American fans of Monty Python will be familiar with the opening lines of William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem” (and I apologize to my British readers for such an introduction). The poem was set to music in 1916 and became deeply popular in post-war Britain. The Labour Party adopted it as a theme for the election of 1946. It recalls the legend of Christ’s visit to England as a child (taken there by St. Joseph of Arimathea). Blake spins it out into a vision of the heaven to be built in the modern world:
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.
King George V is said to have preferred it as a national anthem over “God Save the King.” It is, indeed, used as an anthem in a number of contemporary settings.
It has to be heard and understood in the context of its times. It was first published in 1808. Blake, interestingly, was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution and a critic of the many darker elements of the industrial revolution that was, as yet, in its early days.That struggle is something of a theme that has continued through to our present day.
Though we often welcome the innovation and conveniences brought by industrialization and technological advances, we also lament the frequent tragedies found in their wake. The present environmental movement seems torn between a green world of naturalism and a super-technological world in which the digital age marries convenience to a tiny carbon footprint. The jury is still out on this latter possibility.
In Blake’s time, industrialization was new and often had the effect of displacing traditional workers. As a child, he lived near the Albion Flour Mills in Southwark, the first major factory in London. The factory could produce 6,000 bushels of flour per week and drove many traditional millers out of business. When the factory burned down in 1791, the independent millers rejoiced. Some have suggested Albion Flour as the origin of Blake’s reference to “Dark Satanic Mills.”
At the very time that industrialization was bringing prosperity to some, it created new forms of poverty among the “unskilled” (or “wrongly skilled”) poor. We live with the same thing today. The abandoned factories of the Rust Belt, where poverty and drug-addiction have replaced a once thriving industrial world, point to how intractable this aspect of modernity has become. Two-hundred years after Blake, our Dark Satanic Mills are generally off-shore. Their Jerusalem, our Satanic Mills.
The tremendous success of industrialization (for some) also created a deep, abiding confidence in the power of science and the careful application of human planning. As problems increased, so, too, did various plans and efforts to manage them. There grew up, as well, a sort of modern, industrialized eschatology. The Christian faith believes in the coming Kingdom of God. Already, various reformers and off-shoots of the Puritans had imagined themselves to be creating an earthly paradise. Their utopian visions became powerful engines of change and revolution. As the heads rolled in Paris, the crowds imagined them to be harbingers of a new world. They were – but not paradise.
A name deeply associated with the Christian adoption of this progressive thought is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). An American Baptist who taught and pastored in New York, he put forward works that would become foundational for the notion of the “social gospel.”
The 19th century had seen something of a collapse in classical Christian doctrine in many of the mainline churches of Protestantism. The historical underpinnings of those doctrines had faced increasing skepticism.
Rauschenbusch was not immune to this. He dismissed the notion of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin, seeing in it, rather, an example of suffering love, whose power was to be found in its ability to encourage people to act in the same way.
He described six sins which Jesus “bore” on the Cross:
“Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt – every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered.”
These “powers of evil” were embodied in social institutions. The work of the Kingdom of God consisted in resisting these institutions and reforming society.
Liberal Christianity adopted Rauschenbusch’s vision in a wide variety of ways. That his vision was largely political should be noted. Interestingly, he saw the Church as a problematic institution and preferred to speak, instead, of the “Kingdom of God,” by which he meant the political project opposed to the six sins.
It is, of course, an interesting approach to the faith and has been a well-spring for many of the Christian social movements of the past century. It is also a jettisoning of the ontological and spiritual content of the faith traditionally associated with classical Christianity (such as Orthodoxy). It is also the form of Christianity favored by the cultural elite of our time. It needs none of the messiness of doctrine, only the clarity of moral teaching. Indeed, it would be possible to practice such a Christianity believing Jesus to be merely human.
Another aspect of the modern social gospel (endemic, I think, to its so-called “demythologized” approach to the Scriptures) is its adherence to Utilitarianism as a moral principle. That principle is a results-oriented philosophy, described best as a moral model in which all efforts are managed towards a desired end. It presumes the control of outcomes.
None of this needs a God, nor a Savior. As such, it is ideally suited to a secularized Christianity. In large part, it provides a Christian slogan for otherwise secular ends. In Rauschenbusch’s time, the place of the institutional Church was strong, almost unassailable. Over time, the secularization of the Church, married to his vision of the gospel, has resulted in the death of the very institutions that gave it birth.
The rhetoric of “building the Kingdom,” made popular by Rauschenbusch, is a deep distortion of the phrase, despite its best intentions. Christ is far more than a good man who set an example, and more than a victim of social wrong-doing. The Christian story is far richer. The nature of sin is death, not mere social oppression. Death reigns over us and holds us in bondage to its movement away from God. It certainly manifests itself in various forms of evil-doing. But it also has a cosmic sway in the movement of all things towards death, destruction, and decay. Our problem is not our morality: it is ontological, rooted in our alienation from being, truth, and beauty – from God Himself. Broken communion leads to death. Immorality, in all its forms, is but a symptom.
However, God, in His mercy, entered into the fullness of our condition, our humanity, taking our brokenness on Himself:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” Hebrew 2:14-15.
This is not the language of Christ as exemplar – it is Christ as atoning and deifying God/Man and Savior. The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.
We have been nurtured in a couple of centuries of Utilitarian rhetoric and thought. Nothing seems more normal to us than setting goals, making plans, and achieving results. It is not surprising that we might imagine God working in a similar manner. This is not the case.
Consider the story of the Patriarch Joseph. Betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into prison, where he meets other prisoners and interprets dreams, thus coming to the attention of the Pharoah, whose dream he interprets and offers wise counsel, whereby he is made Regent over Egypt, saving his family from famine.
What people in their right mind would ever consider such a plan as a means to reach the goal of saving themselves from a famine they had no idea was coming? No one. Indeed, event after event in the story appear to be nothing but ongoing tragedies. Joseph himself would later say of these things: “You [my brothers] meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.”
That is the inscrutable nature of providence – as illustrated repeatedly in the Scriptures. The mystery of God’s providence, the working of the Kingdom of God in our midst, is inscrutable: “He has exalted the humble and meek and the rich He has sent away empty.”
In these latter days, the masters of machines and money have imagined themselves to be “building the Kingdom” (Blake’s Jerusalem) with plans, intentions, goals, and utopias. [Such language was the bread and butter of public speech in my time among the Episcopalians]. The plans generally seemed to involve the rich helping the humble and meek so they would no longer need to be humble and meek. With every success they became even greater strangers to God. Their Churches stand empty, their children having forgotten God and looked towards other dreams.
It is the nature of the humble and meek to be clueless about the management of worldly affairs. They are generally excluded from management decisions. It is instructive in this regard to consider the nature of Christ’s commandments: they tend to be small and direct. Give. Love. Forgive. Take no thought for tomorrow. Endure insults.
As is true in the story of Joseph, the work of providence is largely seen only in retrospect. Its daily work in our lives will, more often than not, find us unjustly imprisoned by the lies of a wicked employer, or nailed to a Cross while being mocked. St. Paul describes the providence of God:
“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (I Corinthians 4:9–13).
If we are to speak of “building up the Kingdom of God,” let it be restricted to that work within us of “acquiring the Holy Spirit.” And then, speak with humility. Again, St. Paul says this about such things:
“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (I Corinthians 4:4–5).
Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.
This month, we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak, a Polish historian and a public intellectual. He is a professor at the Institute of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and is the head of the Comparative Imperial Studies Section at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Professor Nowak has lectured as a visiting professor at Columbia University, Harvard University, Rice University, the University of Virginia, University of Cambridge, and University College, London. He is also a recipient of the Order of the White Eagle – Poland’s highest order.
He is the author of over 30 books, among them a multivolume history of Poland, Między nieładem a niewolą. Krótka historia myśli politycznej (Between Disorder and Captivity. A Short History of Political Ideas), Metamorfozy Imperium Rosyjskiego: 1721-1921 (Metamorphoses of Russian Empire), and History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, Russia and Eastern Europe.
He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Thirty years ago, when we met, you were a scholar of Russia. You had published several books on the topic. They drew the attention of Andrzej Walicki and Richard Pipes, two well-known experts on Russian history. Now you are writing about the history of Poland. Thus far you have written four out of ten intended volumes. Could you briefly describe your intellectual trajectory? What made you leave Russian history?
Andrzej Nowak (AN): Indeed, my research interests began with an analysis of the concept of the multiplicity of civilizations by Nikolay Danilevsky, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, an ideologue of Russian Pan-Slavism. That was forty years ago.
In recent years, however, I have returned to the history of Russian imperial thought. In 2018, I published an extensive volume of studies on the manifestations of this thought in Russian culture, from the time of Peter the Great to the formation of the group of so-called Eurasianists during the First World War. I am still interested in Russian topics. Not only because it is fascinating in itself, but also because of its numerous connections with the history of Poland to the present day. For Russia, over the centuries, Poland has been the first obstacle on the way to Europe, leading to its subordination.
Marx expressed it succinctly in 1863, when he wrote that “the rebuilding of Poland meant the annihilation of (imperial) Russia, the cancellation of the Russian candidate for world rule” (“Wiederherstellung Polens ist die Vernichtung Rußlands, (die) Rußlands Absetzung von seiner Kandidatur zur Weltherrschaft”). The issue of neighboring Russia and its geopolitical significance has been my concern for a long time; and it is precisely the historical Russian-Polish relations and the comparison of two political cultures that have developed so differently in the two countries.
When it comes to the multi-volume history of Poland, for me it is an attempt to reread the specificity of Polish political culture, its rootedness in the European republican tradition (this issue has been discovered in recent years by such outstanding scholars as Quentin Skinner and Martin van Gelderen).
But has anyone pointed out that the term “Polish citizen” – civis Polonis – appears for the first time in a document from the mid-12th century? I found out about it while writing the first volume of my synthesis. Now that I am on volume five, which covers the 17th century, I wonder about the crisis of the republican system, as well as the geopolitical conditions of its duration (wars with Russia, Protestant Sweden, and Islamic Turkey).
Such issues give me a lot of intellectual pleasure – and also because they allow me to look at the present day, for example, of the European Union, from the point of view of the longest lasting union in the history of Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1385-1795). Why did this union end up being partitioned by its imperial neighbors? How did they use the mechanisms of republican freedom (veto, applied in the Polish parliamentary system until 1791)? These are not just historical issues. In each case, like a shadow, being a neighbor to Russia brings back the problem of the empire.
ZJ: Russia is fascinating. One reason is Russian literature: Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekov, Gogol, Pasternak, Bulgakov, and, above all, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. No nation, I dare say, can claim to have so many outstanding writers. Yet Dostoevsky stands out among them. He is not just a great writer but a great thinker; one of the most insightful critics of Modernity.
If you want to understand the cultural malaise of the West in the 20th century, you turn to Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset and Dostoevsky. “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” lays out all the fundamental problems of political and social organization. It is a real tour de force of political theory, which, matches only Plato’s considerations in The Republic. Chapters 7 and 8 of Notes from Underground, on the other hand, is an unsurpassed analysis of the dangers of the nascent scientific mentality, the danger of which was described in the 1950s by Jacques Ellul in his The Technological Society. Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, turned Notes into his Brave New World (1932) – which describes a soft totalitarianism, the world which we seem to be building.
On the one hand, Dostoevsky is a great prophet, who saw the future of the West, a future where the scientific mentality dominated everything and discredited the Past (tradition, religion, hierarchy, custom, history); and, on the other hand, Dostoevsky is the Russian sui generis. He is suspicious of the West, Western ideas, Western Christianity, and, let me add, who passionately dislikes the Poles for Poland’s Western orientation and Catholicism.
Czeslaw Milosz saw Dostoevsky as someone from a backward country, who realized the danger that Western ideas posed, which were flooding Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. Dostoevsky’s literary output is a short history of modern Europe. Do you agree with Milosz? And what is your attitude toward Dostoevsky?
AN: The term “backward country” of course implies that there are “progressive” countries which are the yardstick for the rest of the world. Such an attitude was adopted by Dostoevsky himself, fascinated by the ideas of Saint-Simon and Fourier, which he got to know in the circle of the young intelligentsia in St. Petersburg. The death sentence he was given for participating in this circle, and then exile, certainly came as a shock.
When, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, the so-called “progressive countries” – Great Britain, France and Sardinia, saw a liberal “thaw” in domestic politics, so that Dostoevsky was no longer enthusiastic about following “progress.” He quickly saw that liberalism and the so-called the utopian socialism, which fascinated him earlier, had a common source. And it is a poisoned source – the belief that man can build a paradise on earth on his own, and that the West is close to this paradise; and countries such as Russia should intensely imitate the West, so that one day they may find themselves at least in the vestibule of this paradise.
Imitation of the West will end in the revolution of nihilism, the foretelling of which Dostoevsky already noticed in Russia. He described them in the form of two generations in Demons: the older generation – “rotten” liberals and the younger generation – radical revolutionists.
The same observations were made earlier by poets of the Polish Romantic emigration: Adam Mickiewicz and Zygmunt Krasiński. The latter, in the drama “the Undivine Comedy” of 1833, presented exactly the vision of total revolution as a rebellion against God, as Dostoevsky had done 40 years later. The difference is that for Krasiński, the criticism of the revolution and of the preceding evolution of Western civilization is an “internal” criticism – he mourns this crisis because it is his civilization. He would like to save it, like Joseph de Maistre; he would like the Polish nobility to support the collapsing dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome with their sabers.
Polish Romantic thinkers imagined that Poland could play the role of the last defender of the European classical and Christian moral tradition against the forces of decay.
On the other hand, Dostoevsky, along with a large part of the Russian intellectual elite, took a different perspective: the crisis arises from the very essence of the West, from the rebellion of the West (that is, Catholicism) against the only true faith that has been preserved by the Orthodox Church. This is the perspective of the criticism of the West that continues in Russian thought right up to Solzhenitsyn and contemporary ideologues of Putin’s era. There are also great Russian writers who refer to this tradition today, especially Zachar Prilepin, a contemporary Dostoevsky.
ZJ: However, one can raise the following argument: Poland, as a country, disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795. Polish nobility turned Poland into “a country for sale,” because they invented a political system that made the Polish state (and the regal power) weak. Its downfall was predicted by King Sobieski.
The idea that the Polish nobles can “support the collapsing dome” is – pardon me – a piece of rhetoric, which inscribes itself well within the context of the post-French Revolution world, but it misses the point. How could de Maistre think that one could entrust the fate of Christianity, Catholicism to the people who could not even manage the political affairs of their own country? If one looks for defense of Catholicism or Christianity, a better place than de Maistre, in my opinion, is Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianityand Constant essays on religion.
AN: Sorry for the misunderstanding. The vision of the Polish nobility supporting the collapsing dome of St. Peter was written by Zygmunt Krasiński, a Polish Romantic conservative. Yes, he was inspired by de Maistre’s political philosophy, but this was a vision of Krasiński, not of a Savoyard reactionary.
De Maistre saw, for a time, in tsarist Russia the hope of saving the European tradition, until he realized how much revolutionary fuel was in Russia itself. Krasiński’s vision assumed that the Polish nobility most consistently represented the traditions of Roman republicanism, combined with Latin Christianity. As a conservative, however, he considered original sin as the cause of the contamination of all worldly endeavors and projects. That is why he saw in the attitude of defending the traditions of European Christianity a heroic but futile act. Poland’s act is to defend a struggling Christian Europe desperately to the end, just as it fought desperately for the independence of the lost (also through its own fault) Poland. But she will win this fight alone. Only Providence can win this fight. We have a duty to fight; we have no guarantee of victory.
It seems to me that this attitude is absent both in Chateaubriand and in Constant. Their “bland,” more melancholic and cultural view of Christianity presents it as a beautiful adventure of the European past, which may be saved as a kind of museum monument in the modern world. Krasiński, on the other hand, sees the issue of Catholic Europe as a fundamental existential, dramatic choice – against “this world” created by the triumph of liberalism and capitalism.
This is a completely different kind of romanticism than the ethos found in Chateaubriand. I think more realistic – at least from today’s perspective. This does not mean, however, that I believe that “Polish nobility” or Poland simply had some unique opportunities to save tradition.
Poland itself is part of the European community of fate. People who consider themselves in some sense heirs of Krasiński, but also of John Paul II and Saint Faustina (a Polish nun who initiated the world cult of God’s Mercy), must look for those Germans who feel spiritual communion with Pope Ratzinger, those Italians who understand one’s identity in the spirit of the Catholic tradition; Spaniards who still know who Miguel de Unamuno was; the French who understand the choice of Pascal and Antoine de Saint-Exupery; The English who have in their spiritual heritage Thomas More, Cardinal John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Chesterton. We are all in one boat and we will drown together, or we will keep on going together. We will reach the shore as Providence decides. We have a duty to row, in spite of those who want to sink our boat now.
ZJ: But the fate of a nation, unless we understand it in Oedipian sense, is not sealed. Fate of countries lies either in having a strong culture which gives a people a specific national identity – different from others – or strong political institutions capable of sustaining that culture.
Poland is a unique example. After more than eight centuries, it disappeared from the map of Europe at the very end of 18th century. What happened was more a result of the malfunctioning of political institutions than a lack of national identity, which, let us recall, was forged in the historical process since 966 AD, when Poland became a Christian country. Poland had elected kings and a republican system of government, which led to political weakness.
If you look at the American debate (the so-called The Federalist Papers) how such a new political system should work, the Founding Fathers (Madison and Hamilton) thought of the legislative process as an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests that take place in a society at large. Representatives of the states are supposed to represent the general attitude of the people they represent; they do not have a mandate to act or vote in a predetermined way. They are not delegates!
The Polish republican experiment was exactly the opposite. It was based on, first, the unanimity principle and, second, the “imperative mandate.” What the result of it was that the Polish Diet was prevented from being a deliberative assembly, like the English House of Commons around the same period.
Such a system left virtually no room for strong central government – the elected king – to govern effectively. The king was stripped of the power to govern, whereas the nobility could claim to enjoy “Golden Liberty.” But this liberty could be had only at the expense of the weak State and submission of the vast part of the population.
The American Founding Fathers, on the other hand, worked on the assumption that the people are free to participate, and the role of the government is to mitigate the conflicts. To prevent anarchy, or impotence of the government, the State – the federal government – had to have considerable power. Polish liberum veto, which made it possible for one person to veto the majority decision, was the opposite of the majority principle.
Can you very briefly explain how such a system came about? Were there any serious political thinkers – like Grotius, Hobbes, Locke – behind it? Or was it something that was spontaneously generated during the historical process?
AN: The system was modeled on a Roman one that lasted only a little longer. And it was not Grotius, Hobbes, or Locke who supported the creation of this system, but much more “serious thinkers” – Aristotle and Cicero first of all.
The founders of Polish republicanism modeled themselves on their works above all. They believed, somewhat anachronistically, that in the sixteenth or seventeenth century their republicanism could exist between Moscow – the “third Rome”- the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire and the Protestant military monarchy of the Swedes, the Commonwealth, i.e. the republic – as in Cicero or Aristotle (monarchia mixta), with the Polish nobility as equals, the Seym (the parliament) as a concilium plebis, the senate as the senate, and the king as an elected consul or princeps.
This is how Jan Zamoyski, influential co-founder of this system, imagined an extremely influential co-founder of this system. Zamoyski authored the Latin treatise on the Roman Senate, and was at the same time chancellor and hetman of the Republic of Poland at the end of the 16th century. He was the author of the concept of the free election of a king, in which every noble had an equal voting right. Thus, theoretically, it had the right to vote, active and passive(!), with several hundred thousand citizens of the Republic of Poland (in practice, the election of the king came from 10 to 40 thousand).
