, religious, historical or social identities according to him can crystallize only under the auspices of the two first poles of the Lacanian topic: the big A and the small a object, the Symbolic and the Imaginary, the Other of the Ideal of the Ego built by the unconscious from the Name of the Father, or the symbolic assemblies which result from it and the other image, linked to the promise of enjoyment, which draws in the mirror of the soul the narcissistic and fatal projection of the ideal Ego.
To Be or to Become
As Ulysses in the Mediterranean goes from Charybdis to Scylla, the zealot of identity is condemned to be tossed between these two competing hells that are the labyrinth of the symbolic narratives (national, feudal or genealogical) and the phantasmatic point-reflection, mentally manufactured by a childish subject cut off from reality, drunk with a delirious and potentially devastating self-love, which prepares as many future catastrophes by determining in an irrevocable way at the same time what he is and what he is not. When the two referents of otherness, the symbolic and the imaginary, collide, then the worst becomes possible, and the criminogenic and self-destructive struggle to the death begins.
This is what Audi believes the parallel histories of the Lebanese nation and the European nations of the last two centuries verify. The man of identity is a potential murderer, compulsive or amnesiac, who can only pay his debt to life by destroying it and amputating himself.
This is where the argument goes up a notch and unfolds the occult, almost metaphysical knot that lies in the dialectical arsenal of all the opponents of identity—according to them, as for Paul Audi, the Franco-Lebanese Melchite and apostate, men only have a choice between two options: to be or to become.
To be is to want to remain the same as our masters or our ancestors were; to become is necessarily to become another than what we are or what others (and especially our own) expect us to be.
As science distinguishes between what is continuous and what is discrete (the singularity of deviant forms that will modify the course of a natural substratum), the philosopher of otherness and becoming posits that any form of creative singularity must be conquered, sometimes at the risk of the loss of reason or life, against any substantial particularity and the desire to perpetuate what was.
Only way not to die to oneself—to welcome in oneself another than what one is.
Death at the End of the Flight?
It is by wanting to no longer resemble oneself, and thus to no longer resemble the father, that one will succeed in eliminating the threatening shadows of big A and small a, of self-hatred or of the Sartrean hell of hostile or persecuting others, in order to be able to finally penetrate to the heart of a real that will otherwise always refuse to be grasped.
At the political level, it is by becoming a migrant that the sedentary will escape the curse of his forefathers; and it is by becoming sedentary that the migrant will free himself from his wanderings while saving the indigenous people who welcome him from their own identity demons.
The best illustration of this alchemy, for Paul Audi, is the character played by Alain Delon in Joseph Losey’s cinematic masterpiece Monsieur Klein (co-written with Costa-Gavras, another French-speaking exile and fighter of identity and national passions).
Everyone knows the story of this confusing and moving collector of Jewish goods during the Occupation who, confused with a mysterious Jewish namesake whom he never managed to find, preferred to be deported to Auschwitz rather than let this obsessive Other escape forever, capable, at the end of an indifferent or futile life, of freeing him from himself.
It is only regrettable, one might object, that instead of being reborn to life, Monsieur Klein (the one played by Delon, not his faceless double) finds death at the end of his quest. This is a high price to pay, even for the escape from a guilty identity.
Moses is Not the Pharaoh
In reality, the main merit of Paul Audi’s book is also its limit, or the most radical objection to his theses—as he himself admits, in the trying struggle he has waged all his life against the grueling waltz of his two contradictory identities, he has almost ruined on several occasions the very conditions of self-acceptance and thus of the pursuit of a subjective and family life. To want to become other than what one is, is to run the risk of going mad, or of making the whole world a stranger to what one has become (which is a bit of the same thing).
To welcome the stranger into oneself is to bet that the radical oblivion of the past (Audi has gone so far as to forget the Arabic language itself, and the slightest vivid memory of his Lebanese childhood) will constitute a sufficient foundation for building a perennial future. It is to dislocate the very core of one’s native life in exchange for a promise of happiness or ethical dignity that remains an even riskier gamble than those of Pascal or Nietzsche.