The right of veto was to secure the union with Lithuania. Lithuania was smaller than the Polish part of the union; it could always vote in the Sejm. Thanks to the right of veto, the Lithuanians could feel safer as a political minority. For the first time, a single veto, i.e., the vote of one deputy, broke the deliberations of the Seym only in 1652, that is, after a very long earlier period of efficient functioning of the Seym. The election instruction of the sejmik (imperative mandate), which elected a deputy to the Seym, was to guarantee the voting power of the local government.
There is no place here to analyze this system in detail, which was much more complex and effective (for at least 200 years) than the caricatures that Bodin or Montesquieu created on the basis of their ignorance and arrogance, or the ideological enemies of republican freedom, such as, Hobbes or Locke.
ZJ: I want to return to Russia, and explore a bit more the Dostoevsky question. As we said, he was Russian, Orthodox Christian, skeptical of science, which he thought was dangerous for man’s understanding of himself as a man endowed with free will, and thus responsible for his actions. As Dostoevsky observes in Notes, the belief that man’s behavior can be “tabulated and calculated” spells out the end of mankind.
Dostoyevsky understood that scientific thinking was bound to see man as a machine, whose life will be organized by the scientific state. This is the premise of Huxley’s “brave new world,” and, let me stress it, our world. We are daily bombarded by phrases such as “A new study shows…” “New research demonstrates…” Such phrases take away from us the power of making decisions about our individual lives.
Would you agree that for historical reasons, which brought Russia closer to Europe, early 19th century Russia became a focal point of Western civilization, where the problems of the modern West shone with much brighter intensity than in Western Europe. Nowhere – not in London, Paris, Berlin or even Warsaw – writers or philosophers reacted so intensely, as did Dostoevsky, at the thought of where the West was heading.
AN: But all that fascination with Russia, the “depth” of the Russian soul, which 20th century Western European writers discovered in Dostoevsky, can also be found in the great literature of Romantic Europe: in Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński, but also in Shelley, Keats, and even earlier at Byron. The terrifying pattern of a “brave new world” can be found in the practical idea of the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.
To illustrate the relationship between the vision of horror, which Western thought was able to perfectly design, and the implementation of this vision, which was possible (for some time) only outside the West, e.g., in the authoritarian system of Russia, let me recall the history of the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham had a brother, Samuel. Together they created a project of perfect supervision of imperfect humanity. They named it the Panopticon. They created it in Krzyczew (today on the eastern border of Belarus), which was occupied by Catherine II during the first partition of Poland.
Samuel Bentham found employment, like many world reform enthusiasts, in imperial Russia. Krzyczew and several thousand surrounding square versts taken from Lithuanian owners was given by the empress to her favorite Prince Grigory Potemkin. It was for him that the English engineer invented a new factory in the fall of 1786: a building with such a system of corridors and mirrors to be able to observe all its employees from one place. It was not about disciplining simple peasants in the area, but about supervising overseers brought in from England. To have control over every movement of those who are to act as “intelligence,” “professionals,” “elite.” This is the starting idea of the Panopticon.
Jeremy Bentham, who visited his brother in Krzyczew in 1787, was fascinated. He took up his idea and turned it into a project of an ideal prison, under the same name. He was ready to develop other applications of the same idea – apart from prisons and factories, also for hospitals and schools. See and supervise everyone without interruption. The prison inspector, playing this role, could, according to a utilitarian concept, combine business with pleasure: invite guests to his gallery, from which one could admire what the supervised do at any one time. Big Brother watches, controls and provides entertainment.
A union of perfect supervision, with the ideal of social transparency was to make life happy and safe (I recommend the movie The Circle from 2017, which shows perfectly how it works – and therefore destroyed by “right” criticism). Minimum pain, maximum pleasure. In England, the idea of the Bentham brothers was not realized – at least during their lifetime. In Russia, the younger brother did not manage to bring complete the factory: Potemkin sold Krzyczew in 1787 and set out to prepare the way for Catherine II’s triumphal journey from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea.
Samuel Bentham busied himself with the construction of Potemkin villages along the route. He returned to the idea of the Panopticon in 1806, when commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, he built such a school in St. Petersburg. A perfect prison according to the model of the Bentham brothers, including the US and Cuba, was only constructed with the use of electronic surveillance bracelets in Amsterdam, the capital of post-modern utility and pleasure (drugs plus euthanasia), in 2006.
ZJ: Dostoevsky’s suspicion of the West appears to be a distinguishing feature of the Russian mentality. But suspicion can translate itself into a political posture that one country assumes vis-à-vis other countries or civilizations. Suspicion can also produce a mentality which has a sense of its own of mission. Russia, like America, believes that it has a historical mission. Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who visited Russia, even prophesized that that the fate of the 20th century would be decided by Russia and America.
Let me quote here the 15th century letter by Philotheus of Pskov, which he wrote to the Grand Duke Basil III of Moscow: “The Church of Old Rome fell because of its heresy; the gates of the Second Rome, Constantinople, have been hewn down by the axes of the infidel Turks; but the Church of Moscow, the Church of the New Rome, shines brighter than the Sun in the whole Universe… Two Romes have fallen, but the Third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.”
If you take the message of the letter to be an expression of a mind-set, there is Putin’s rule today, in that he sees nothing wrong with 74 years of Communist rule in Russia; he pours tears over the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster of the 20th century. Russia’s aggressive posturing under Putin appears to be more than lack of civility, or even cynicism of a former KGB agent. Russia in Putin’s mind continues to be a country with a historical mission.
Arnold Toynbee, who used this letter in a chapter on Russia in his Civilization on Trial (1948), wrote: “In thus assuming the Byzantine heritage deliberately and self-consciously, the Russians were taking over, among other things, the traditional Byzantine attitude towards the West; and this has had a profound effect on Russia’s own attitude towards the West, not only before the Revolution of 1917 but after it.”
Ultimately, it would appear that today’s world expresses the ideas that go back to the sources of our civilizations: Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity, Eastern and Western Roman Empires, two different sets of political culture, political institutions. We find the echo of it in Dostoevsky too, in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in his criticism of Caesaro-papism, don’t we?
AN: Russia is born with a sense of a threat to its civilizational identity; it defends itself against the specter of political and spiritual colonization. This is how the fundamental idea of Russia is formed: Moscow – the Third Rome. Ruthenia linked its identity with Byzantium, with the Orthodox center of civilization. In 988, at the time of Vladimir the Great’s choice of state religion for Kievan Rus, this Byzantine center seemed to be an unchallenged alternative to “Latin” identity. In the 15th century, this center collapsed.
Orthodox civilization was then the basis of identity of only one sovereign political center: Moscow. Triumphant “Latin” pressed on it from the West, and Islam from the South. If Moscow dies, all civilization will die. Civilizational violence threatens the Orthodox world primarily from the West, from the “Latin” side. Byzantium itself succumbed to the West’s temptation just before the fall, accepting the ecclesiastical union in Florence (Moscow rejects this temptation). However, at stake in this game is not only defense against civilizational violence. The fate of the world is at stake, since it is about defending not so much one civilization as such, but the only true religion and its place in the world. Philotheus, the monk of the Pskov monastery of Eleazar, writes about it, puts this thought into words and presents it as an ideal-mission addressed to the power of the Moscow principality.
Laid out for the first time in a message to Grand Duke Vasilii III (around 1514-1521) and elaborated in letters in the years following, the idea of Moscow – Rome III – became the best known and most frequently updated concept of Russia’s special mission from the 19th to the 21st century. Thanks to this, Philotheus can be considered the first intellectual in the history of Russia. He is not an official writing for the state.
He is, in a sense, a man from the margins (Pskov had only just joined Moscow in 1510), passionately experiencing public affairs, the affairs of his spiritual and political community and seeking to rescue it in the face of a new great “civilizational” challenge. He seeks this rescue in the sphere of ideas and suggests it to the authorities. He does not appear as an unconditional servant of this authority, but shows its immense responsibility to protect the great idea it reveals.
Philotheus also shows examples of the betrayal of this idea by the state power – in Rome I and in Rome II (Byzantium) – and the punishment of the inevitable fall that the government’s betrayal of the ideal entails. Philotheus teaches authority: “let him know… let him remember….” He sets the condition: “If you will arrange your empire well – you will be a son of light and an inhabitant of upper Jerusalem, and, as I wrote above, so now I say: beware and note that all Christian empires have joined in yours, that two Romes have fallen and the third is standing. There will be no fourth. Contrary to the widespread interpretation of this text, it seems that it is not an unequivocal expression of faith that Moscow will always remain Rome III, that it will certainly bear the burden of this responsibility. Moscow is also threatened with the “Sodom sin,” an internal apostasy warned against by the voice of a 16th-century “intellectual.”
Philotheus only states that Moscow has no one to replace it, in its great mission to save the truth and the world. If it collapses – Rome will certainly not exist; there will be no more truth and justice in the world. That is why Moscow must not be allowed to fall! This is the pathos of the mission assigned by Philotheus to the Orthodox empire, and thus the pathos of his own, “first intelligence” of the mission.
Combined with Moscow’s heritage of Rome – empire, strength, and Jerusalem – is the heritage of the spirit. And against the world in which “lies in evil.” In practice, to the ”Latin” and Western world, which in the 16th century, after an internal split connected with the Reformation, and which entered the phase of great colonial expansion and became an obvious source of the problem of modernization and, at the same time, Moscow gives models and techniques for solving it. Russia needs to strengthen its empire to save its spiritual identity from the threat from the West, and thus maintain the ability to salvage/save/liberate the whole world. This is how the thought of Philoteus is read by some in intellectual circles and is not without influence on contemporary public opinion in Russia.
ZJ: Hostility, mutual suspicion between the Russians and the Poles is well known. The Polish see Russians as aggressors, the country that dismembered Poland in the 18th century, that erased the Dutchy of Warsaw in the 19th century. The Poles fought the Russians in the 1919-1920 war, after Poland regained statehood in 1918, after 123 years. Finally, it was Soviet Russia which imposed communist rule on Poland after WWII. This is only a handful of historical events that shape the attitude of the Poles toward Russia. Putin’s hostile attitude toward Poland today can be seen as the continuation of “the old story.”
However, looking at Polish-Russian relationships in a long historical perspective, one can see a different picture. If one takes into account the Polish conquest of most of White Russia and the Ukraine – in the 17th century Polish forces came close to Moscow, but were driven out. Russia can see itself not as aggressor but as a victim of Western aggression, of Western or Latin Christianity against the true Eastern Christianity, the Orthodox Church. If you add to it Napoleon’s Russian adventure, then the German invasion, the feeling of victimhood gets more augmented. One could say, Russia’s imperial posture was never motivated by the desire to dominate others but was a defensive posture, a posture that Russia had to assume to save herself and her Orthodox faith. Can such an argument on behalf of Russia be made?
AN: Yes, Russia has for centuries justified its expansion with the need to obtain a “security buffer” that would protect it against aggressive neighbors from the East and West. When Moscow began its expansion in the 15th century, it occupied a territory the size of the state of Utah. She “felt” threatened by her neighbors, such as the Tver principality or the republic of Novgorod – she absorbed these neighbors.
Then she “felt” threatened by subsequent neighbors. In the West, it was Lithuania, which was joined in the 14th century by many small principalities of Kievan Rus (today’s Ukraine and Belarus), emerging from the rule of the Mongolian Golden Horde. Moscow then announced the ideology of “collecting Ruthenian lands” (which had never belonged to Moscow before).
Poland did not make any conquest of the lands of Belarus or Ukraine, but entered into a dynastic union with Lithuania in 1385 – and on this basis (the marriage of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jagiełło with the Queen of Poland, Jadwiga), a state union was established, which for four hundred years united Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including the lands of today’s Belarus and Ukraine.
During these four hundred years, Moscow had been waging a series of wars in which it had finally taken all these territories, except for a small scrap of former Russia which was occupied by Austria as a result of the partitions of Poland.
At the same time, in the East, Moscow “felt” threatened by the remnants of the Mongolian Golden Horde, the Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberian khanates – and conquered them militarily in half a century (1550-1600).
Then, of course, it was “threatened” again by successive neighbors, small khanates, in Central Asia – it took them all by the mid-19th century. It also reached China at the end of the 17th century. And she felt “threatened” by China. However, it has not managed to permanently remove this threat, that is, to conquer China.
In the South, Russia “felt,” from the 16th century, “threatened” by Turkey and Persia, so it began to conquer their possessions, including Transcaucasia – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as the Crimean Khanate on the Black Sea. It has not yet conquered Turkey itself (although that was the goal of Russian policy from the end of the 18th century). But she still “feels” threatened by Turkey. After the partition of Poland, under Catherine II at the end of the 18th century, Russia became a neighbor of Prussia. Of course, she “felt” threatened by the power of Germany united by Prussia in the times of Bismarck.
If we adopt such a logic of a threat that justifies defensive conquests only. Then let us note that from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, Russia conquered on average about 60,000 square kilometers each year, combined territories of Maryland and Massachusetts. Each year, Russia was enlarging its territory in this way for over 300 years!
Stalin, in the name of this logic, persuaded Roosevelt to agree in Tehran and Yalta to give Russia (the Soviet Union) a “security buffer” covering all of Eastern and Central Europe, including Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and including half of Berlin and Vienna. Of course, he still could not “feel” safe. Russia’s security can only mean to bring the whole of Eurasia under its control, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
You can accept this reasoning only if you see in it an analogy to the American “Manifest Destiny.” But it is worth asking the opinion of the inhabitants of all the countries that first Moscow, then imperial Russia, and finally the Soviet Union, conquered in the name of Russia’s “sense of security” and the right to “self-defense.”
ZJ: Let us talk about 1989, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Eastern European countries rushed to join the EU. Russia, on the other hand, is where it always was. For the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, the citizens of the Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia (former Soviet “republics”) – the motivation was not just economic but cultural above all. One could hear the language of “returning to Europe” after decades of the culturally foreign rule. What prevented Russia from getting closer to Europe after the collapse of Communism?
AN: We need to remember, Russia has formed its political and cultural identity as an Orthodox empire, in contrast, often, against Latin, that is, Catholic Europe. Under Mongol rule for two and a half centuries, it was, as it were, forcibly opened to Asia. Since the 15th century, Moscow, pursuing a policy of “collecting Ruthenian lands,” entered into intense diplomatic and trade relations with European powers: the Habsburg Empire, and the England of Elizabeth, in order to geopolitically surround its immediate neighbors.
However, Russia did not participate in the spiritual life of Europe, in the crucial period of the Renaissance. Only from the Baroque, actually from the end of the 17th century, does Russia interact with the intellectual currents animating European culture. At that time, however, Russia had already made a great march in the opposite direction to the former Asian steppe empires – from the Western end of the Great Steppe, over the Black Sea, it reached the Pacific; in the 17th century it began to border China, Korea, followed by Japan.
Such a geopolitically enlarged Russia could no longer enter Europe, “fit” in it. The intellectual challenge, often fascinatingly analyzed by Russian writers and ideologues, is not “Russia in Europe,” but “Russia and Europe.” Space – prostor – history and religion make up a deeply rooted political culture in Russia. Together they create a “mental map” on which the memory of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Pushkin’s poems or Dostoevsky’s novels is not “evidence” of Russia’s Europeanness, but a reason for imperial pride, along with the equally grateful memory of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin.
ZJ: Let me go back one more time to 1989. One thing one notices is that the 1989 European dream in Eastern European countries is gone, and to some, the dream became a nightmare. Brexit is the prime example of that. The British sentiment can be said to be this – we did not sign up for that. We did not think our sovereignty would be limited to such an extent. This is what one hears in Budapest and Warsaw.
Recently, I asked a Polish politician – what do you think of a Polish Brexit? To my surprise, he said: “Nothing would make me happier.” Let me stress – this is not a view prevalent among Poles, most of them like where they are. But there is a considerable segment of Polish society which considers it as a serious intellectual option. The reason is the sovereignty of the Polish or Hungarian state, which EU crushes – the sovereignty that Poland was deprived of, first by partition and then the Soviet rule. It should not surprise anyone why Poles (but also others) are sensitive about a bunch of Euro-bureaucrats deciding their fate. You cannot be yourself – English, Polish, French, Italian – you must be a “European,” which means being a total abstraction.
A few months ago, I saw a headline in a major Polish newspaper: “EU must defend its citizens in Poland.” The article concerned so called minorities. According to the liberal Polish newspaper, they are EU citizens and therefore, Polish laws are violations of their rights as EU citizens. One wants to repeat after Bentham, it is nonsense on stilts, yet it is the de facto European reality. Was the post-communist dream false, or did the West change in the last 30 years?
AN: Both. The expectations of the intellectual opposition in Poland towards the West were certainly exaggerated. The image of the “free world” depicted in our imagination in contrast to the gray and openly oppressive world of the “Communist camp” was idealized.
At the same time, however, it must be remembered that the West in 1989 was still the West, politically represented by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and above all – John Paul II was in Rome. Back then in Europe they referred to the so-called founding fathers of the European Union, to their Christian-democratic roots: Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman.
Marxism, after the obvious failure of this ideology in the countries under its authority, seemed finished, at least from our perspective. In 2020, you can see how Marxist inspiration fills the longest shelves with philosophy and politics in bookstores in Paris and London. As it dominates universities in Western Europe and our part of Europe, described in a postcolonial way as “new” (“new” democracies, “new” Europe, etc.), it actually follows these trends in a way that perfectly confirms the mechanisms described by some theorists of postcolonial studies.
However, part of the “intellectual layer,” and many so-called ordinary people, in countries with a strong historical and cultural identity of their own, such as Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, still keep the memory of the real experience of enslavement by the Communist logocracy, from which today comes the political correctness that dominates in the West and is imposed on us. That is why this new enslavement, this time coming from the West, is met with some resistance here.
However, fears of the real neo-imperialism of Putin’s Russia do not allow countries, such as Poland or Lithuania, to suddenly cut off from the European community, even in its present, disastrous shape. We can try to change Europe, stop this fatal process from within. This is what worries the Brussels, Parisian and Berlin political and intellectual elites. They ascribe to themselves the role of teacher and therapist for a “backward,” “sick” part of Europe (here the most frequently mentioned are Hungary and Poland).
In fact, I see in this attitude also a deep fear that the attitude of the elites currently ruling in Poland and Hungary, in matters of culture, customs, understanding of the European tradition – may turn out to be attractive to many Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards – who do not necessarily want to run after the “bright future” promised by European progress officials. Many European people are looking to defend their common sense against ideological madness. Some people recall that Europe has always been rich because of its diversity and not of top-down centralization, and not by exchanging arguments about the good life, development models, and not by imposing “just the right approach.”
ZJ: What you have said makes me think of a famous sentence from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859): “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting the end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate to find one.”
Unlike democracy, despotism or autocracy, with which we associate the Orient and Russia, is not a political system or a theory of government. Rather, it is mode of governing a people. As a specialist on Russia, can you say that Mill’s words apply well to the state of Russian society at that time? In other words, is autocracy a system of government – the only force that could guarantee social and political order?
AN: I would disagree. Aleksander Wat, a Polish futurist poet who passed through nearly 20 prisons of Stalinist Russia during World War II, once gave a very good definition of the Soviet system – the absolute concentration of absolute power on an absolutely large area. An alternative to despotism (i.e., centralism) may be federalism – the development of regional self-government in a territorially large state.
Let me remind you that until the beginning of the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian state was larger in terms of territory than Moscow and until the partitions (in 1772) it was the second largest state on the European continent. And it was on such a large area that a system of decentralized authority was created, based on local self-government (district councils), which functioned well from at least the 15th to the 17th century.
As is known in the United States, this system continues. In Moscow, they also showed possibilities of developing a system of representation of the society several times: at the beginning of the 17th century, in the form of the so-called “earthly councils.” The movement of local, that is, earthly self-government, became strong again at the end of the 19th century – this is the self-government in which people like Chekhov and the heroes of his plays could find their place.
The defenders of despotism as the only recipe for the problems of the great state refer to one argument above all: if we do not have a tsar and we do not listen to him – then we will lose the empire. Putin successfully appealed to this argument after the last great experience of the crisis of the empire, which also coincided with the revival of Russian self-government – in 1991.
Ultimately, the dilemma faced by the supporters of this power for Russians (and not only for them) is – either size (grandezza as Machiavelli would say), or freedom – a liberta. You want greatness, give up your (republican, self-governing) freedom. At the same time, a new tone appears in this argumentation – state despotism (meaning the lack of civil self-government) can be reconciled with liberalism – economic and the right to privacy.
In the Russian philosophical tradition of Slavicism, there is such a contrast – the state is a heavy-duty power – and society willingly gives its burden to the people of power, and itself enjoys non-political freedom. And this is probably not only the Russian tradition, but the constantly reviving temptation to organize political life without citizens. There is only the state (and its guardians) – and on the other end – individual consumers.
ZJ: Could one say the same thing about China, and the Chinese leaders’ rhetoric that we have been hearing for about 20 years – that what China fears the most is anarchy. Ergo, the Chinese Communist Party is the sole guardian of social order; and since anarchy is worse than anything, despotism or autocracy is a legitimate way of governing the population. Some 15 years ago, Boris Johnson wrote a piece for the Spectator, where he accepted this view about anarchy in China, which makes me think that Chinese rhetoric works. Today Johnson is Prime minister, and what he thinks can translate into his country’s foreign policy.
AN: China has just adopted the model I outlined at the end of the answer to the previous question. Does this mean that it is the only model that suits the Chinese? After an intense indoctrination lasting for generations, one can get this impression. The Chinese from Hong Kong have a different opinion, however.
Please allow me to express my opinion on Prime Minister Johnson’s view and on Mill’s remark earlier cited. Well, I see them as a reflection of the imperial-colonial tradition, especially strong in the English (later also American) elites. Outside of Great Britain, and maybe even outside the club, which brings together the elite from Eton and Oxbridge, there are actually no gentlemen. There are barbarians all around – at least to the East of Germany are surely the habitats of barbaria. The barbarians living there can be cannibals, if that suits them, we – gentlemen from the club – will not hinder trading with them.
The most cynical example of this attitude I found in the liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, who in 1920, when he initiated political negotiations with Lenin, said that he did not care about the political principles of these barbarians, let them even have the Mikado – it is their business, as long as they kill other barbarians (this is what Lloyd George meant about the Armia Czerowna – the Red Army – which at that moment was storming Warsaw). And let them get together as they please – this is their freedom. And this is our liberalism that we will not impose our political standards on them. We must reach an agreement with them, if they are so strong that without them it is impossible to establish a global order. This is a specific combination of liberalism (à la Lloyd George) and imperial Realpolitik.
In America, this is the approach of many – formerly Henry Kissinger, now John Mearsheimer. For me, this is a very short-sighted doctrine of appeasement – the false hope that aggressive despotism will feed on victims only from the circle of “barbarians.” Eventually, however, comes the moment when the “barbarians” start eating the gentlemen. Such is the logic of despotic empires. It is perfectly summarized by the saying of Bezborodko, Chancellor of Catherine II – what does not grow, rots. The despotic empire must continue to expand – otherwise it risks imploding. And they know this very well not only in Russia, but also in China. It is good that this has also been remembered in London and Chicago.
ZJ: Now that the Democrat Biden has become president of the United States, we will have a different foreign policy. If you were on the team of Russia advisers to the president, what would you say should be the US policy vis-à-vis Russia?
AN: President Biden will have other advisers. I can only express some concerns based on the historical experience with the presidents of the United States, who over the past three decades came from the Democratic Party and represented a left-liberal ideology. They were, let me remind you, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama.
The former started with dreams of a “reset” with Russia. Fortunately, Russia was so weak during this period that it could not take advantage of this policy. The disaster happened under Obama, who has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria on his hands. His complete irresponsibility led to an escalation of the civil war and to the re-installing of Putin’s Russia as a key player in the Middle East.
Obama also made a significant gesture to Putin – he resigned from the project adopted by the previous administration (Bush Jr.) to install the so-called anti-missile shield in Poland. President Obama announced his decision to withdraw from this project, which was indeed very irritating to Putin and which strengthened the sense of security for Poland and the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe, on September 17, 2009. It was exactly the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
Putin may have felt invited to a new expansion – and he tried it in Ukraine. At that time, however, President Obama was probably instructed by people who knew the rules of world security better than him – and there was a certain reaction to the aggression in Crimea, and then in the Donbas.
What am I afraid of? That under the slogan of the fight for a “brave new world,” led again by liberal America, the US president will not recognize that it is not good stigmatizing smaller countries that do not accept this ideology and handing them over to Russia as “pariahs of the democratic order.” It does not have to be democratic or liberal, but it is very important to this vision of “restoring order” that it be fulfilled by restoring its former zone of domination (Ukraine? Maybe Poland? Maybe most of Central and Eastern Europe?).
In short, I am afraid of combining the slogans of the ideological “crusade” (actually, anti-crusade) inside the so-called Western community, understood as a community of LGBTQ+ rights and unlimited abortion – with a practical policy of the so-called realism in relations with non-Western empires such as Russia. The costs of such a policy would be paid primarily by the countries of the inter-imperial border, such as Poland, Lithuania, or – on the border with China – Korea and Taiwan.
ZJ: Given what you said about Russia and China, it seems to me to be only proper to invoke here two Frenchmen. In the 1830, they embarked on long trips in two different directions – Alexis de Tocqueville went to America; Marquis de Custine went to Russia.
Not much was known about the two countries. Before Tocqueville published his book, there were, I believe, only three or four books about America. Tocqueville’s and his young companion Beaumont’s books were the first ones to offer an exhaustive view of both the country and, above all, American democracy.
De Custine, on the other hand, was looking for an alternative to democracy. For Custine, in the words of Robin Buss, the English translator and editor of his Letters, “democracy meant mob rule and the dictatorship of public opinion, through rabble-rousing speeches and the press.” Encouraged by his friend Balzac and the Polish Count Ignacy Gurowski, he set out for Russia.
The fruit of his visit is Russia (1839), or The Letters from Russia. By today’s standards, Tocqueville’s book is an international bestseller, and everyone who wants to understand democracy must read it. Given its success in the 20th century, the popularity of Tocqueville’s work is not surprising. However, the 21st century is different.
The rise of China with its autocratic style of government should be of concern to everyone. Russian democracy is a democracy in name only; for all intents and purposes it is a mild form of old autocracy. The difference between it and China is that the Chinese rulers do not hide their contempt for democracy, Xi Jing Ping openly says that the system is a failure. Both leaders share two things – the respective countries’ tradition of autocratic rule (strengthened in the 20th century by the experience of Communism) and the belief that only autocratic rule is capable of preventing a country from sliding into anarchy.
Would you agree that given democracy’s current performance in America and Europe, there is every reason to read de Custine’s account.
AN: People knew quite a lot about Russia in France before de Custine. Let us recall, for example, that the French Grand Army visited Russia in 1812, and two years later France was “returned” by the Russian army (Normandy was a Russian occupation zone for two years). A lot of arguments have already been gathered, both on the side of Russophobia and Russophilia.
The first French treaty stigmatizing the Russian political system as oriental despotism was published in 1771. It was written by Abbé Chappe d’Auteroche who visited Siberia (voluntarily), and Catherine II herself replied to him with a two-volume refutation of his arguments (I write about it at length in my recent book, entitled, Metamorphoses of the Russian Empire 1721-1921). This work, published immediately in French under the title Antidote and translated into English, was not only the defense of Russia’s right to the name of a European power, but also the justification of the autocracy.
As I argue in this book, in such a huge country as Russia, another form of power would lead to disintegration. The Russian system is not despotic, but a noble, enlightened absolutism, motivated by concern for the greatness of the state and the welfare of its subjects. So much for Catherine the Great. And it is so today, until the time of Putin’s apologists.
These arguments excellently convinced the French elite (and not only them). After all, Montesquieu said the same – this is why we should refer to de Custine’s work, because it helps us understand that the nature of the Russian despotic system is not autocracy itself, but above all lies, systematic, omnipresent, gradually disturbing cognitive abilities. The lie of the subjects against the authorities, the lie of the authorities against the subjects, and the systematic lie of the power of the Empire against its foreign partners.
No partner is actually a partner; each one is treated as an enemy to be deceived and manipulated. The KGB school, from which most of Russia’s current political elite hails, has raised this ability to lie to an incomparably higher degree than was possible in the days of Nicholas I and de Custine.
The contradiction of the various “narratives” that this Russian rule presents about itself is staggering. For the right wing, Putin is to be the “eschaton” of the Christian order, the last defender of the Cross against neo-paganism and Islam. For the Left (the propaganda of the Russia Today television station is addressed to this audience) – the last tough opponent of hated America, to some extent heir to Lenin’s Russia. For Western businessmen – a model of a good business partner. And so on. Whoever reads de Custine will understand the genesis of these narratives.
ZJ: Russia is not the only country that created national myths, such as the Third Rome. Other nations have this tendency too: Rule Britannia, the City on the Hill, the Third Reich, and many, many others.
The Poles – very much like the French – are obsessed with national history. They created a myth which is not about ruling the world but saving the Western World from barbarian onslaught. It is the myth of the antemurale chirstianitatis, the Bulwark of Christianity. The origin of it is not Polish. As far as I know, it was coined in 15th century, during the papacy of Pius II. It was Skadenberg, an Albanian Nobleman, who coined the term, which meant that Albania (and Croatia) was Italy’s Christian bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. Poles adopted it; it functions in Poland, but in Poland it means more than the fight against the Muslims or infidels at the battle of Vienna on September 11 (!) 1683, where the Poles defeated the Turks. It is understood as antemurale against the East, Orient, the oriental despotism. It includes Russia as a barbarian force as well. Given the Christian (Orthodox) nature of Russia, is this historical vision justified; and using it against Eastern Orthodoxy, are we not in danger of creating a false historical imagination?
AN: I do not know if Poles are “obsessed” with national history. I have a different impression when I look at the youth which is protesting today in the streets of Polish cities with the most vulgar words, to emphasize their hatred for the Catholic Church, Christian tradition and the historical identity of Poland.
Let me make a comment on this issue. It is difficult, for example, for Belgium to be “obsessed” with its history, since it was created as a completely artificial state entity less than 200 years ago. It is difficult for Germany to express “obsession with history,” that is pride in its tradition, for obvious reasons. Simply put, nations have different histories, of different lengths, and different intensity as to how this history is experienced by social groups of different sizes. No one matches China in this respect. When you compare Poles with Jews, the Jews will undoubtedly turn out to be a nation much more “obsessed with their history.”
And now about the “bulwark of Christianity.” Again – a complete misunderstanding. The idea of a bulwark appears in Polish history in 1241 – during the great Mongol invasion. After the conquest of Ruthenia (Kievan Rus’ or Ruthenia!!! – not Russia), the Mongols moved to Hungary and Poland. On April 9, 1241, the prince of Poland, Henry the Pious blocked the way of the Mongols near Legnica. He led about 7000 – 8000 Polish and German knights, including 36 Templars. The prince was killed, the battle was lost, but the Mongols, having suffered heavy losses (similar to the parallel battle fought in Hungary), turned back.
The mood in Latin Europe at that time was truly apocalyptic. The fear of the Mongols as invaders from a completely different, completely alien world, as if of an invasion of the Martians, paralyzed the will of defense in many, but fired the imagination of no fewer people in the Latin West. Part of the Jewish communities scattered around the cities of the Reich were very excited about the news of the mysterious approaching Mongols. The Jews waited for liberation in the year of 5000 (1240/1241), which was exactly at this time on their calendar. There were also those who expected such liberation to come from the hands of the Mongols. In fact, some even saw in Genghis Khan the Messiah, the son of David.
After the defeat in Legnica, the echoes quickly reached even out to Frankfurt am Main, where the local Jews in May opposed with unprecedented audacity the baptism of one of their fellow believers who had freely chosen Christianity. It ended on May 24 with a terrible pogrom, which brought upon the Jews the fear of the Frankfurters and rumors of favoring the wild invaders from the East by the followers of Moses. The threatened rulers, including the Hungarian king Béla IV, the Czech king Wenceslaus I, Prince Frederick of Austria, and the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen himself, in letters, called for defense against the Mongols.
This was the context in which in Poland, Henryk the Pious, Legnica appeared, the heroic but lost fight on the Eastern fringes of the empire and Latin Europe. And this was the beginning of not only a myth, but a practical experience, the last (thus far) military act which, in Poland, is considered as having stopped the invasion of Central Europe by the Bolshevik Red Army in the summer of 1920, in the Battle of Warsaw. Legnica 1241 was most often mentioned in the journalism of the time. Will new experiences be added to this in the 21st century? I do not know, but I do not rule it out.
ZJ: Allow me to finish this conversation with a question which has been on my mind for many years. At the beginning of the 1990s, Poles coined the word “lustracja” (from the word “lustro,” mirror) which means “mirroring.” It is a made-up term that describes the process of making former communists, State apparatchiks, secret agents and collaborators accountable for their participation in building socialism. In the post-communist societies people who did not support socialism, who suffered, who were persecuted or prevented from social advancement felt it necessary to expose those who upheld the system, who held power at the expense of the people who refused to participate in the Great Lie.
It was a form of showing the former commies and collaborators that their participation in the system was simply a matter of human indecency.
Unlike Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia have never undergone such a process – no moral or legal punishment for the former communists and collaborators. The old communists and collaborators, KGB agents, like Putin, became the lords of the New Russia. No such thing would be imaginable in Soviet satellite countries.
In your expert opinion, first, how significant has been the lack of “lustration” for the moral health of Russia, and, second, did the Russians realize what Communism did to Russia?
AN: The importance of this issue was best described by James Billington, an outstanding scholar of Russian thought and culture, in his book Russia in Search of Itself. Let me quote a key excerpt from the summary of this book: “There are essentially four ways that a nation can move beyond the fact of massive complicity in unprecedented evil. 1. Remove the problem from public consciousness. 2. Transfer the burden of evil to others. 3 . Evade the problem of evil in society by creating a noble personal philosophy for an elite. 4. Overcome evil by accepting the redemptive power of innocent suffering.”
This book was published in 2004. In 2020, it can be said that the official policy of remembrance in Putin’s Russia is a combination of the first two attitudes. The attitude most consistent with the Christian, Orthodox tradition, listed as the fourth in this list, has been marginalized.
As early as 2004, Billington was able to accurately pinpoint the cause of this state of affairs: “What is missing for this fact to open up broader redemptive possibilities for the Russian people is accountability, or even searching self-scrutiny, on the part of the Church itself.”
I am sorry to note that the lack of full accountability in a part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Poland, for the cooperative spying of a small minority of priests with the communist police system in 1945-1989, also brings poisoned fruit into my country, Poland.
ZJ: Do you see any similarities between this and participating in all kinds of PC projects today – which is all morally questionable? Many people in the West, especially in academia, sold themselves to the Devil for the same reason that communists of old did. They are willing to justify today’s injustice in the name of future benefits. I am afraid, they, like the former commies will wake up from their dream of the better world, where all are equal and happy – very disappointed.
AN: Conformism, the lack of civil courage, is the most important, established and widespread feature of academia, at least in the humanities and social sciences. The ideology of “emancipation,” which today is the main instrument of the degradation of these areas, works – in my opinion – on a slightly different principle than you presented in your question.
In fact, under the lofty slogans of redressing past wrongs (towards women, animals, sexual minorities, and countries once colonized), professors of sociology, English studies, philosophy, political science, history and similar fields (displaced by new, more politically correct combinations) are ruthlessly fighting for their particular, current interests – for survival in a ruthless struggle. Survival of the fittest – this is the reality of this essentially amoral struggle, in which the stakes are a professorship, appearing on television, or the role of a social media star – and the alternative is the loss of a job, or experience of attacks by the media and environmental campaigns.
Adapt to the ideology currently imposed by the big media and their disposers – this is the method of survival. This is how the cultural revolution unfolds, more and more like the one that swept through China under Mao Zedong. Anyone who does not want the media and groups of students manipulated by it – to put on a “hat of shame” (as was done in China) – must join in stigmatizing colleagues who are still defending themselves against such degradation.
There is no labor camp waiting for them yet, but it is becoming more and more real to hand over those who still have the courage to think “incorrectly” to therapy, into the hands of therapists who will, anyway, remove “wrong” thoughts, concepts, and memories from their defiant heads. .
Probably no one has described the attitudes of intellectuals subjected to terror and the temptation to justify their cowardice better than the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in his book, The Captive Mind. It is a book written in 1951 about the Polish intelligentsia conquered by the Stalinist diamat (dialectical materialism). This is also a book about the situation today at American and European universities. It is worth reading again.”
ZJ: Thank you, Dr. Nowak for this enlightening conversation.
The image shows, “Introduction of Christianity in Poland,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1889.
In our final treatment of “We The People,” who they are and are not, and the fissures among them, we confront a problem that not only has grown over the last five years, but one whose gravity has markedly increased since this analysis began two months ago.
The problem I speak of is the rift between the American People. This schism explains both the Coronavirus reaction and the fallout of the November vote. It must be understood in the context of a much larger shift happening in Western history.
The situation is critical. As this essay goes to press the 50 American states are more or less in the static condition of early April. The novelty of an unexpected world vacation has worn off, so has the fun of library Zoom presentations; “the show must go on” mood of classes thrown online en masse has been replaced with wearisome guessing as to when schools will go into their next two or three week shutdown. What remains, indeed what increases, is the anxiety and anger of watching one’s personal and communal stability torn down by barristers, computer programmers, and John Rockefeller’s sort of doctors.
On top of this testiness we have seen the Democratic Party (DNC) steal the November vote. Hundreds of thousands of digitally tallied Biden votes appearing in the middle of the night is a big pill to swallow, it’s almost as big a pill as several hundred thousand more votes dropping minutes later onto digital tallies; paper shredding trucks showing up at polling sites in broad daylight were bold, almost as bold as boarding up the windows when election monitors showed up.
The dead were not only remembered on the altars of America this November, but thanks to DNC employees, their memory was kept alive in the polling booth as well. Mitch McConnell had the tar beat out of him days before the election lest he be persuaded to fuss over the coming con, and Emily Murphy of the General services Administration reported “thousands” of threats she received to prematurely open up Federal funds for Biden’s transition team.
This bold, brazen, even comically obvious swindle ought not matter to a literate public. As we’ve learned in this series, after all, the vote of early November is advisory. The Electoral College and the Electoral College alone chooses the President; in no way, shape, or form does the November opinion survey of America’s 14th Amendment citizens bind December’s bloodline Electors to a decision. The meeting of the College is neither an archaic boilerplate in the American system nor a “ratification” of a state’s popular vote. The decision of the College is sovereign.
The late voting stunt, however, becomes serious in light of popular perception. Always in a working relationship, the DNC organization has confederated with broadcast media to assert Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, once and present members of the Bar Association respectively, to be President and Vice President of these United States. The fawning of the Washington press corp and the coverage of nightly news shows is plain evidence of this relationship. Fox’s John Roberts took biased reporting into gaslighting territory this past October 1 by asking Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany a question on racism immediately after receiving a comprehensive answer to the same question he asked moments before.
Time will tell what’s to become of the Trump Administration. The members of the Electoral College do not meet until December 14, after the publication of this essay. Like the British People of the Crown Corporation whom their granddaddies replaced, the present American People are content to let the pop media spin whatever story it wants to. They keep their cards close to their chests. CNN can twitter and smirk as it pleases, Joe Biden can jog on all the stages he wants, and Barrister Harris can dance to Beyonce all night long, come mid-December the Electors alone matter.
We return to the topic of public perception, however. Much hinges on this point. The Trump Administration must vindicate its claims of fraud in the courts. If it fails to do this but wins the College they will not only be dogged by charges stealing the Presidency, but worse things will be in the offing. If the College, the bloodline People, elect Donald Trump but if he does not absolutely and finally expose and prosecute the Democrat’s fraud in court – mind you, this is a route which is possible and lawful, and for all the trouble it saves, deliciously tempting – then the DNC and broadcast media will instigate a violent reaction.