At the end of the book, Audi disappoints a little by attempting to take a sideroad, inspired by the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, in the direction of Jewish identity, the only identity in his eyes that fails to become one because it is inscribed against the background of a Law transcending the vicissitudes of History, in the direction of a messianic ideal deemed to commit the future of all men, whoever they are and wherever they come from.
This red herring, supposed to tell the concrete reality of the human condition, does not really convince us. And, in any case, even admitting that Jewish identity is of a different essence from that of all other national or religious identities (which remains to be proved), not everyone, by definition, can become a Jew, even in a roundabout or allegorical way.
Moses did not welcome Pharaoh per se before leaving for the Promised Land; he fled from him by letting him and his army be swallowed up in the Red Sea. If I expect from the stranger the extra soul that historical and carnal roots do not provide or threaten, then the very oblivion of my name and face will condemn me to expect from the winds of the desert a salvation that in the end I may never be able to obtain.
Fabrice Moracchini is a literary assistant for the cultural program Le Jean-Edern’s Club on Paris Première. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s in literature and philosophy. This article appears courtesy of Revue éléments.
The Soviet Union abruptly disappeared, while Red China survived Mao’s death—even better, it revived its former power. Why? In one case, the state dissolved; in the other, it held on. China specialist Agnès Valloire brilliantly traces the history of this transition in Pourquoi la Chine? Politique naturelle en Chine rouge (Why China? Why China? Natural Politics in Red China).
Why didn’t Maoist China collapse at the end of the 1980s, like the USSR, during the Tiananmen events? One can guess what would have happened: the country would have been sold off to Western multinationals; Taiwan and Hong Kong would have gained their independence, as well as other regions, such as Xinjiang or Tibet; chaos would have reigned as in post-Soviet Russia. None of this happened. Agnès Valloire’s book, which helps us to understand why, is indispensable in shedding light on the period leading from the end of Maoism to the current presidency of Xi Jinping.
First of all, the book takes stock of what the events of Tiananmen in 1989 were: an attempt at a “colored revolution” under American influence, whose account of the course and massacres has very often been distorted by Western propaganda (there were many deaths, but not necessarily in Tiananmen Square itself). One cannot understand contemporary China if one does not understand why the destabilization maneuver failed—and why China, despite its opening up since the late 1970s, is simply not in the process of Westernization or Americanization. The explanation lies in both the context and the people.
Deng Xiaoping and Confucius
In terms of people, the book paints a glowing portrait of Deng Xiaoping, and can even be read as a brief biography of this man who is fascinating in many ways: having participated in the Long March alongside Mao, he was quick to criticize the excesses of Maoism and its consequences for the people. Imbued with the Confucian legacy, he favored the testing the veracity of abstract ideals. Relegated to a tractor store because of his differences with Mao, he came back into power after Mao’s death, and transformed the country in depth. Eighty-five years old at the time of the Tiananmen events and removed from his most important functions, he immediately understood the role played by the United States and ordered a martial response, not out of sheer tyranny, but because he understood that it was the very existence of the state that was at stake. On this point, the book is very profound—the great difference between the fate of the USSR and that of China at the end of the 1980s lies precisely in the dissolution of the state in one case, in its maintenance in the other. Deng Xiaoping’s intelligence was to understand that had the Communist Party been abandoned after Mao, the state would have collapsed into chaos. By transforming the party from within, to advance socialism in a “Chinese way,” none of this happened.
In the background, Agnès Valloire also shows that such continuity is due to the specificities of the Chinese context. It is a truism to say that China is perhaps the state in the world which, despite numerous dynastic discontinuities, has the longest existence in history. The weight of Confucianism is also important, in that it allows us to value long term equilibrium, and proposes a hierarchical vision of the world, thought of as a series of families, from the small family (which is the foundation of society, in place of the individual) to the large family that is the people.
Although very critical, and rightly so, of Mao, the book shows that he never totally broke with some of these principles, which allowed for a renewal after his death. Xi Jinping is still building on these foundations, which ensure the continuity of the state.
Let us simply express a small reservation—on several occasions, the book intends to show that the Chinese civilizational edifice conforms to the political visions of Bonald, Maistre or Maurras. This is a bit artificial, but it does not detract from the reading of the book and all that can be learned from it.
Guillaume Travers is part of Champs communs, a reterritorialization think tank.