There is no doubt this will happen. They have spent the better part of a year hinting at this very thing. And this will not be violence of the mass shooting and racial protest sort, limited and controlled events with intelligence fingerprints all over them, events that are turned on and off at will. No, the DNC will split the state’s armed hirelings, the People’s police and military forces.
If the past four years tell us anything, indeed if Rudy Giuliani’s ongoing defense is an indication, the Trump Administration will flop in this necessary task. They will continue to let opportunities slip through their fingers (e.g., Bobulinksi at the final debate), they will continue to embrace the wrong people (e.g., Mike Pompeo) and alienate the right ones (e.g., Sidney Powell), they will continue trying the same media “hack” of 2016 (e.g., call the press out as liars, appeal to the public directly via social media). This last point was genius at the time, but its sun has set.
Like the scheming court eunuchs in whose footsteps they tread, mainstream media have well provided against another like 2016. Their strategy now is to smile, declare Biden the winner, and keep smiling and declaring him such no matter what. Adonijah, eat your heart out (1 Kgs. 1). Because Trump’s men will flop on the point about the vote, it will mean bloodletting, if the election is successful for them.
Civil strife is a narrative which has been seeded in the media for some time. Last December, for example, The Atlantic dedicated an entire issue to, “How to stop a civil war.” I dare say no one was thinking of civil war. It was predictive programming. So too was the spate of present and retired military men who came out against Trump during the height of the rioting this past spring. Similar programming was seen in Gavin Newsome’s calling California a “nation-state,” as was his Auntie Nancy [Pelosi] and her words on the 25th Amendment, her having spoken to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and her having “arrows in my quiver.”
We can go on in secula seculorum about what might happen, but between last month’s piece and this update, let us move on to the meat of the matter; let us move on to our final and most incisive probe into the split amongst the People. In brief, now that we know the People are the bloodline descendants of the Founding Fathers, and now that we know these united States exist under their sole control and for their sole benefit, and now that we have palpitated a fissure amongst them which helps explain the accentuated tensions of the last five years, let us conclude our examination reprising our historical analysis.
We will place the present political situation within the COVID saga, seeing how the Coronavirus reaction itself is merely a piece of the Technocrats’ “Great Reset.” To do this we will start at the end, the so-called Great Reset.
The Great Reset
In the June 2020 publication COVID-19: The Great Reset stockjobber Thierry Mallet and jetsetting gombeen man Klaus Schwab laid out how Technocrats mean to mold an effeminate Liberal West towards their end. In the book they lay out a world which is so altered by Coronavirus that some have taken to calling ours an epoch “BC” (before COVID) and “AC” (after COVID).
Though it lacked any spiritual or cultural insights, their critique of the moribund West contains some gems, some sensible points which readers of this site will likely agree with. Those with a touch for the delicacy of culture, for example, can only agree with their statement spoken in an economic context, “This new culture of immediacy, obsessed with speed, is apparent in all aspects of our lives, from ‘just-in-time’ supply chains to ‘high-frequency’ trading, from speed dating to fast food. It is so pervasive that some pundits call this new phenomenon the ‘dictatorship of urgency.’”
The Great Reset is an umbrella term for a number of reordered social relationships. The index of COVID-19: The Great Reset speaks of changes in the spheres of social contract, global government, pollution, time, and mental health. Their “stakeholder capitalism” seems to be a reworking of Adam Smith of the computer age. Always do they use the word “reset”; their vision of life is that of a coder.
What matters for our discussion are not the specifics of their plan, nor do we concern ourselves with the morality of continuing to scare people with a dubiously virulent disease. We will not waste our time on couldas, shouldas, and oughtas; we only care about what is. And what is at this moment is the fact that Messrs. Mallet and Schwab and their sort are in a position to implement their planned society. As they write in The Great Reset, “The broader point is this, the possibilities for change and the resulting new order are now unlimited and only bound by our imagination.”
One of the aspects of the Liberal nation-state was the concept of the “public space,” a means by which every interest in society could be taken to account. The public space was supposed to provide a safety mechanism against the very schemes openly published in COVID-1 . If everyone in society ceded some of their freedom to the state, the philosophes argued, the public space would in a sense have more aggregate power than any single interest in society, or even any combination of interests.
This has been undermined to meaninglessness. Things like the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, where occulted realities like corporate “personhood” became widely known, were a preview of coming attractions. The fearsome Trans-Pacific Partnership was barely beaten back in 2017. It showed just how dilapidated the Liberal state had become prior to COVID, how evenly matched the power of business has become. And while it seems petty, the fact the companies like Twitter can censor the President itself shows the ability of companies to overpower states. When it comes to the People’s states and the Technocrats businesses, the People are backing up.
The Davos boys are assisted, of course, by a rank further down on the Technocrat totem pole. This station is filled by the likes of Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerburg. These are lesser actors; their folksy first names tip their hats to their smarminess.
Did we learn nothing of con artistry from “Fannie Mae” and “Fredie Mac?” Their motivations are more pecuniary than Schwab and Mallet, less inclined towards Victor Hugo-like reveries about the future. Second fiddle to the Davos clique, they represent the lower approaches of a business sector which now rivals the nation-state in terms of the resources it is able to muster.
Corona In Context
Working our way backwards, having sketched the Great Reset, we place the Coronavirus disruptions in context. The virility of the disease has greatly waned; our worst fears from March have come to naught. What deaths come from COVID as soon arise from inappropriate treatments such as ventilators as the pathogen itself. Indeed, one of the satisfactions of 2020 is watching the modern military apparatus fail so fully. With Isaiah (cf. 14:16) we laugh at those monsters who develop diseases in places like Wuhan, “Are these the men that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms?” The masters of war are not so masterful after all.
Nevertheless, the powers that be behind the Agenda, of which in truth the “Great Reset” is only one slickly marketed part of many, unexpectedly found COVID to be the perfect multitool for nigh on every plan of theirs. Cashless society, check; travel restrictions, check; education reduced to the naked collection of data, check; further fracturing of society (e.g., young vs. old, masked vs. faced), check; evisceration of small business, growth of conglomerates, check; vaccines, vaccines, vaccines, check and check.
The powers that be may have discovered COVID to be a perfect tool, but certain of them predicted, even planned, the reaction of this so-called pandemic. Those inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Mallet and Schwab’s assertion that Coronavirus is a “white swan” event, a happening which is certain, measurable, and ultimately blamed on human error, will temper their generosity in remembering the collaboration of the World Economic Forum with the Gates Foundation in staging the Event 201 workshop in October of 2019.
The Liberal nation-state is dead. It died long ago. In my own America, the national government established in 1787, what most men rightly or wrongly hold to be the fulfillment of the struggle concluded in 1781, itself ceased to exist in December of 1860. What was erected at the time of our Secession Crisis, and what has masqueraded as that united States government until this writing is merely an ad hoc corporation called the UNITED STATES (n.b., remember from Part I, legal capitalization has a meaning).
Throughout the 20th and 21st Century the reality of this shift from law to administration has come increasingly to the fore. Take five minutes on beleaguered Emily Murphy’s GSA website and you will clearly see the commercial nature of the UNITED STATES organization.
One of the reasons the Biden’s bogus vote is not especially upsetting is because the DNC’s crime, when placed in the context of the post-1860 UNITED STATES lie, seems almost inevitable. Things had to end up here. Of course, a presidential vote would eventually be stolen in broad daylight. What’s built on lies will end in lies.
Putting the American situation within the context of the Coronavirus fallout, and Corona within that of the rising order, we see that a minority – perhaps a third – of the bloodline People have thrown in their lot with the Technocrats. I guess this rough percentage based on the significant through not irresistible power which this clique has been able to leverage in the pop media and in coordinated events like the November swindle.
Unless Liberals get their act together these feckless People, these one-third of defectors from their ranks, cannot be faulted for jumping ship. They are only doing what the People of Rome and the People of the Enlightenment did in their turns. The deciding factor behind the Senator’s and the Equites’ occasional realignment, and the deciding factor forging the shopkeepers, barristers, and bankers who became the various Peoples of the Liberal nation-states into a political caste, was self-interest. (As an aside, the rise of the Medieval Christian order, a shift which occurred between those of Rome and the Enlightenment, did not come about by such machinations).
Why should the present turncoat People be pilloried for making the same decision as the Equites in the 1st Century BC and the middle class in the 18th Century AD? The Roman Patricians did not take their system seriously, they would not have developed their “bread and circus,” “client-patron” system if they did. If the Senators did not take themselves seriously why should the shut-out Equites have done so? Early Modern churchmen and nobles did not take their order seriously, there would not have been religious wars and an upstart banking power if they did.
If the First and Second Estates of the Early Modern period did not regard their system why should shut-out shopkeepers prove any more loyal? Hear me well. I’d not be wanting to wake up to Gretchen Witmar and her crazy eyes any time soon, and I’ll not be jogging with Joe Biden on any stages, and I don’t trust Attorney Andrew Cuomo or Attorney Gavin Newson or Attorney Lori Lightfoot any farther than I can throw them. Howsoever, is it any wonder these lightweights prove disloyal to a Liberal order which does not take itself seriously?
Perhaps it is nostalgia which blinds us. In some ways the Liberal order is a beautiful vision. In some ways it improved over the Early Modern order. It was more receptive to social, economic, and philosophical changes which were in motion since the Late Medieval period, these were changes which the old order refused to acknowledge even into the 19th Century. But in the face of a Technocracy which nakedly does not believe in freedom of speech, human rationality, nor the autonomy of men, the inheritors of the Liberal order, the bloodline Posterity of the Founding Fathers, themselves barely believe these things.
COVID is buckling a half-hearted Liberal system. Like Pope’s drowsy troops at Chancellorsville, the rulers of Enlightenment states have been caught unawares; flanked by insurgent Technocracy throbbing with money, ideology, and vision, a good lot of the lukewarm People have decided for the Technocracy. Have you not detected lukewarmness in your civil servants? Mentioned above is the admiralty system, a statutory structure which masquerades as law. This would never have been tolerated over the last century if men who believed in the Enlightenment were in charge.
o this list of shame, we add the Liberal concept of a published law code. The point of this was to make law accessible to the common man. This too has turned absurd. Every legal word has been redefined; nobody can make sense of what lawyers say. Woe to fool who assumes his definitions are the definitions of barristers.
Beyond the words themselves, law codes, which were supposed to be brief tracts the builder or weaver or farmer could consult at need, have turned into mammoth publications of hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of pages. Are there not commonly found men in the Liberal nation-states called accountants whose entire avocation in life is to digest tax codes? An infamous example of codes-run-wild concerns the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Running to nearly 1,000 pages, Nancy Pelosi was giving good advice when she infamously said the Senate needed to, “Pass the bill to find out what’s in it.”
Lastly, the Liberal’s shocking and effective levee en masse burst onto the scene in the summer of 1793. What has this become of their armies 200 years later. As the likes of Blackwater, and the fee schedules of their regular armies attest, the forces of the Enlightenment have degenerated into bands of hirelings as craven as any Medieval stereotype.
Between the two, between a decomposing Liberal order and the rising Technocracy, head and shoulders the Liberal system is preferable. At least it nominally provides for dissent and organization. Whilst 1776 is about 1776 years off from the Solution to our crisis, it provides a damn sight more to build with than Silicon Valley’s nightmare.
A revivification of the better aspects of Liberalism – free speech, an informed and self-employed citizenry, the abolition of admiralty administration and the exaltation of actual law – these are powerful dynamics to strive for. A man can be proud to leave such a legacy to his son. And if the Continental Congress runs a harsh and hypocritical government, it is not as cruel as what Davos has cooked up.
If you think Thomas Hobbes is a bad overseer, take a look at Bill Gates. In the interest of realism, in light of the desperation of the moment, at least for the moment we must use what’s left of the Liberal order to build from. It is pointless to speak about libertarianism, or Islam, or monarchy as systems to build. It is the eleventh hour and we must use what we already have, and that is the Enlightenment.
A significant minority of the bloodline People, both in America and across the world, are realigning with the rising Technocrats. This shift is behind America’s political chaos, it is behind the Coronavirus overreactions, and it is behind the popularization of the Great Reset.
At this hour, everything hangs on one question: has the Technocrats’ Agenda, an Agenda whose skids were greased by a century of Liberal compromise and cant, incorporated an irresistible number of people into itself? Have the last decades of Enlightenment compromise positioned so many men into jobs, and bank accounts, and social security numbers, and registrations that serious mass organization against the Great Reset is impossible?
We may jabber in protest about credit scores, contact tracing, and digital persons, but the fleshpots of Egypt are yummy, and their beds are soft. As a new Technocratic People asserts themselves on the ashes of the old Liberal People, with enough recruits to the former from the latter to make a type of apostolic succession plausible, time will tell if discontent over the vote, over COVID, over the Great Reset will manifest itself. One way or another a new chapter begins for We The People.
It is indeed a high privilege to present this interview with Dr. Mark Stocker, the voraciously productive art historian. Readers of the Postil will know Dr. Stocker from the varied ramblings and amusements that he has been offering in these pages. Therefore, it is great delight to have him speak of his real work, his true métier, which is art. He is being interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski whom our readers also know well.Dr Stocker is the author of over 230 publications, including 10 books and edited books. His latest one, When Britain Went Decimal: the Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021. His extensive research interests include Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Mark did his History of Art degree many years ago at King’s College, Cambridge, but firmly denies being either a spy or even a King’s leftie.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): I would like to begin this conversation by reading to you an incident from Leszek Kolakowski’s “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” (published in his My Correct Views on Everything, 2005).
“In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment – no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost – he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative ‘thaw,’ and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters – Matisse, Cézanne, Braque, and others.’ And, he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha.’”
To someone who lives in the West – unless you happen to be a student of Communism or Russia – what Kolakowski says may sound surreal. But what is going on in the US – the destruction of monuments, removal of paintings and sculptures, suspension of purchases of European art by American museums, purchases of minority art, changing names of buildings and streets – is all too familiar and brings to mind the feeling of déja vu. What is your reaction to Kolakowski’s story; and do you see parallels between it and what is going on today?
Mark Stocker (MS): My reaction is to laugh in order not to cry. The 1950 response is chillingly reminiscent of the notorious Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition – this is of course one of many resemblances between different forms of totalitarianism. Not for the first time, I feel compelled to ask “What’s the difference?” The convenient change of party line by 1957 is a step in the right direction in at least having such art on display, but the same man is suffering from convenient memory loss.
Before I go on to answer your question, I would like nonetheless to put in a plea for not suppressing the “official art” of that time. In this period, art school training in Eastern European countries continued on precisely the traditional lines, valuing technique and crafting, that you and I both admire. I remember being quite moved by a collection presented to a New Zealand art gallery by the Soviet Institute of Cultural Affairs over 50 years ago. No, I am not a “useful idiot.” I believe that however admirable or repellent the regime, art has a life of its own and should not be lazily written off in a determinist way.
To answer your question, I think there is still a way to go before we reach the parlous and risible state of affairs in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. But we must be vigilant and vigorous in terms of arguing for a genuine diversity in what the public sees.
ZJ: Indeed, Kolakowski’s story may seem laughable. But to me, a former denizen of the “socialist paradise,” where I spent the first 25 years of my life, it is not. This is what “socialist realism” was like. In 2020, in the countries of liberal-democracies, we seem to be “back to the future,” in that what is shown in museums must reflect “approved” and “correct” ideology. Indeed, in a umber of museums in the US (and Europe), the purchase of Western art has been suspended; some museums are selling objects from their collections in order to buy more minority art.
Until relatively recently, museum and art-gallery collections were for the human gaze, for observing. This was the understood purpose of such institutions. This is not so today. Art galleries and museums are now at the forefront of the ideological battle. Several months ago, I wrote a piece “The Power of Beauty and the New Museum Barbarians.” In it I made a point which you also made in an official letter to an art institution – that the function of museums is not “raising social consciousness” but to guard artistic heritage. Do you see what some curators are now doing as a betrayal of their mission?
MS: Any “betrayal” probably happened 20 to 40 years ago. We’re too far down that trajectory to apply this term – younger curators in many cases simply don’t know any better. The prime aim of curators and art historians should be to focus on beauty, aesthetics, style, patronage and iconography. Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.
I am very conservative about selling from collections – I wouldn’t want to leave my own art treasures to any state institution, if there was a real danger they would be deaccessioned. If, however, it’s a duplicate print and not in good condition, then it would be silly for the museum in question to be rigid about this. But hocking off anything that’s unfashionable is unforgivable. Why, why, why did the Met see fit to do this with Frank Salisbury’s superb portrait of The Sen Sisters which the artist generously presented to the Museum? He paid a terrible price for being unapologetically academic and a near contemporary of Picasso. An intelligent museum should have both artists represented.
ZJ: That’s the point – unfashionable! Would you apply this term to the Elgin Marbles, Rubens, Watteau, Rembrandt, Veronese, and a host of other greats? The situation in which we found ourselves in the 20th century is singular, I would say. Fashion became a criterion; so that art now is no longer valued for its intrinsic quality, its beauty, but some subjective feeling about “justice.” Of course, there is also the commercial aspect, in that a certain artist is worth investing in, as his work may go up in value. Thus artistic value cannot so easily be separated from profit.
MS: One of the problems that Modernism created was to open a kind of Pandora’s box. Subjectivity and relativism became all the thing, provided you heeded the elite critic’s or curator’s choice, in many ways a contradiction of that. Older, shared criteria of beauty and the concept of art as skill were thrown out the window.
An old friend of mine, now sadly dead, though a big fan of Modernism, said that in architecture, the classical language and Beaux-Arts training guaranteed a base level of consistency and decency, whereas Modernism rejected this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dissing modernism – I very much admire Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, for example, and some of Picasso himself – but we sacrificed a great deal for it and people, even art professionals, are too ignorant to realise this.
ZJ: Do you see this problem as something that creates the danger of confounding artistic quality with the buyer’s inability to separate artistic beauty from monetary value in the art market?
MS: Modernism certainly made it much harder to judge.
ZJ: One can also say that this inability opens the gates for artistic charlatans who prefer to shock the audience with images, rather than enchant them with quiet spiritual elevation?
MS: Understated beauty has certainly been a victim of 20th century clamorousness. How many people today can judge the nuances of watercolour washes, as we can see in the work of my good friend Maurice Askew (who died recently aged 98); or, indeed, the deft inking and biting of an etcher’s plate, as in D.Y. Cameron’s sublime Winchester Cathedral?
I don’t totally believe in rejecting the “shock” factor, so long as it is underpinned by skill. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a good case in point; an unforgettable, unavoidable work. But, as Bacon himself found, it was a damn hard act to follow, and his subsequent attempts to shock, certainly after the mid-1950s, just don’t do it for me. Bacon up to the 1960s cannot be fairly described as a charlatan – but I think he came perilously close to being one later in life, using the same painterly tricks and making people who should know better say “Wow!”
What he did become, as many an artist before and after Modernism, was formulaic. The charlatan charge is one that’s easy to level but is in danger of closing the arguments. Certainly the “de-skilling” of art that Modernism encouraged increased the charlatanry component. Damien Hirst – not a skilled painter at all but a brilliant project manager. Josef Beuys – arguably more of a charlatan than a shaman. Marcel Duchamp – he skirted very close to it and stole from others (a time-honoured practice); but he was, I have to concede for all the damage he did, bloody clever.
ZJ: I can’t really abide Duchamp, but let’s move the discussion back to when, earlier, you said, “Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.” Here is my problem: who decides? The curators? Many of them have recently succumbed to social pressure and peddle ideology, sanctioned by state authority – as used to be the case under communism?
Secondly, I’m all for being directed by someone, advised by Dr. Stocker, when I decide what to buy; but social consciousness is a group phenomenon. This raises another question: what are we trying to achieve by raising consciousness? Aesthetic appreciation? Not really. It is a call to social action, an attempt to change society. If so, curators are revolutionaries.
This is not the same as teaching a book. When I say, “Read the Bible, I think you will find it interesting,” my intent is not to make readers into believers. I am leaving the judgment to the reader. It is a process of appreciation.
Richard Sharp, the author of The Engraved Record of the Jacobite Movement, once gave me some excellent advice: “The best way to learn how to distinguish good quality prints from average ones is to look at them; after some time, you will train your eye and you will be able to discern good from average prints.”
MS: Sharp is right. You see what you know, as Gombrich says. As for social consciousness, it can be a dangerous trap and shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the prime concerns of curatorship. It’s a cop-out, but I would leave it at the curator’s discretion as to how much or little a part it should play. But I would be worried if I had a curator colleague who let it loom too large.
There are aspects of social consciousness which I think could and should be raised and which I find interesting – when for example an artist is outstanding but is the victim of changed fashion or economic decline. The collapse of the printmaking market following the Wall Street Crash is tragic to behold and it would be callous to disregard it in any history, even if the intrinsic qualities of the prints are ultimately more relevant to “pure” art history. Geniuses like F.L. Griggs were ruined. In turn, without becoming a socialist, you can admire someone like William Morris whose conscience was stirred by ugliness, pollution and grinding poverty. His close friend Edward Burne-Jones, though less overtly politicised, wanted to bring beauty into ordinary people’s lives – and his excellent exhibition at Tate Britain a couple of years ago was a powerful vindication of that ideal.
ZJ: One term that is part of the liberal toolbox is “cultural appropriation.” It largely means that the artists has gobbled the best of minority culture and falsely presented it as his own. Recently, Elvis Presley was accused of cultural appropriation (he supposedly “stole” themes and music); Olga Tokarczuk, Polish Nobel Prize Laurate, was accused of cultural appropriation because she wears dreadlocks. In the past it was called fashion, a borrowing. Today it is called “cultural appropriation.”
No culture is entirely self-sufficient; we borrow elements of thought, visual representations from different places, and, by transforming them according to our own perception, create something new, something original. Picasso comes to mind, as does van Gogh, who had a considerable collection of Japanese prints, which inspired him. There is a difference between “appropriation” and “inspiration;” but today inspiration is called “appropriation,” a term frequently and easily interchanged with “theft.”
MS: It is a boring and unhelpful word and concept, and is used all too often by pompous and politically correct academics to close the argument. I would like to remind such people that Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Appropriation wasn’t always seen as a crime. The respected New Zealand Māori artist Selwyn Muru was asked many years ago who he thought the great Māori artists were. “Well, there’s Picasso!” he replied. As for musical appropriation, do Jamaican reggae lovers despise Led Zeppelin for their magnificently appropriated ‘D’yer Ma’ker’? (Get it?). I very much doubt it. They’d see it, surely, as a testament, a tribute, to their culture – attacking it would be a sign of vulnerability.
ZJ: I want to give you two examples: Rembrandt and Stefano della Bella (both 17th-century artists). Apparently, both were fascinated by the 17th-century Polish Sarmatian dresses. Rembrandt even painted his own self-portrait as Polish Nobleman; his student van Vliet made a print, after Rembrandt, of a Pole. Stefano della Bella did several engravings of Poles.
Is this “cultural appropriation?” In Britain, we see a similar fascination with other countries. In the 19th century, Orientalism was widespread. Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind.
MS: As I say, it isn’t a helpful concept. Weren’t the classicists “appropriating” the ancient Greeks? Did the Greeks complain? Get real.
Edward Said has a lot to answer for on that front. He essentialised Orientalism, and though he was a far cleverer and better-read person than me, his effect on countless admirers was to have ultimately trivialised it. Politically correct academics have continued to repeat his litany over the decades, blahblahblah. Full marks therefore to Robert Irwin for intelligently taking him on!
There is much, much more that of course could be said on this front. Sometimes ignorant appropriation can cause understandable offense. I was asked at one stage by Royal Doulton, if in all innocence they could use a Gottfried Lindauer portrait of a Māori chief as a character jug. I told them that this offended on almost every front – the head is tapu (taboo) in traditional Māori culture, and eating and drinking is governed by strict protocols – putting milk in the head jug – OMG – no! They heeded me, thank goodness. But this was an extreme case. Let me give a couple of more New Zealand examples – most people should get my drift.
The white New Zealand artist Gordon Walters received a lot of ill-informed, and I would say pretty offensive criticism in his brilliant use of the fern frond motif that you see in traditional Māori architectural decoration, such as roof beams. But this is by definition “low” ornament and you can’t very well claim he is appropriating your intellectual property.
So, inevitably the question of appropriation must be applied on a case by case basis. Oh – it can work in reverse – the Arawa people made the carving of Queen Victoria, that was presented to them, uniquely theirs – by erecting her on a traditionally carved post and protecting her with an elaborate canopy – Queen Victoria became Kuini Wikitoria – get it?! She was even told about it in the last few weeks of her life, and was genuinely moved by the loyalty of her subjects.
ZJ: As you say, the concept is not helpful in explaining the quality of art. But those who use it are not interested in art. They are in the business of fighting Western culture. By saying “appropriation,” they say there is nothing original in Western culture, and that the West is not a civilization that created great wonders, or liberated mankind from poverty and injustice – something the present day “reformers” claim to champion. Many years ago, Mary Lefkovitz wrote Not Out of Africa – a detailed analysis of the baselessness of the claim that the Greeks had “stolen” their philosophy from Africa – for which she was attacked on all fronts.
What underlies this reasoning is: if we cannot take down all the monuments, remove all paintings from the museums, let’s denigrate them, let’s show the Westerners – the Whites – those who defend Western tradition – that there is nothing special, unique or original in it. On the contrary, it is imperialistic, genocidal, unoriginal, and so on.
MS: Although you’re doing a bit of a reductio ad absurdum, I can’t deny a lot of what you say. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is all too prevalent. Perhaps it was my luck as an academic that the majority of my colleagues were considerably more intellectually subtle – and in the best sense liberal – than your bleak picture suggests. The better academics put Lefkowitz on their reading lists; and to be fair, Bernal’s Black Athena was rapidly shot down.
ZJ: When you were a student at Cambridge, some 40 years ago, would you ever have thought or suspected that art and art criticism would be gone in the future, and that what you, and others, who had decided to study art, would be under attack?
MS: Perhaps I’m fortunate but my (almost) 30 years teaching at the academy were remarkable for not being attacked. Only once, many years ago, when I did a seminar defending (yet still criticizing) Camille Paglia, which was almost riotously well-received by most students and several staff present but not by a few angry left-wingers, was I reprimanded by my head of school. Call me cowardly, but out of self-preservation and a wish to advance my career, I took a deep breath, put the culture wars aside and settled down into writing a succession of entries for the Grove Dictionary of Art – on the patronage and artistic interests of Louis XV, Louix XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Louis-Philippe respectively. Perhaps this was a subtle form of subversion! So rather than buckle under any criticism, I’ve simply done my own thing, publishing a very large amount of what I hope is useful, factual research, often on no grants whatsoever, and enjoyed doing so in the process.
ZJ: I often wonder what Sir Kenneth Clark would say? What would his fabulous BBC program turned into a book – Civilization – look like in 2020?
MS: Well, they recently attempted to do a “Civilisation revisited” called Civilisations, with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It was well received, but got some criticism for focusing too much on class and oppression, and not enough on the core aspects of art that I identified above. Relativism replaced discerning aesthetic judgement and as for Clark’s beautiful language – creating art when talking about it, well, something surely was lost here. A few years ago, I published a blog-post whose sub-text was “Come back Kenneth Clark, all is forgiven!” My admirable Pacific colleague Sean said he enjoyed it and learnt from it – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
ZJ: Over the last several years, we have witnessed another phenomenon: tearing down and removing monuments. The first was done by hooligan demonstrators, the second by city officials, who often, as happened in Baltimore, removed monuments during the night, when the public was asleep. Many monuments were not just representations of someone others disapprove of, but pieces of art. Do you see any hope for saving public monuments?
MS: Actually, I see some hope from the British Tories (though I often disagree with them elsewhere) in the very latest news. They are planning legislation to take decisions away from councils and make statuary subject to the minister’s edict. So long as the government is sound here, that will make it very much harder to molest public monuments, and cathedral and church monuments in turn. I’ve recently come across a specific instance of this in regard to a taxpayer-funded academic research project on the Napoleonic tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral. The proposal read positively scarily: “Unlike the early- to mid-20thC monuments to Confederate soldiers, the St Paul’s Pantheon is unlikely to be removed in the long term.” You bet it won’t be, now that I alerted the Church Monuments Society and the London Times – I (indirectly) received a hurried reassurance to this effect just days ago. But the very fact that the project hinted otherwise, and got government funding, shows there is no cause for complacency on this front.
ZJ: What about selling them?
MS: I like your idea of selling monuments but I don’t think there would be a big market for them. With a couple of sculpture-nut friends, we’re currently trying to find a home for a HUGE relief of very fine quality, celebrating Africa but carved by a white British sculptor in the early 1960s and nobody wants to know – it’s all too “sensitive,” you see; well, my response is to say “Bah!” It’s a history lesson in stone, and fascinating for it. Somebody who should have known better described the sculpture as “patronizing.” If you could travel back in time and tell the artist this, he wouldn’t be offended so much as baffled and bewildered. The past is a foreign country – and imposing presentism on it in this way is quite simply bad history (and bad art history).
Art And The Public
ZJ: Recent events – destruction of monuments, changes in the museums’ policies – raise the very serious problem of “art ownership,” not ownership in the ordinary sense, where I own an antique-piece or a house. The question is – who is entitled to a work of someone who has been gone for centuries and whose work was created in a very different world-view. Do we – today – have the singular claim of deciding what the “proper” subject of art must be – or indeed what the artist should have thought and what he should represented in his art?
But today, if someone happens to disapprove of something, we destroy it or remove it.
MS: There’s a big risk of not wanting to look at the monument in its own terms, to neglect the history surrounding it and say our history must dominate – in other words presentism. If it’s a statue in a public place, it belongs to the people but is being held in trust/custody for them, and we disrespect this at our peril.
ZJ: In the early 1980s, the Greek government wanted Lord Elgin’s Parthenon marbles back, claiming they are part of Greek national heritage. This claim is not as strong as it appears to be. Modern Greece is not a continuation of ancient Greece. That cultural continuity had been broken many times, especially during the Ottoman rule. Secondly, the Greek heritage, because of the unique place of ancient Greece as cradle of Western civilization, is as much English and European as it is Greek. Finally, the place that deserves guardianship of ancient relics is that which can preserve best them.
MS: They still do. I could write 5000 words on this and I have. The arguments for and against are quite closely balanced. To me, bleeding heart liberal if you like, the unfair thing about them was that it was not a “level playing field” when Elgin brilliantly and opportunistically exploited the wording of the Ottoman Empire’s permit to remove them – a matter of 20 years or so before the Greek War of Independence. The Greeks had no say about them. Short term, they had everything to be grateful for in Elgin “rescuing” them from what could well have been fatal destruction. But for 150+ years they have been saying “We want them back, please!”
The question of modern Greece not being the same place is one of the strengths of NOT returning them; this must be conceded. But having them in the locality of where the whole great world of Western art – and democracy – started is an emotional one that many people find compelling. A good comparison would be if Paris or Munich owned Boadicea’s chariot!
ZJ: A critic can argue, however, that the best place for it is the original site. But, once again, one can counter-argue that the original site is not necessarily the safest. The prime example is the Roman city of Palmyra, vandalized and partly destroyed by ISIS a few years ago. By contrast, the Pergamon Altar was preserved because it was removed and beautifully preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
MS: Or was till the anti-Satanist nutcases recently struck. In regard to the Parthenon marbles, Enoch Powell said clean up the Athens pollution and then put them back in situ. I got what he meant even if practicality (and emotions) meant that his typical intellectual logic was shouted down.
ZJ: True, the Elgin Marbles, the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate were taken away; yet, were it not for the passion of those who carried out this “theft,” they might well be entirely destroyed now – their “theft” in turn preserved them. This also tells us that the heritage of civilization belongs to those who can secure its welfare the best.
MS: At the time, the 1810s, I think even the Greeks would have conceded that. What they argue is that they are now a liberal democracy, part of the European Union, which Britain was till so recently, that they have the means, facilities and expertise to house these treasures in a beautiful, accessible way, just metres from where it all began. My feeling is that the return of the Parthenon marbles is about 60% justified – quite narrow.
Where I am totally opposed to the restitution of art objects is when you cannot trust the government that wants them back. Some years ago, there was a genuine, albeit politically incorrect worry that the consequences of returning Benin bronzes to the government of their country of origin would be Lamborghinis and wives’ shopping sprees in Harrods and Aspreys! Any “returning” institution needs to be given a pretty copper-bottomed guarantee that their treasures will be beautifully housed, displayed and loved. If not, they should stay put.
ZJ: My second question is a variant of the previous one. Ever since the French, American and Russian Revolutions, we have to deal with a new concept that implicates art in a way it was created for, in that art is the property of the people. Hence all kinds of claim can be made. It is a people who are true owners, not individuals. The proper place for art is museums; and private collections, even if they legally belong to private citizens, cannot be taken out of the country, sold in other countries, because, the claim goes, it is part of “national heritage.” How strong is such a claim in your opinion?
MS: This is a long and complex one to answer. Obviously if you believe in liberal democracy, you believe in the rule of law and the sanctity of the ownership of property (statue-topplers take note). The last, however, needs to be balanced with caring for the national heritage.
In the absence of protective legislation or the purchase of masterpieces by the government and private donors to keep them in their country of origin or long-term custodianship, the consequences can be disastrous. The New Zealand Māori in the first instance and our culture in the second suffered from the despoiling of ghastly, latter-day grave robbers.
Even when the repatriation is legal, the consequences can be near tragic – Japan exported so many of its glorious colour woodblock prints, the country was effectively despoiled of them and any uninformed international tourists who went there to see them were disappointed.
Modern Art And Architecture
ZJ: I would like to move to modern or 20th-century art. It is the period which is very often criticized. As far as painting is concerned, this era is often appreciated by art critics more than the public. Ordinary people find modern art difficult to understand (especially abstract painting), lacking in immediate aesthetic appeal, sometimes even appalling. Similar criticism can be applied to architecture.
In its simple form, criticism of art and architecture can, in my view, be reduced to three claims: it is “ugly,” i.e., lacking in aesthetic dimension, like in “this building is ugly.”
Second, it is ugly because it has no relationship to tradition, surroundings, regional and national features (this is true of much of modern architecture). Such art and architecture follows abstract geometrical patterns rather than traditions; thus, the ornaments which beautify buildings are absent.
Thirdly, it is ugly or not appealing because the purpose of a painting or a sculpture is not to convey a sense of beauty but to embody a social message, which turns art into a vehicle of ideology. Of course, there can be an overlap, something can be both ugly, rootless and ideological; and so because it is rootless it is often ugly.
Which of these three assertions would you consider to be the greatest problem for modern art? I realize that not all three apply to the same degree to architecture, sculpture and painting.
MS: That’s a big question. I do think your approach to modernism is too broad-brushed. I genuinely think that a lot of it is a lot less elitist than when it first appeared. Look at the crowds of people looking at Rothko. My old house in Christchurch was a charming slightly Lego-like postmodern affair that showed an obvious awareness of Mondrian.
Let me say this about Modernist architecture: when built on a strict budget, housing or officing (new word) the masses, it can be little short of ghastly. That great old architectural reactionary Sir Reginald Blomfield was unfortunately spot on when he called early Modernist buildings packing-cases. However, when it is built on a big budget, sometimes – depending on the sensibility of the architect – Modernism can look genuinely impressive. There’s been a tendency towards a kind of neo-modernism since the end of the century which focusses on lightness, whiteness and airiness – and people really like it.
ZJ: Let me invoke Nikolaus Pevsner, author of several important books on art and architecture. According to him, England’s “contribution to Western art has been stronger in the practical art of building than in the more esoteric arts of painting and sculpture.” And, Pevsner also said, “English political strength” turned out “detrimental to art:” “…The democratic rule by committee and majority. Building today more than ever before is decided by committees. Committees can never be hoped to be the best judges in matters aesthetics. To demand or merely to license a bold building requires a bold man.”
MS: How prophetic – and we’ve had 65 years of committees ever since! He’s proved to be somewhat wrong about English sculpture (Henry Moore anyone? Barbara Hepworth? The excellent Elisabeth Frink?) and I think he still had some way to go in ever warming to Victorian painting, though he did so splendidly to architecture.
ZJ: These words, as you noticed, were written in 1955, and we are as far away from solving the problem as we were then. I just spoke with an architect, who, to my rather dreadful remark – which I made jokingly – as to what we should do with architects who litter our cities with buildings which are admired only by fellow-architects, said: it is the investor who is responsible; we do what investor wants. I find such an answer to be nothing other than a cop-out, an easy excuse that covers architects’ lack of talent; or worse, it’s a total disregard for “the public,” traditional surroundings, or national culture.
MS: As I said earlier, one of the tragedies of the 20th century was when capitalists realized that cheap Modernist architecture was the way to go! So, your friend does have a point. But architects also have themselves to blame – they are arrogant and self-referential. Look at architects like Morris Lapidus, who was brave enough to design for the people – despised by his profession, and in old age he destroyed his drawings and models – tragic.
ZJ: We have three choices, it seems: the committees, the public, or the bold man, who always realizes his own vision, not necessarily shared by the rest (as Pevsner suggested). Personally, I would go for the second, but would add that the committees offer us – the public – a range of, say, ten designs, submitted by architects, and have them displayed in a big public place, and let the people cast a vote. After all, it is the public and future generations who will live with it, not the architect, not the coterie of members of the committee. Which option do you think is the best?
MS: They all have their pros and cons. Going against my liberal instincts, I have a soft spot for the bold man – provided his taste doesn’t totally offend me. The people aren’t always right – they are often very conservative in turn. Sometimes they have to catch up with an artist and realize his or her validity. Henry Moore is a good example, even if a lot of his later corporate work, loved by committees, is boring.
But sometimes time cannot heal an “in your face” ugly work of art – Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc is a prime example, as is “Brutalist” architecture of the 1950s and 1960s – a fair bit of that probably remains in Poland in cheap public housing. My friend Amanda was very upset when I published a letter saying a whole lot of Brutalist flats weren’t worth keeping in Wellington, utterly lacking in the “period charm” of their Art Deco predecessors of 20-30 years earlier!
ZJ: Only yesterday I had a conversation with an architect who used the language of “experimentation” in art, saying that a piece of architecture “was an interesting idea.” My response was that there is no question that Centre Pompidou is “interesting” as an idea; it never occurred to anyone before to show the inside of a building. But it is ugly.
Here I would like to suggest a topic for reflection. The two towers of the World Trade Center in New York were, for decades, seen by the public as a symbol of New York itself, the New World. When the towers collapsed on September 11, the question became – should we rebuild them? But no one entertained this for long. Rebuilding certain architectural objects is not new; it says something about national spirit, attachment to history, tradition. An example is the old city of Warsaw, razed to the ground during WWII. It was rebuilt as exact copy of the city from before 1939.
Most recently we have the example of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was a heart-breaking sight to see it in flames. There was no question that it will be rebuilt as it was, perhaps with small details which will be modern.
The two objects – the Twin Towers and the Notre Dame – are good examples of where the problem lies: -beauty of a building, as opposed to “an interesting idea.” I doubt whether the same French public would ever entertain the idea of rebuilding the Centre Pompidou if anything were to happen to it.