It is the undoubted attraction, the beauty of women that leads men to become entangled in the combats of the eternal war of the sexes, never finished, never won.
There are those who have defined woman as a sphinx without mystery, without enigma, whose fascination is enclosed in appearance. Mystery or no mystery, it is her unquestionable attraction, her beauty, that leads men to become entangled in the combats of the eternal war of the sexes, never finished, never won, full of battles of attrition, of a few triumphant blows of the hand and of many months and years of trenches, barbed wire and constant, monotonogamous, stultifying bombardments. So much wastage and abundance of hendecasyllables, so many flaming and sublimated madrigals to always end up in a barren and soured bedlam: Dulcinea is always Aldonza and not vice versa. Such is the force and seduction of a simple, imaginary and unrealizable promesse de bonheur [promise of happiness], as the divine Stendhal would write. The beloved is a screen on which the lover projects his dreams, that is the quixotic misunderstanding essential to the whole love struggle, where animal impulses mingle with the fantasies of the spirit: the centaur in search of his Pallas.
For the other side—that of the sphinxes—which is the one with the strategic superiority and the most practical design, this war was resolved in a prosaic and binding objective, but very necessary for society: the family, the house, the polis, the market. That they lived happily ever after culminates all the narratives of the West, and it covers with illusion the inexorable need to reproduce the social body, to give continuity to something that is much more important than the vain and impossible happiness of individuals. Or, at least, this had been so until some members of the high castes decided to change the rules of the game and pervert the natural inclinations of human livestock with the spread of a poison that acts as a solvent of societies and civilizations: the search for an impossible abolition of reality so that even the most delirious fantasies, almost all of them purely corporeal and erotic, become real, something that, of course, cannot happen, but that makes the sphinxes stop thinking about their essential objective and replace it with a phantasm that only produces neurosis for them and great profits for those who invoke it. And when one of the sides—the strongest—is upset, the other is disoriented; the subtle balance is broken. This, fundamentally, is what El deber de lo bello [The Debt to Beauty], the recent novel by Javier R. Portella, is about.
Since the last century we knew that absurdity was the essential note of existence. But it is in this century that it has gone from being a simple intellectual or historical reference to become everyday life—the usual scenario of an increasingly ugly, puritanical, hysterical and imbecilic existence, a product imported from America but with European roots, especially Anglo-Saxon.
The protagonist of the novel, Hector, is overwhelmed (and how!) by the plagues of our time: political correctness, gender superstition and delirious feminism. Hector is the fulminated man, whose true love life was annihilated by Cristina, his former partner, and who seeks in extraordinary adventures the meaning of an existence that moves in a field of shadows where he longs for the light, but has the mania of looking for it inside all the tunnels. His erotic epiphany comes at the hand of Angelica, a prototype of the feminine ideal of our time, liberated but seductive, whose name comes in handy if we take into account that demons are also angels. Fantasy becomes reality for Hector, but it only brings him mild joys and constant ashes. Wounded by beauty and hopelessly addicted to its affairs, our postmodern Werther becomes entangled in a skein of sensual labyrinths that torment him. This comes to an extreme when he encounters a sophisticated sphinx, Margot, with echoes of Faust and Bulgakov, who leads him to his inevitable Walpurgis Night.
All of this is told with humor and with a tone that is more French than Spanish, for it is not a traditional thing to describe with elegance the deviations of the flesh, to untie with care such tender ties. Portella draws a humorous but deep portrait of an empty and full society, satisfied to the point of stupidity, a portrait that takes us from the classrooms of the pathetic Santiago Carrillo High School or from a sordid back room of the Ministry of Equality to the mansions of the European oligarchy; Hector goes through all the circles of the amorous hell of our time, of this unbridled chaos, of the glorified vulgarity that can only be redeemed by the cult of beauty, something that the protagonist misses throughout the novel and that only shines in a few moments—as that which they call “happiness.”
Sertorio lives, writes and thinks in Spain. this review comes through the kind courtesy of El Manifesto.
Pierre Manent has published a new book, entitled Pascal et la proposition chrétienne (Pascal and the Christian Proposition). It is a rich and dense work which seems to us to be of the utmost importance. It is nevertheless a demanding work, and I fear that many of our contemporaries will not be able to penetrate it, so much has Christianity in particular and the question of God in general have become foreign to their preoccupations and even to their culture.