MS: What you’re saying is that there is something humanist that is enshrined in old buildings, that the public love and which we badly miss when they are gone. I can’t argue with that even if some old buildings were or are no great shakes. There are open and shut cases of ugly buildings – often, but not exclusively, Modernist – which nobody mourns if they go. And I don’t think merely being there for 40 years or more can redeem them.
The “Brutalist” flats in Wellington I mentioned earlier, known as the “Gordon Wilson flats” after their architect, had a certain “to-hell-with-you” quality when they were erected, and they haven’t mellowed – they were ugly then and ugly now, which you can’t say for a lot of Victorian architecture. Frankly, I wouldn’t grieve to see them go. Any decision has to be on a case-by-case, empirical basis. Personally, I don’t agree with you about the Beaubourg – when I first saw it, and I was definitely a bit of a fogey – I was impressed by its quirky, funky qualities, and it was obvious that in the piazza in front of it, buskers, jugglers, tourists and Parisians, took to it like a duck to water.
ZJ:Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi. They are giants of 20th-century architecture. The first two were giants of the new 20th-century style; the other two are modern too, but they are steeped in tradition; their knowledge of history of architecture is undeniable. Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona is not a medieval cathedral, but only someone unfamiliar with history – Gothic architecture – could confuse it with something else. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, his use of stained glass, wood, triangular roofs, bricks, in short, traditional material, make us feel “at home.” None of this is part of van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s vision. It is pure geometry of new material, which makes us feel alienated from the environment and history. Such “creativity” is responsible for much of the problem with modern art.
What is your take on it?
MS: A lot of Le Corbusier’s theories were cranky and it grieves me that he had so much influence on generations of architecture students – to be terribly provocative I tell them they should have looked at Corb’s contemporary, Ernest Trobridge, architect of startling “ye olde” suburban houses in Greater London, instead. Le Corbusier’s architecture is, dare I say, hit and miss – the much-lauded Unité d’Habitation was a flop; I haven’ been to Ronchamp but I’m pretty certain I would admire it. Mies van der Rohe had a genuine sensibility towards proportions and materials – his actual buildings are rather great – the problem is that lacking that sensibility, lacking that big budget, being a second-rate Corb or Mies – is a recipe for aesthetic, social and political disaster.
ZJ: Let me approach the idea of conservatism in art. It is a category external to art. If it makes sense to talk about conservatism in art, it concerns national attitude, national characteristics rather than artistic qualities. Pevsner wrote an interesting book, The Englishness of English Art, in which he pointed to certain creative stubbornness, so to speak, of the English.
Christopher Wren, for example, had to redo the plan for St. Paul’s cathedral, because the clergy refused to accept such “un-English a shape.” Wren also suggested that completing Westminster Abbey in Gothic style was appropriate because “to deviate from the old Form, would be to run into disagreeable Mixture, which no Person of good Taste could relish.” (A point that is relevant in rebuilding the Notre Dame in Paris). Pevsner’s book abounds in examples of this kind. What we deal with is “Englishness,” if I may say so, or English conservative attitude in general.
This was all a long time ago; things changed! In the 1990s Prince Charles left the confines of his regal realm and made a name for himself by his criticism of English architecture. He even wrote a book,A Vision of Britain. Another critic of English architecture is Sir Roger Scruton – one of its most vocal critics, in fact. Can you explain this criticism?
MS: The architectural consequences of Prince Charles is an interesting topic and would really repay research – a book in itself. There are not a few examples of how late 20th- and early 21st-century architecture ‘kept in keeping’ with pre-existing structures – a really good example of this is Downing College, Cambridge, which is pretty awesome and which Scruton doubtless admired. And the model village of Poundbury where pundits’ opinions are divided but whose residents appear to love it.
Prince Charles himself influenced the admirable addition to the National Gallery – his critique of the original plans is where it all started. So, this kind of architecture happens – not as often as I would like because, I’m afraid, of the mania for change, cost effectiveness and architects’ egos – not least their over reverence for 20th-century heroes. Where a less admirable form of traditionalism continues to thrive is in the mania for period features in British domestic housing, especially neo-Georgian.
I generalize, but a lot of it is awful, tacky and pretentious. Cambourne, outside Cambridge, falls into this trap. It’s bad, but I laugh at it and don’t feel appalled by it – I can see it worming its way into my affections if I lived there myself. Indeed, I have a feeling that maybe in 50 years’ time, if it lasts that long, it will have accrued a period charm, as the much-mocked mock-Tudor with its painted “beams” and gables of the inter-war years has done.
ZJ: George Orwell, in his essay, “England Your England,” attempted to come to terms with Englishness, the English national character. The essay covers a lot of ground, but one thing that struck me was his claim that the English have no aesthetic taste; and, second, that England does not have great art, great painters. If one compares England with Italy, that is certainly true; but if we take Orwell’s claim at face value, every nation would lose to the Italians. Do you agree with Orwell?
MS: It’s a complicated question but he’s being unfair. The pioneering modernist critic Roger Fry said something on the lines of “the fact that our school may be a second division one does not prevent it from being intensely interesting.” But the ginormous elephant in the room when you make this generalization is the phenomenal, the beautiful, the remarkable English and to a lesser extent Scottish country house – and its garden. British art historians should be shouting from the rooftops about how its landscape architects made the paintings of Claude Lorrain (some of the most gorgeous in art history) three-dimensional reality. It worked better in the cooler, damper British climate than it would have ever done in Claude’s Roman Campagna.
And another major point: a lot of British painting from about 1750 is remarkable and too many critics remain obtusely patronizing about it. I love artists like Burne-Jones (as you’ve gathered), Leighton, and much admire Watts. And in the 20th century, we have Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud – and those godawful YBAs, yet who have a huge place in the world of contemporary art. I don’t think it’s profitable comparing Britain to France or Italy – and I think it’s stupid, as the Courtauld Institute did for far too long – to ignore what’s on your doorstep and only bother to look at France and Italy. Many people are snobs like that about cookery – oh they LOVE Italian food. Well, all I can say is that dining out in Rome in 2003, despite using the normally reliable Lonely Planet, was a terrible disappointment and the best Italian meal I had was in Los Angeles, but I digress.
ZJ: You mentioned English art around 1750. The painter of this period that comes to mind is Hogarth. Nikolaus Pevsner, praises Hogarth, who in his The Analysis of Beauty (published in 1753) speaks of “the line of Beauty.” Or, in Pevsner’s words, “a shallow, elegant, undulating double curve. Now the fondness for these double curves is actually, although Hogarth did not know that, a profound English tradition… one that runs from the style of 1300 to Blake and beyond. But it is also an international principle of the Late Baroque and Rococo, and it will be found without any effort in individual figures and whole compositions of Watteau in France, of Tiepolo in Venice, of Ignaz Günter… Hogarth’s Baroque modelling and brushwork and international quality created something in England that had not before existed within English possibilities, in the case of serpentine or zigzag compositions and attitudes, an English quality in Hogarth and an international quality of Hogarth’s age worked hand in hand.”
MS: Firstly, let me say how I deeply admire Pevsner. Initially a card-carrying Modernist on his arrival from Nazi persecution (and the poor man’s biography reveals how seriously – almost like Chamberlain – he underestimated their true evil), he got increasingly hooked on his country of adoption and his attitude to Victorian art and, particularly architecture, intelligently mellowed. I am dubious, however, about this “line” of generalization.
As Pevsner himself realizes, it wasn’t peculiar or particular to the English. And there are strongly linear artists who don’t necessarily go to town with the undulating double curve – Flaxman and Gill for example. If you’re looking for English characteristics, I’d say that the bleak, almost drab palette that is so long dominant in landscape painting – Pre-Raphaelites aside – would be an important one – it explains why watercolour is so strong and we see it in Spencer, Freud and the wonderful L.S. Lowry.
All this relates to Britain’s long, bleak autumns to springs and is almost hard-wired in the English – Scottish even more (look at Joan Eardley). The art historian John Onians – author of Neuroarthistory and a good friend – would certainly agree. By the way, note how many artists I mention are modern ones – I am not some fogey who believed that all was good in art predates 1837 or 1914.
ZJ: Point taken! Sometimes I worry about you being a little too trendy! Seriously, there are other names, Richard Wilson, a great Welsh/English painter, who even wrote about the superiority of English art, and, of course, Turner. I may be mistaken, but it is unlikely that an art historian writing the history of modern painting can bypass these three painters. Perhaps Fry’s criticism in his Reflections on British Painting, from which, I believe, the sentence you quoted comes from, does not do justice to English art?
MS: No. I’m quite a big admirer of Fry, for all my misgivings about Modernism. I can even understand his reaction against bourgeois Victorian conservatism and complacency, though art history has shown his denunciation of Alma-Tadema to be terribly wrong – Alma-Tad was a far better artist than almost all of Fry’s Bloomsbury cronies, as the late Quentin Bell, son of crony-in-chief Clive Bell, generously conceded to me. Fry was certainly beating the Modernist drum, which he understandably felt was all the more necessary in the context of British artistic conservatism. In the process, he gravely underrated Edwardian art, some of which looks superb over a century on, and overrated his Bloomsbury “luvvies.” But critics can, do and even should make mistakes. Fry’s liberalism in the best sense was shown in his admission that British art was “intensely interesting.” Roger, Roger!
Artists And Art Historians
ZJ: Much of how we look at art is influenced by art criticism – that is, what we read. Many ingenious insights, which we could not come up with, do come from reading books by experts. I want to throw at you a few random names of art historians: Nikolaus Pevsner, Richard Wollheim, Sir Banister Fletcher whose History of Architecture, even today, has no rival, Sir Kenneth Clark, Erwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich. I skipped many names of outstanding people who made contributions to more narrow fields, or who wrote about individual artists or epochs. How do you like my list? Would you like to add a few names?
MS: They are the greats, though I always found Wollheim unintelligible and overrated – and he was more of a philosopher of art than an art historian. The art historians I would add are H.W. Janson (a Russian German in origin), Robert Rosenblum (the two authored a magisterial history of 19th-century art in the mid-1980s). Then there’s Hugh Honour – a great writer and scholar; and from a slightly younger generation, I have affection and respect for Frances Spalding who is still alive and kicking. Fiona McCarthy, with her biographies of Morris,Burne-Jones and Eric Gill, is damn good too! She died very recently.
An outstanding populist who never got the national honour he deserved is Edward Lucie-Smith. Though he was a critic more than he was an art historian, Robert Hughes was one of my heroes too – though personally a nasty piece of work. One of the most interesting and original art historians is John Onians, author of Neuroarthistory, who looks at the impact of the mind, childhood and environment on art history in pellucid prose and with convincing reasoning. John would love what I say about Claude Lorrain and country house gardens; he was also the genius behind the World Atlas of Art. By the way, Neuroarthistory was generally panned by the academic left, so it must be good!
Neil McGregor, formerly the director of the National Gallery and the British Museum, said about Clark: “[he] was the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century… Nobody can talk about pictures on the radio or on the television without knowing that Clark did it first and Clark did it better.”
Would you agree that “to come after Clark” is an unenviable situation for today’s art historians? Not being an art historian, each time I read him, I envy him – this man spent his entire life moving through a world that looked more like an enchanted garden, so different from the lives of ordinary people who live in a world of aesthetic poverty which then prevents them from escaping their social and economic realities.
MS: I couldn’t agree more. Clark is a wonderful man – that comes over in my blog. He was my hero when I was a teenager. He was also a war hero, bringing piano music free to all visitors to the National Gallery when all the paintings had to be removed for safekeeping. He inspired me – and I bet a fair few other people aged 60+ who won’t admit it – to become an art historian. “What do you want to be?” I was asked at my Cambridge interview. “Another Kenneth Clark!” was my modest reply. I didn’t quite make it but I certainly tried. I did so in the wide range of themes I have researched and published – one of the aims was to flummox and irritate other academics who remained stuck in the same groove.
Back to Clark – anyone who could write with authority on Rembrandt, Leonardo, the landscape, the nude and don’t let’s overlook the Gothic Revival, his first, underrated book, has got to be a good thing. The other thing that I admire in him is his beautiful and accessible writing. In everything I write, I ask, “Would Kenneth Clark approve of this?” I hope so: we ignore him at our peril, and the Stourton biography along with the Tate exhibition are both timely reminders of this.
ZJ: John Ruskin said that beauty was everyone’s birthright. This brings me to the question that should make people like you, art historians, very concerned. Art education is probably the most neglected discipline in popular education, in every country. For years I made the reading of a few pages from Clark’s The Nude part of my “Introduction to Philosophy” course, where I sent my students to a museum to write a very specific paper connected with what we had read.
This assignment was probably the most fruitful educational tool I possessed. Student reactions were comparable only to the reaction they had when we read Plato, Nietzsche or Dostoevsky.
You write a regular blog, something that has very limited readership. I sent your piece on Dürer to several of my former students. The reaction to it was probably more than you would expect. Given how people, particularly younger people, react to art, why is art history so marginalized in Western education? Can anything be done about this lack? Getting students on a mandatory trip to a local museum so that they can awaken to art?
MS: It’s a big problem. I wish my blogs had a bigger readership but unfortunately my attempts to publish them on a wider front were not supported by my former museum – partly issues of copyright unfortunately complicated matters. The paradox is that never have more people been going to museums, before 2020, and wanting to see the latest exhibitions; but never in the past 30 years have fewer people formally enrolled to study art at university – and it was even proposed to discontinue the British History of Art A-level. I have several answers to this: the punitive fee regime at university, with careers advisers and family members saying “What’s the relevance of art history?” And the corresponding incentive to study STEM subjects.
And here’s another answer: art history is an overwhelmingly female subject in terms of its students. This is for two or three reasons: firstly, I think men are usually slower in responding to aesthetic matters than women; and secondly, at the risk of being controversial, art historians are ultimately the “servants” of art (or should be); women, in their traditionally supporting roles, adapt to this more easily than hunting, gathering, stomping, blundering men. With the ever-greater gender equalities of the past 30-40 years, which I generally welcome, women have become more masculinized in the choice of what they study. Art history has been the unfortunate victim of this.
ZJ: In the last 30 years or so, leftist art critics – mainly academics – turned art into an ideological instrument. Enough to glance at The New York Times art section, which peddles ideology under the mask of art. By contrast, the WSJ’s art section is still traditional; informative; and reading it one gets the impression that not much has changed since the 1970s or the 1980s. After reading pieces on art in the WSJ, it makes you want to visit a museum.
A long time ago, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion wrote an important book which he titled, The Rape of the Masters. Kimball, who is not a scholar but an editor, a very able art critic and a true art lover, did a great service to the American public by pointing out what is wrong with what passes for art criticism today.
Let me quote what he said in an interview: “For what we see in the academic art historians I discuss – it is something you see in literary studies, too – is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war. A family portrait of four young girls is no longer a family portrait of four young girls but a florid allegory of sexual conflict and gender panic. And so on. If one had to sum up the essential purpose and direction of the new academic art historians, one might say that, notwithstanding the variety of their political commitments, they are all engaged in an attack on the idea of the intrinsic. They start from the contrary of Butler’s proposition: nothing is what it is, it is always something else – and, they might add, something worse than it seems.” Do you agree with Kimball?
MS: In a word, yes. Too many of the new academic art historians are a bit, let’s say, messed up in the head. They want to politicise bloody everything. Too many of them are scared of just looking. I wish there were more Kimballs in the university but their younger versions probably, sadly, realise that after their BA, certainly their MA, it is not the place for them.
Talking of the painting of girls, the funniest instance of this – oh how I wish I had kept it – was a po-faced feminist discussion of “agency” in Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting, The Chess Game, which referred to the three main participants as “women.” Sorry, but apart from the wary looking maid, all three, even the eldest (certainly at the time) are girls!
And while I’m at it, Sofonisba’s painting is somewhat provincial, even somewhat inept – she was 20 when she painted it and she made her heads look a bit like puddings – perhaps in a Ruskinian way I love the painting for its very awkwardness. I’m slightly digressing, but the feminist response was a classic case of somebody who reads too much and doesn’t look nearly enough.
As for art criticism, perhaps I’m a bit of an exception but I’ve written probably 100 reviews, including a fair few in the Burlington Magazine – there’s still scope for the art historian to be a critic though there is a strange lack of competition which enabled me to go to the top, so to speak, here.
Always, always, I try to summarise what the exhibition is about, what its aims are, how well it succeeds, and of course I try to appraise the quality of the works too and their impact on me. Sometimes I’m converted by an exhibition – I found myself admiring the British 20th-century painter William Coldstream.
More rarely I’m repelled, as with the Australian painter Rupert Bunny who deserved to be shot! At times I am necessarily political – as when I reviewed 20th-century Jewish art and more recently Pre-Raphaelite women – but it’s essential to keep a sense of balance and not neglect these other, core aspects. I hope to keep up this criticism for a fair while yet – pandemics permitting – as there’s so much great – and indeed “intensely interesting” art out there in the world – to experience and share.
Although he could be maddeningly contradictory, John Ruskin powerfully and beautifully stated how the primary aim of the artist should be art and nature, not changing the world: “Does a man die at your feet – your business is not to help him but to note the colour of his lips.”
ZJ: John Ruskin, I love you! Thank you, Dr. Stocker, for this delightful conversation!
Father Alexander Schmemann described “secularism” as the greatest heresy of our time. He didn’t describe it as a political movement, nor a threat from the world outside Christianity. Rather, he described it as a “heresy,” that is, a false teaching from within the Christian faith. What is secularism?
Secularism is the belief that the world exists independent of God, that its meaning and use are defined by human beings. Things are merely things. The world is no more wonderful than its surface. To this is contrasted Christian orthodoxy – that all things “live, and move, and have their being,” in God. God sustains the world and directs it providentially towards its end: union with Him. More than this, all that exists does so with depths and layers. The universe has a sacramental or iconic structure, such that everything is a point of communion with God.
In our time, the notions of secularism have been in the ascendancy for well over 200 years. They have found their way into the bedrock understanding of most Christians, and chipped away at the faith of the Orthodox and Catholics as well. It is a largely unrecognized heresy in that it appears to be a “non-religious” point of view, being outside the realm of theology. For modern people, it is simply thought to be “the way things are.”
Over the course of the years, a continuing theme of my writing has been to point readers towards what is not seen. It is at the heart of my use of the image of a “one-storey universe,” as well as how I have sought to present the Scriptures. It is even woven into the problem of shame, though I have not yet fully explicated that aspect of the problem. The answer to secularism, however, is not to be found in attacking it. Rather, it is best seen by presenting what is true and real – the shape of the world that is denied by the secular dogma. In this, St. Paul offers a profoundly helpful declaration: “Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
It has seemed to me that the habits of our modern lives run counter to this theme. We are captivated by the “surface” of things, failing to see what lies beneath. It causes us to be anxious and driven by things of insignificance. If there is a constant temptation for us in our present time, it is to lose confidence that there is anything unseen or eternal, at least in the sense that such things impinge on our daily existence. Our disenchanted, secular world is a siren song that promises the power of control while robbing us of the reality of communion. We “manage” the world when we should be in love with it.
The supreme example of the eternal, unseen, reality among us is found in the Eucharist, where we profess that “this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and truly Thine own most precious blood.” This example is not an exception, a strange instance in which such a thing is said but once, while surrounded by the flatness and emptiness of a secularized landscape.
This point is at the very heart of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s writing: “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom. We use the word ‘dimension’ because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Color transparencies ‘come alive’ when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world” (For the Life of the World).
One way to begin the journey out of secularism is to follow the path of beauty. We have been trapped in the syllogism that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” something as patently untrue as it is opposed to beauty itself. When beauty is reduced to subjectivity, its meaning is lost, as well as its ability to save us. Dostoevsky famously wrote, “The world will be saved by Beauty.” The mystery of this thought is lost within a secular mind.
The perception of beauty is as essential to the soul as the perception of heat and cold, up and down, right and wrong. The subjectivization of beauty is a war of the secular against its only possible opponent. At stake is the soul of human beings. Secularism would ultimately deny the existence of the soul, unless there is some form of “survival” after death. That there is an unseen dimension of each human life, transcending emotions and thought, is unacknowledged in a world that is increasingly materialistic. The soul, as a truly existing reality, is as easily denied as the Body and Blood of Christ. Contemporary polling suggests that as many as 60-70 percent of US Catholics no longer believe in the doctrine of real presence. They very likely deny their souls as well.
This is far more than an indication of unfaithfulness to classical teaching. It points to a shift in worldview in which the possibility of an inner reality is denied. All that remains of the inner life is that area we now describe as “psychological” (which has now become a misnomer, in that its name means “the study of the soul”).
Early secularism speaks in the nineteenth-century character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ Christmas creation. When he confronts the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, he says: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” We bring the same skeptical nonsense to our own perception of beauty. We are more likely to credit our cultural experience than bad gravy, but we are certain that the beauty we perceive should have no more claim on us than our preference for Coke over Pepsi. “I don’t know, I just think [feel] it’s pretty!”
The Fathers of the Church were deeply certain of beauty, so much so that they grouped it together with truth, goodness, and being as a foundational, essential aspect of reality itself. For Christians, the transcendent reality of beauty is grounded in Christ as Logos, the One through whom all things were created, and by whom all things exist. The denial of beauty as transcendent is a denial of the goodness of creation as well.
“Noetic perception” is a phrase that describes the ability of the human heart to perceive that which is Divine. As such, it is our capacity for communion with God and the whole of creation. Primarily, what we noetically perceive of creation is its “logicity,” its reflection of the Logos. Without such a perception, we do not see the truth of things. By the same token, without such a perception, we cannot know the truth of our own selves. Of course, goodness and truth are as endangered in the secular world as beauty. A world that cannot see goodness and truth is a world in which distortions and even lies are raised to a place of prominence. In a secular world, money and violence become the primary energies of governance and change.
Human beings are created in beauty and we crave its communion. The same is true of goodness and truth. There is a disconnect within us when our cultural language tells us that the deepest instincts of our existence are merely subjective impressions. It is a shaming thought that seeks to discount the very truth of who we are. It creates a loneliness and alienation that searches for answers in a world we are told is mute.
There are rational arguments that are exercises in the absurd. For example, to engage in an argument over whether you exist is silliness. The argument which says that all experience is purely subjective (it’s all in your head – you are only a mind) is another. To a similar extent, arguments that seek to deny a proper existence to truth, beauty, and goodness carry us to the absurd. Saying such a thing often provokes others to argue about truth, beauty, and goodness (witness, Pontius Pilate’s “What is truth?”). Such arguments, I think, imagine that you are seeking to impose truth, beauty, and goodness.
This is one of the fundamental problems of secularism. As truth, beauty, and goodness are denied any hidden, eternal existence, what is left is the version of pseudo-truth-beauty-goodness that are created through violence and money. It reduces life to the political – the struggle for power. Those who, in this election season, proclaim that the “soul of the nation is at stake” (both sides say it one way or another), mean only that their side might lose in the game for power. It is the battle for power, and our faith in secularism that endanger the soul. If truth, beauty, and goodness are eternal verities, then they defy legislation. They are to be discerned and perceived in order that we might enter into communion with them, becoming the kind of people who manifest them in our lives. As St. Paul opined, “Against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:23).
What is not seen are those things that matter most. Fifteen thousand years ago, in the back of a cave somewhere in Spain, a human being, utterly removed from us in experience, language, and culture, drew pictures of bison on the walls. We have no idea of his intention or purpose. However, we are able to say, without hesitation, that his drawings were (and are) beautiful. Without words, and beyond words, he said this thing to us. His drawings were true and good as well. It tells us that he perceived eternal things and left us this witness. God forgive us if we refuse to listen.
Roger Scruton drew attention to a fundamental truth when he argued that “conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.” As a label for the distinctive social and cultural mood that Scruton represented, “conservation” may be preferable to the “conservatism” with which he is more often linked. As a label, it is certainly more useful. “Conservation” appeals to an instinct to protect and cherish, which quite properly transcends all political distinctions. But the label is particularly significant for conservatives. For “conservation” reminds us that “being conservative” is not primarily an identity, or a category, but a task. It shows that conservatives are people who find things to conserve.
Scruton understood that this task of conservation showed where modern conservativism have gone so badly wrong. In organising their agenda in subservience to the free market, the conservatives who dominate in present-day politics have too often allowed everything to be turned into a commodity. But in allowing everything to be for sale, they have admitted that nothing has any fixed value. And too often they have permitted this process of commodification to be applied to values in the electoral marketplace, so that the opportunities of the moment trump their obligations to the past and so also their protection of the future.
This explains why, in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party barters with established norms and venerated institutions in the hope of short-term electoral gains, while pretending to anyone who will believe them that their hurriedly formed values are judgements to which right-thinking people have always been committed. And so on cultural issues, the Conservative Party, like some similar movements elsewhere, is not going in a different direction to its major political rivals. It is going in the same direction at a slightly slower pace.
We can begin to grasp the failure of modern conservative politics when we ask ourselves what that politics has actually conserved. Political conservatives have done a good job of protecting an open economy. But the free market conserves nothing. The task of creating an open economy is much less important than the task of conserving culture. This is why, in the United Kingdom, the task of cultural conservation is being advanced by communities that see the Conservative Party as the problem. Across the country, in home educating families, in small congregations, and at irregular conferences, cultural conservation continues despite and not because of conservative politics.
This is evident when we consider the element of our culture that seems most obviously under attack – the family. Conservative thinkers have always understood that the family is the most important social unit to protect. In fact, the significance of the family is built into the language that we use to describe our conservation task. Scruton understood that conservatism and conservation are both about the responsibility of “husbanding.” The assumptions that underlie his metaphor are enormously significant. For it is only as we conserve families – the social unit in which the work of husbanding finds its archetype – that we build the cultural capital by which those larger projects of cultural preservation may be pursued.
Of course, there are no political solutions to problems that are ultimately spiritual in character. But conservatives need to stand against – and outside – a culture in which everything is up for sale, protecting the things that matter most in the dead-ends of modernity.
This month, the Postil is pleased and greatly honored to publish an interview with Howard Bloom, whostarted in theoretical physics and microbiology at the age of ten and spent his early years in science. Then, driven by the desire to study mass human emotion through the lens of science, he went into a field he knew nothing about, popular culture. He founded the biggest PR firm in the music industry and worked with superstars like Prince, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Billy Joel, Queen, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, Styx, Hall and Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, Run DMC, and Chaka Khan. Bloom went back to formal science in 1988 and, since then, has published seven books on human and cosmic evolution, including The God Problem, Global Brain, and The Lucifer Principle. Called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel 4 TV, and “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear magazine, he is the subject of BRIC TV’s documentary, The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom.
Grégoire Canlorbe(GC): As an entrepreneur in the public relations industry, you were particularly active under the Reagan era. How do you explain that the eighties saw both a return to some conservative values and an explosion of creativity and coolness in music and movies?
Howard Bloom (HB): That’s a very good question. I’ve never thought of that connection before. My wife had been a socialist when I met her in the 1960s. And then in the 1970s she became a conservative. So she was siphoning money out of our bank account and giving it to Ronald Reagan’s political campaigns—without telling me. She knew I hated Reagan. But I never connected Ronald Reagan with what was going on in popular music at that point. In the 1960s popular music was the music of rebellion. Rock music was about raising your fist and saying to adults: “I have a right to be an individual. I have a right to exist.” Rock was in tune with the hippie philosophy: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” And, “We’re here to overturn the establishment.” In other words, rock and roll was part of a rebellion whose political activists were working to toss people our parent’s age out of power. That was the 1960s. But there was no overt philosophy—there was no ideology—of rebellion in the 1970s and the 1980s. However if you look at the attitude of the artists who emerged, it was sheer rebellion.
Joan Jett got onstage and raised her fist. And the way she raised her fist was the strongest part of her message. She was a woman. And as a woman, you were expected to be like Grace Slick or Janis Joplin: the guys had the guitars, the power instruments, and you did not. You simply crooned into the microphone. But Joan was saying: “I’m going to take over the fucking guitar, myself. I have the power. I own the power on stage. And I am going to rebel as a self-contained entity not needing the “weapons” of “males with guitars.” My band? Hey, that’s just an extension of me.” Joan’s was the rebellion of girls who had been raised with working mothers. And for a middle class girl to be raised by a working mother was something brand new. It was a result of the invention of indoor plumbing, the washing machine, the drier, and the dishwasher. Women were no longer the slaves of water-hauling and clothes washing. And the women’s liberation movement had given them the freedom to compete with men in the workplace. Now the daughters of these liberated women had a very new experience of what it meant to be female. And that sense came to a head in Joan Jett. Or it came to a fist. But as for men, I mean, look at several of my other clients. Billy Idol also raised his fist in a gesture of rebellion. Did the anger of these fists have anything to do with the Reagan era? It’s hard to tell.
John Mellencamp also came to the lip of the stage with his fist raised. If you were here, I could show you the difference between the raised fist of each of those three artists. Each made a slightly different muscular statement—a statement made with muscles. And then, there were bands that were already slipping into acceptance of a parent’s generation, and acceptance of an older generation. Not rebellion, but acceptance. And those were bands like Spandau Ballet, Berlin, which were both my bands, and a bunch of others. Later, the whole attitude of rebellion would disappear from popular music. At least, it would be minimized significantly. In fact, Michael Jackson would live with his mother, his father, and his brothers—an unthinkable act among the rock rebels. And that business of raising your fist on stage would no longer be part of the package, if you were a rock ‘n’ roller. In Michael Jackson it would be replaced by fierce pointing.
The Reagan era was relatively prosperous, which was good. And it’s only when you have a prosperous age that kids can afford to be thoroughly rebellious, because when you have an age like the 2000s and the 2010s, when adult kids are still living in their parents’ houses, kids can’t afford to rebel. They need the comfort, the shelter, of their parents to move forward. So, that helps explain why the attitude of rebellion disappeared. And I don’t see rebellion in the music, today. Admittedly, listening to music has totally changed. Working with music has totally changed. I listen to Pandora. I don’t know the era of the bands that Pandora is playing to me, but to me, that attitude of rebellion has gone—maybe I just don’t understand these bands well enough. I don’t know the physical stance, the muscular message, of bands like The Eagles of Death Metal and the Queens of the Stone Age or of stars like Joe Bonamassa and Jack White—not to mention trans-racial artists like Keb Mo.
GC: Your babies, Prince and Michael Jackson, both died in the past ten years. How did you react to learning of their disappearance? As a critic of hard ecologism (or eco-nihilism), how do you assess the lyrics of Jackson’s pieces such as “The Earth Song” or “Heal the World”?
HB: Michael Jackson died on my birthday, June 25th, 2009, and I always felt I had conversations that I needed to complete with Michael. It took me years to realize why. My initial response when I started getting calls from the manager of Michael’s brothers in roughly 1982 was, “No, I don’t want to work with the Jacksons.” The Jacksons were easy. If you have a talking dog, the dog can get on the phone and say “Michael Jackson,” and any editor in the country will drop everything and offer the dog a cover story in exchange for an interview. And I don’t do easy things, so I was not interested. I do hard things—I do crusades. And then, I got a call from the Jacksons’ manager, the same guy I’d been saying no to for four months, saying, “The Jacksons are gonna be in town this weekend, and they’d like to meet with you.” And, Grégoire, you know my background. I did not grow up with other kids. I did not grow up with adults. I grew up with guinea pigs and lab rats and an aquarium full of guppies. So I didn’t know about normal human rituals, but I had heard this phrase that if you want to say no to somebody, if you’re going to be a mensch, if you’re going to be a real man, you have to say no to their face.
So I agreed to a meeting with the Jacksons and I took the elevator up to the 54th story of the Helmsley Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue at 50th Street in Manhattan. And I walked down the corridor and I knocked on the door, and the door opened four inches. And the minute the door opened, I knew I was going to have to work with the Jacksons because you could see these four guys plastered up against the wall as if something really dark and ominous was in the room, and nobody could tell what it was. And it took me about 10 or 15 years to figure out what I felt the Jacksons had hired me for. Once I finally figured it out, I realized they had hired me to save their brother’s soul. Because there was trouble—there was big trouble. So, when Michael died, I felt that my job was not finished. I had not succeeded in my task. The whole story of tracking down the villain who did Michael Jackson is in my new book Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: a Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock & Roll.
Michael spent 50 years on this planet, and for 25 years, he was rising towards superstardom. The biggest superstardom anyone had ever seen. Then for 25 years, for half of his life, he was dangling on the cross. He was crucified by the press, of all things. And I felt that the job of saving his soul was unfinished. And I felt the conversations that we were missing, that we had never had, that we should have had. But I always thought there was plenty of time, and then, all of a sudden, the night of my birthday, as a present, I got the news that Michael Jackson had died. I was devastated—I was floored. The story of the night I was told Michael Jackson had died is in the opening chapter of Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me. When they closed the coffee shop where I was working in those days for the night, I went up to the park for my walk through the meadow, looking up at the stars. And then, I was walking back from the park down the street. And normally, the streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at that hour—it was about 12:30 at night—are abandoned. They’re deserted in my neighborhood. But that night, there were two kids, about 19 years old, sitting on a stoop. And as I walked past them, I heard a voice.
I had my headphones on, so I didn’t know what the voice had said. I was listening to a book. And then, I realized when I got another hundred feet down the street that it had said, “Michael Jackson is dead.” And I wondered, “Are they saying that to me because they know that I’ve worked with Michael Jackson? Or, are they just saying that to anybody who passes by?” So I turned around and walked back up the street and took my headphones off and said, “What did you say?” And they repeated, “Michael Jackson is dead.” And I said, “Why did you say that?” expecting that they would say they knew me from the Tea Lounge, the cafe where I worked. And they just said, “We’re trying to tell everybody.”
So it became obvious that they were saying it to me because I was a generation or two older than they were, and they wanted nobody over the age of 30 to get away without realizing that a greatness had passed, that somebody of tremendous importance had just died. And I don’t remember whether I told them that I worked with Michael or not, but knowing me, I probably did tell them. Michael’s death was shocking. As I said, I still have conversations I need to finish with Michael. And one of the most disturbing things about death is its finality. You can no longer talk to those people who are gone—not at all. There is no longer any chance whatsoever of having a conversation.
Prince is a whole different matter. I felt more in response to Michael. Look, when I was 10 years old in Buffalo, New York, no other kids wanted me. My parents didn’t have time for me. So I had been alone since I was an infant. One afternoon I was in my living room and there was a book open in my lap. And the book said the first two rules of science are these: “The truth at any price, including the price of your life.” And it told the story of Galileo and they got it all wrong. As if he’d been willing to go to the stake to defend his truth. That was false. Galileo swore that everything he’d written was false in exchange for house arrest. But I needed the heroic version of the story. The book said that the second rule of science is, “Look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before, and then, proceed from there.” And it told the story of Anton van Leeuwenhoek—it got a bit of that wrong, too. He was one of the two men who invented the microscope. But those two rules became my religion. And Michael Jackson was the living incarnation of those two rules; he was those two basic rules come to life. The first rule: “The truth at any price, including the price of your life” is the law of courage. Michael had courage. He would not let anybody fuck with his kids. And the second law: “Look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before” is the law of curiosity, awe and wonder. And Michael had awe, wonder and surprise in a degree that I had never expected to see from any quarter.
Prince and I had something in common in that we had both built our own mini-societies. I helped put together, by accident, the hippie movement. Since other people’s cliques wouldn’t have me, the only cliques in which I could live were cliques that I fashioned myself, and Prince had that quality too. You know, when he was a teenager in Andre Cymone’s basement, he put together a culture—a mini-culture—his own mini-culture based on the idea that sex will liberate you, sex will set you free, and that sex will make violence unnecessary. That was actually an idea he got from the culture that I had helped start, the hippy culture. Remember, our motto in the hippy movement was “make sex, not war.” We created a sexual revolution. Though we didn’t actually start the ideas of that revolution—that idea of free love got started around 1800, 160 years earlier. But I did not have as many unfinished conversations with Prince. He was so vigorous in the whole time that I knew him. He was so well built despite the fact that he was only five foot two, or something like that. It was impossible to imagine him being gone.
And so, there wasn’t as urgent a need to finish a conversation with him, though I did feel I had unfinished conversations with him. After all, we’d risen together. I’d helped take him from an unknown 19 year-old—that’s what he said he was at the time, he may have been 22—to superstardom, and I had used everything that I had ever learned in years of studying star-making in order to get him there. And we did have things to say to each other. But it wasn’t the same thing. Michael was to me twice as important as anybody I had ever met in my life—at least twice as important as anybody that I had ever met in my life.
Prince, for all of his remarkable workaholism and all of his tremendous productivity and all of his astonishing ability to command an audience on stage, was a normal mortal. Michael was not like a mortal at all. Michael was like an angel or a saint. In other words, he was the living incarnation of some sort of divinity—specifically, the divinity that comes from his astonishing degree of awe and wonder. “Earth Song” is probably my favorite piece of Michael Jackson’s music. It’s just gorgeous, musically. The lyrics aren’t anything special, because they’re about standard ecological clichés. But remember, Michael was not just a lyricist; he was a musician. He spoke through his music. He spoke through his dancing. And what a powerful song that “Earth Song” was!
So, Michael was showing you his soul through his songs, through co-writing things like “We Are the World,” “Earth Song,” and “Man in the Mirror,” which basically says, “If you’ve got something important to do, start it now”—the same message as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a T.S. Eliot poem I grew up on. Michael showed you where his values were with those songs—although, not completely. If I hadn’t spent the night that I described in the book, sitting in a trailer outside of a huge studio complex, listening to his explanation about why he was canceling his tour, and then, trying to give him an explanation of why cancelling his tour would do damage to the kids that he took so seriously—the tens of thousands of kids he carried around in his heart—I would never have understood Michael’s intense commitment to his audience, to his kids. Again, that’s a story in Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: a Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock & Roll. And it’s an amazing story.
But Mother Nature loves those of her kids who, like Michael Jackson, oppose her most. Nature proceeds by breaking her own rules. And we are the next generation of nature’s lawbreakers. We carry nature into her future by inventing new things. For 13.7 billion years, nature has been going from nothing but a big bang of space, time and speed to an increasingly complex universe, from elementary particles to atoms, from atoms to giant sweepings of atoms called galaxies, from galaxies to the stars and planets, and then, to big molecules and life. In other words, nature has never stopped creating in the entire 13.7 billion years of this universe’s existence. And we are just her next tools for creation. So, we have an obligation to create. We have an obligation to innovate. We have an obligation to break nature’s laws—on behalf of nature and her restless creativity.
Now, this isn’t to say that we have an obligation to destroy the ability of this planet to sustain life, far from it. But it’s we humans—specifically us Western civilization humans—who invented the idea of ecology and invented the idea that we should “heal the world” instead of destroying the ecological systems on the face of the planet. And this is the very first time in human history that we’ve had massive protest movements that have been given institutional sanction, that have been made a part of the system. And it’s the first time in human history, in the course of the last 150 or 200 years, that we have had peace movements, that we have had anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism movements—and then, ecological movements. We have had Greta Thunberg shouting “How dare you?” just like Michael Jackson was singing “All I wanna say is that they don’t care about us.”
But even that is unnatural, to have protest movements. And it’s through those protest movements that we have self-correction mechanisms. The job of humans is to do things as unnatural as plants taking to land, as trees taking to the sky, and as the invention of photosynthesis. Because that is the way the universe proceeds. She breaks her own laws. She busts through her previous limitations. Nature rebels against the shackles of her nature. She constantly springs what my books call shape shock and supersized surprises. And nature, or the universe, never goes backwards. When she seems to go backwards, as when she exploded her first stars, a million years into those stars’ existence, she uses that catastrophe to create whole new realities. Long before those star deaths, when the first generation of stars was born, there were only three different kinds of atoms: hydrogen, helium and lithium. And in the collapse of dying stars, nature created eighty-nine new kinds of atoms. That’s what nature does with the process of destruction: she creates.