It is on this theme that Pierre Manent’s reflection opens. The doubt that assails Europeans, the self-hatred that they often manifest, the forgetfulness and even the rejection of their history, stem from the fact that “Europeans do not know what to think or what to do with Christianity. They have lost the intelligence and the use of it. They no longer want to hear about it” (p. 7). We no longer perceive the new radicality of Christianity, nor do we measure the change brought about, after the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, by the progressive implementation of the “sovereign State” which, in the name of a supposed philosophical and religious “neutrality,” has ended up monopolizing all authority, including the spiritual authority of “values”—”There is no law above that of the Republic”—so much so that the power of the Sovereign State has become limitless.
A Religion Like No Other
Now, it was in the middle of the 17th century that the sovereign State was being fashioned, and it is in this unprecedented context that Pascal, in an unfortunately fragmentary and unfinished way, reflected afresh on the “Christian proposition,” to use Pierre Manent’s expression, namely that of the Christian faith, of the very possibility of the Christian faith. Because of this reflection, Pascal is particularly adapted to our time, a precious guide, but a guide difficult to follow without a sure master to lead us. This is what Pierre Manent does in a pedagogical and luminous way, by developing for us the way Pascal envisages this “Christian proposition.”
We know that Pascal was very engaged in the quarrel between grace and freedom and that he chastised the Jesuits for advocating a more accommodating religion so as not to see so many lukewarm souls, indifferent to the Gospel, drift away from the Church—the parallel with a certain current situation will not escape anyone! Yet, Pascal pleads, Christianity is not a religion among others. He does not justify it by the authority of the Church or of Scripture, but by the unique fact that it alone “adequately accounts for the principal ‘contrariety’ of the human condition, divided between greatness and misery” (p. 361)—it alone also dares to go against some of the most universal springs of human nature, such as love of enemies or forgiveness of offenses. The dogma of original sin accounts for this “contrariety”: “Certainly nothing strikes us more harshly than this doctrine [of original sin], and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists, and turns in this abyss. So that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man” (Pensées, 122, quoted on p. 239-240).
The Enlightened Choice of the Heart
Pascal is not a theologian who seeks to rationally prove the existence of God. Faith does not need proofs; these are addressed to reason but it is not there that faith is decided: it is a gift of God who puts it in the heart of man. Pascal thus seeks to address the will—the famous “wager”—more than the intelligence, an approach which, nevertheless, is in no way opposed to reason: “The prophecies, the very miracles and the proofs of our Religion are not of such a nature that one can say that they are absolutely convincing, but they are also of such a nature that one cannot say that it is to be without reason to believe them” (Pensées, fr. 682, quoted p. 316). And Pierre Manent adds: “Nothing is more foreign to Pascal than the ‘leap of faith.’ He gives us rather a course of reason which leads us to a choice of the heart, of the knowing heart” (p. 361), because it is not a blind choice, but a reflected and enlightened one.
And yet, Pascal points out, few seem to make this choice: “The most significant fact is not the authority acquired by Christianity but, on the contrary, the theoretical or practical atheism of the immense majority of human beings, Christians included” (p. 365). Today even more than in Pascal’s time, the idea that the only great matter of life is the choice of God with what it implies for the salvation of the soul or its eternal loss does not interest many people. This brings us back to the problem of God’s grace being offered to all, and human freedom having that power to refuse it. “There is enough light for those who only wish to see, and enough darkness for those who have a contrary disposition” (Pensées, 139, quoted on p. 367).
To make the believer and the non-believer “live together” is not easy: the solution of modernity has been to push religion to the margins of public life. Pascal does not provide a political solution; but he does provide us with a demanding path, and one that is adapted to our time of incredulity: “And all we need to know is that we are miserable, corrupt, separated from God, but redeemed by Jesus Christ; and this is what we have admirable proof of on earth” (Pensées, fr. 402, quoted on p. 406).
Christophe Geffroy publishes the journal La Nef, through whose kind courtesy we are publishing this article.
Featured: “Blaise Pascal” portrait. Unknown artist, ca. 17th century.