GC: You are regularly travelling into Asia for professional reasons. How do you account for the fascination that Asia and especially Thailand turned out to exert on the eighties’ action movie—with John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) seeking refuge in Thailand… or Jean-Claude Van Damme defeating a Thai champion to the acclamation of a crowd that calls him “the white warrior”?
HB: I’ve been in Seoul, Korea, twice. One of those visits was to keynote a United Nations conference on governance. I’ve been to Chengdu, China, once. I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, twice. First, to put together a two-day intensive training program for CEOs and general managers called “Re-perceiving leadership,” and the second time, because I co-founded and co-chaired the Asian Space Technology Summit. So, that’s my Asian experience. Oh, yes, I went to Kobe, Japan, to lecture on harvesting solar power in space and transmitting it to Earth.
We – the West – started dealing with Asia two thousand years ago when the Silk Road was opened and China started exporting silk to Rome. The wives of Roman senators – the wealthiest women in Rome – tried to one up each other by wearing the ultimate status symbol, robes made of Chinese silk. And then, we fell out of contact with Asia again when we, the West, lapsed into our dark ages, and contact began again with Marco Polo about 1250 A.D. China has been a land of riches and it’s been a land of wonders for those two thousand years. China, through almost all of those two thousand years, has been the greatest exporting nation on earth—and the most innovative. Plus, we’re so fascinated with societies that are radically different from ours that we developed exploration and anthropology. China has almost always been ahead of us. Except in curiosity about other societies—to China, societies outside the boundaries of the Chinese empire were too barbaric to merit attention.
In the West, the idea of anything strange and exotic attracts us. At least, it attracts us when we’re not in dark ages. When we are in dark ages, we pull a blanket over our heads and hide—we don’t want to know about things that are alien. But we are so fascinated by alien cultures that we dream up alien extraterrestrials, people from other galaxies. And many of us are certain that these aliens exist and that they’ve been making contact with Earth for a long time. The difference and the strangeness are exhilarating – especially the strangeness of a culture that’s almost as old as ours, being only about two thousand years younger, and which has produced astonishments, marvels! I mean, the Japanese and the Chinese invented the use of tea as a beverage. They invented the teacup, the saucer, and the fine porcelain these things are made of. They invented the teapot and the tea ceremony. They invented all of these things that to people like Voltaire were mesmerizing.
Voltaire lived in a time that was fascinated by Asia, fascinated by India, fascinated mostly by China, and also fascinated by Japan. And we’ve been attracted to Asian culture ever since because of the East’s radical difference and the light that difference has shed on our own culture. Thailand, specifically, I can’t answer that question, except Thailand was Ceylon, and Ceylon seems to have played a big role in the Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in the story of Sinbad the Sailor. And until the last 100 years, Ceylon was a magical place, a place where strange and magical things happened.
GC: Clint Eastwood, who spoke favorably of Trump in 2016, instead announced his support for Michael Bloomberg in the coming 2020 presidential election. To what extent do you recognize yourself in such an endorsement?
HB: I was hoping that Bloomberg would become the Democratic nominee for President. Bernie Sanders is a brilliant man, and one of his brilliances is his ability to boil an entire platform down to five sentences, something that Hillary Clinton definitely was not able to do. And another of Bernie’s brilliances is to be honest if he’s asked a question, like four days ago: “How do you feel about the Russians, about the idea that the Russians are supporting your election?” he was asked by a reporter. He came to the camera and said immediately, “The Russians had better get out of our elections!” I wish Donald Trump would say that. But for all of his brilliance, Bernie Sanders doesn’t understand the capitalist system.
The Western system, the system I outlined in The Genius of the Beast: a Radical Revision of Capitalism, has brought material miracle after material miracle to the face of this Earth. And the Western system is based on a balancing act between private industry, government and the protest industry. Or, to put it differently, the genius of the Western system is based on a balance between socialism and capitalism. Government provides things like roads and the Internet, which government invented. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) invented the Internet. You could call that socialism if you wanted to. Then there’s the protest industry, which we talked about a minute ago: the peace movement that received the tool of civil disobedience in 1848 from Henry David Thoreau; the anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism movement that had its first global conventions in 1899, and the environmentalist movement. And when you keep those three elements in balance—private industry, government, and the protest industry—you have a brilliant system that produces astonishing results. But Bernie doesn’t understand the private enterprise part of the system. He doesn’t understand billionaires. He thinks there should be no billionaires whatsoever.
Right now the American government space program at NASA is dead—it’s absolutely down. It’s spending huge amounts of money, but it’s not accomplishing anything, at least when it comes to humans in space. It’s accomplishing wonderful things when it comes to doing science in space, science done with automated equipment like our wildly successful Mars Rovers. But the only thing that’s keeping manned space alive and showing us hope for the future—for getting beyond this planet, for putting towns on the moon and putting cities on Mars—is Elon Musk, a billionaire, Jeff Bezos, another billionaire, and, possibly, Richard Branson, another billionaire. But that initiative is not coming out of governments at all. If we didn’t have billionaires, we wouldn’t stand a chance of gardening the solar system and greening the galaxy. We wouldn’t stand a chance of bringing space to life by bringing life to space.
First billionaires buy things that only they can afford. Then 20 years later, we can all afford them. But it takes the billionaires cutting through the interference. It takes billionaires carving out the next step, or at least, being there to pay for the next step. Michael Milken, the guy who invented junk bonds, has founded a cancer research institute that’s doing some very important work. Bill Gates is funding very important stuff all over the planet. We need billionaires. Frankly, we don’t need billionaires who are billionaires because their fathers made the money, or their mothers made the money. We need billionaires who are capable of making the money themselves because in order to make those billions, they have to make a major contribution to society. Bernie doesn’t understand that.
Bloomberg does understand that. He started as just a normal middle-class kid and he built an empire that’s worth 59 billion dollars. He built it by offering new services and improvements on old services. He has managed and organized people by the thousands. Donald Trump never managed much more than about four employees, or maybe 10 at most. Donald Trump was running a very small business based, to a large extent, on lying and cheating. But Michael Bloomberg has done it the honest way. Michael Bloomberg is a failure in debates. But he has demonstrated his platform through something more important than words on a debate stage. He has demonstrated it through actions. Look at the charities that he has been supporting very generously over the course of the last 20 years: leading the anti-gun movement and underwriting education for inner city black kids who do poorly in the public education system.
My cousin Deborah Kenny founded something called the Harlem Village Academies that take kids at random off the streets of Harlem and put them through an education that helps them get into college. Then her kids stay in college – they graduate. It’s remarkable. And Bloomberg has funded these educational programs. He has funded an entire anti-gun organization. My nephew has been one of his community organizers for those anti-gun groups. Bloomberg has funded environmentalist organizations. He doesn’t need to win in a debate. He wins through the actions that he takes.
GC: President Trump is occasionally said to have introduced a “punk” spirit in politics. Yet Donald Trump has established himself as a womanizer; as a President he is now establishing himself as a man of peace, breaking with the interventionist neoconservative doctrine, as well as endeavoring to set up peace in the Middle East between Sunni nations and Israel—and to trigger the fall of the Mullahs in Iran. From this angle, is he not rather in line with the hippie motto “Make love, not war”?
HB: That’s a very interesting way of looking at things. We’ll eventually see the impact of what Trump is doing. You know, the economy did very well under Barack Obama for the last six years of Barack Obama’s term. It did very well under the first three years of Donald Trump. In fact, it set new records during those three years. Then came the Covid-19 virus and ended the longest period of economic growth in American history. However, the Obama administration created more jobs in its last three years than the Trump administration created in its first three years. Remember the first rule of science, the one that I latched onto at the age of ten, the rule that Michael Jackson embodied: “The truth at any price, including the price of your life.” One of the things that bothers me about Donald Trump is that Trump tells 12 lies a day, and he just makes it up as he goes along. He has no allegiance to the truth. And his truth changes every day—he contradicts himself. And I can’t stand that—I just cannot stand that destruction of truth. To me, a democracy depends on truth. So does the successful conquest of Covid-19.
I didn’t read Trump’s peace plan when it came out. I was probably busy appearing on the radio or something and researching another topic. But before the peace plan was announced, Trump’s plan was to get the Saudis and the other Sunni nations together and get them to make peace with Israel so that the Sunni nations could take advantage of Israel as an ally; and so together they could face off against Iran. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia wants to do. It wants to lead an alliance against Iran. The Saudis are scared to death of Iran. I, as a Zionist, very much welcome peace with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and all of the middle-eastern Sunni countries. And I am horrified that the world lets Iran get away with having its people chant in the streets, “Death to America, death to Israel,” because the Iranians really do mean death.
They can’t rain death down upon the United States with their missiles—at least not yet—but they can do it with Israel very easily. And I am appalled that the world tolerates it when Iran puts: “Destroy the Zionist entity” as a slogan on the sides of its missiles as it test-launches them. I’m appalled that the world would allow an entire nation to get away with an overt genocidal policy. So, what Trump is doing in the Middle East looks good to me. The difficulty is when Trump is gone. Of course, Trump has no intention of ever going, and Trump wants to be replaced by his son Donald, and then by his daughter Ivanka. But if Trump is ever gone, there is such revulsion against Donald Trump in the United States that that revulsion will also be used against Israel because Trump is just poison in the minds of American Democrats. And I’m a Democrat and a liberal. So it’s tricky for me to acknowledge that Trump has done some things that I approve of.
GC: In his autobiography Billy Idol recalls his collaboration with you on the occasion of a hectic episode of his career. “In late February 1987, I found myself on another coke-smoking binge, walking into a police anti-crack sting in Washington Square with another lady friend, Grace Hattersley. Everyone else in Manhattan had read in the newspaper that day that there would be a police operation in the park that night. The police only insisted on arresting one of us, and Grace kindly decided to take the fall for me. A true gift, since I could’ve been deported had it been me who was arrested. Nonetheless, it ended up on the front pages of all the New York papers. “Just prior to this incident, I had taken a meeting with my press agent, Howard Bloom, who was telling me we needed a major press event to help announce the tour, so when I saw him the day after the front-page exposure, I said to him, “Well, how’s that for press coverage?” and he responded in an exasperated tone, “I didn’t mean that kind of press.” The story didn’t end there. Grace gave a press conference, mentioning that she was my girlfriend, which enraged Perri, who decided to call her own press conference to announce that she was my real girlfriend. The day after Grace’s media chat, Perri appeared at hers, opening up her shirt to display a leopard-print bra to the photographers as she exclaimed to the assembled press: “I’m Billy Idol’s girlfriend. I know something like this may split up some people, but we’ve been through a lot.” That settled it. When I headlined Madison Square Garden later that year, I opened the show with an insider’s remark, “From Washington Square to Madison Square,” and the audience roared with laughter.” How do you remember this tragicomic incident for your part? How do you assess the present situation of Billy Idol’s career with respect to that of Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop?
HB: I think Billy’s book is brilliant – and it’s brilliant for what it reveals. What disturbed me about Billy was his use of drugs. And I thought he was only on cocaine. But it turns out, when you read his book, that he was not only on cocaine; he was on heroin and he was on alcohol. Then, it also turns out that he was freebasing cocaine. Well, I actually knew about his free-basing. But to discover in his book just how hideously he was into drugs was horrifying for me. And, through his book, to see that he’s gotten off of those drugs and can write about it is, to me, admirable. God knows what my response was. I vaguely remember that incident in the park that Billy is talking about, but the most important thing that I remember was trying to save Billy’s life, and trying to save him from drugs. And, hopefully, we accomplished that because he was on his way to death. And that would have been terrible because he’s actually a brilliant man. And he certainly lives out his personality in a very big way.
So, I’m glad we managed to stop him. I mean, basically, what happened was this. His parents came into town, and I was very upset about what was happening to Billy with drugs. And his parents met with everybody on his team. And all the people on his team said, “Oh, Billy’s doing wonderfully. He’s doing just fine!” because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. Being associated with Billy Idol meant money, and it meant power to them, although it hadn’t when I first started with Billy. His career was about to die when I started with him. I came up with a strategy that basically brought him back to life and made him a source of money and power. But his parents were getting false reports about Billy. They had us come into the room one by one. So, finally, they had me come into the room where they were sitting, and I said, “Your son is killing himself, and we have to stop him.”
I explained the drug problem to his parents, and his parents took him away from his manager Bill Aucoin. Bill Aucoin was also freebasing and would destroy his own career with freebasing. Unfortunately, because I loved working with Bill Aucoin, Billy’s manager—I loved the man. But it’s that crusade to get Billy off of drugs that I remember the most about working with Billy. I last saw him about seven years ago on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, a TV New Year’s eve celebration, which is a big deal in the United States. I was astonished. He looked in the same physical shape that he had when he worked with me. He was ripped. It was hard to believe. I mean, you look at Christina Aguilera back from her heyday and how she looks today; and back then, she had this gorgeous figure, and now, she’s a little plump, round thing. And Billy has not succumbed to age at all.
I haven’t heard what he’s doing musically today. My Pandora station never plays me Billy Idol. So, I don’t know what his music is like these days. It’s my impression that he is still an icon, that he is still some sort of a musical force and some sort of a personality. But I can’t be sure because, you know, media is fragmented these days, and I don’t follow music journalism at all. I’m too busy doing politics and science. I’ve tried to reach out to Billy a couple of times, but I haven’t gotten any answers back. However I did get a series of emails and calls from his manager recently asking me to be in an upcoming documentary on Billy. And when I went into Manhattan to do the interview, the documentary’s director promised he would let Billy know how deeply I still feel about him. We’ll see if that message gets through.
GC: In your book The Genius of the Beast, dedicated to cracking the mysteries of Western creativity, you introduced the notion of an immaterial form of capital—one made from our Promethean dreams. You called it the “infrastructure of fantasy.” Did the way you came up with that idea have something to do with Billy Idol’s song “Flesh for Fantasy”?
HB: That’s a good question. I don’t remember the lyrics to that song. But my concept is to take things from the realm of fantasy into the realm of flesh, and turn them into realities, which is something we humans do better than any other creatures on the face of the Earth. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, we’re the only ones who have fantasies. Much as we spend time studying animal behavior, we haven’t seen fantasies in animals. So, to the extent that Billy’s song is about moving things from a rebel fantasy to the realm of reality, I’m all for it. We are nature. And all of the things that we admire and think are natural are as unnatural as could possibly be.
Take a tree, for instance. About roughly 400 to 600 million years ago, just after the Cambrian explosion, plants took to land, despite the fact that this was quite a fanciful proposition. I mean, plants needed water to survive. It was water in which life pulled itself together. The idea that you could take plants to land, a place with very little water, was completely unnatural. Land in those days was all virgin rock, and rock was hostile to life. Stone didn’t contain the water that life needed to keep its cells alive. After all, most of a cell is water. And where were you going to get the water to sustain a cell if you left the ocean behind and you went to the surface of this very hard, impenetrable rock? In addition, there were ultraviolet rays, the radical climate change of summer, fall, winter and spring, and a multitude of other threats on that hostile, barren surface. For the first plants to get to land was an impossible proposition—and totally and completely unnatural. And yet plants did it. And the first plants that evolved on the land were capable of getting about three inches high.
That’s almost eight centimeters. But going “Fuck you!” to nature’s most basic law, the law of gravity, and lifting themselves three inches high was violently and radically unnatural. And then came trees, and trees were even more of a “Fuck you!” to nature. They were even more unnatural. They lofted themselves thirty to sometimes one hundred and fifty feet high. Which means they had to lift 100 gallons of water a day from the earth to the sky just to survive. That’s totally going against the law of gravity. And remember, gravity is one of nature’s most basic laws. So if you and I had been sitting around a coffee table at the beginning of the universe, back in those days, I could have proven to you that trees could not possibly exist. But the fact is that nature advances through the efforts of her unnatural children—through having children who will be unnatural and defy her. And everything futuristic that happens with this universe—everything that defines the future of the universe—takes place through those rebels who are unnatural, who are as unnatural as Joan Jett, John Mellencamp, and Billy Idol raising their fists.
Even when we start inventing technologies, we’re no different than trees. I mean, plants have invented photosynthesis. That’s radically unnatural. It means taking things that don’t exist—waves, pulses of electromagnetism called light. Those pulses are not even stuff; they’re not material at all. And the first photosynthesizers captured those photons of light and turned them into power sources for the process of life. That is a technology, and it’s a radically unnatural technology to take something that isn’t material and turn it into energy, a technology that harvests an immaterial thing for a material purpose. So the inventions that we’ve made are very much like photosynthesis. They are radically unnatural, but only to the extent that a tree is radically unnatural or that photosynthesis is radically unnatural.
GC: In Global Brain you evoked at length the immemorial fight between the increasingly interconnected human species and the worldwide intelligence of bacteria, viruses, and microbes, especially zeroing in on the confrontation between the globally proliferating HIV and the planetary brain of scientists in the last decades of the 20th century. Do you see history repeating itself with the current epidemic of Covid-19?
HB: Absolutely. Viruses and bacteria, the world of microbes, have incredible creative powers and incredibly adaptive abilities and are constantly doing research and development. And the task of humanity has been to outpace the world of microbes in doing R&D. Just a few years ago, it took two months to sequence a virus. And with the novel coronavirus—the virus that causes Covid-19—sequencing only took days. Less than two weeks—but that’s not enough. We don’t have a vaccine to fight Covid-19. We don’t have a drug to treat those for whom a vaccine is too late. Though we are testing nine existing drugs in double-blind studies. But we need to get our research and development stuff in order so that we can really do a crash program to come up with a vaccine against this virus. Right now [May 2020] the Covid-19 is beating us. It’s outpacing us—it’s winning the race.
GC: In devising a new version of a godless metaphysics, one highlighting communication and creative self-organization “from quarks to humans,” you modeled the cosmos as a big bagel. Could you tell us more about it?
HB: I came up with the Big Bagel Theory in 1959 when I was working at the world’s largest cancer research laboratory, The Roswell Park Memorial Institute in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I was trying to solve the CPT problem in theoretical physics. The CPT problem—the charge, parity, and time problem—is this: if matter and antimatter are created at the same time in equal amounts, where is all the anti-matter? So, imagine a bagel with an almost non-existent hole, and at the instant of the beginning of the universe, the matter universe comes out of that tiny hole and rushes up the top of the bagel and the antimatter universe comes out of the hole on the bottom of the bagel and rushes down the bagel’s underside. The steepness of the slope coming out of the hole means that the matter universe and the antimatter universe are moving away from each other very fast. And then, you get to the hump of the bagel. And the fact that there’s a hump means that the matter universe and the antimatter universe have slowed down. They’ve run out of the energy that it takes to push them apart. But the matter and anti-matter universe speak a common language: gravity.
So, they start whispering to each other with their gravity. And their gravity starts pulling them at an ever-accelerating speed down the outside of the bagel toward each other until the matter universe and the antimatter universe meet on the very outer edge of the bagel, annihilate each other, and become the next hole at the center of the bagel. So, in essence, the universe is this big recurring thing like a photon, which comes down to absolutely nothing, then rises to the height of its amplitude and then, comes down to nothing again, and then rises again. Our universe is doing that. It’s first going up to the limits of its amplitude, which is at the very bulge of the bagel. And then, coming back down to nothing and then, rising to the height of its amplitude again. Or so Big Bagel Theory says.
GC: Thank you for your time.
HB: Thank you for all these years of friendship, Grégoire. That has meant a great deal to me.
The ideas that constitute “modernity” center around life as management. Modernity assumes that life can be managed, and that human beings are well-suited for the job. Its greatest successes have come in the careful application of technology towards various problems with a resulting rise in wealth. The well-being that comes with that wealth is limited to the things that money can buy. Non-tangibles remain as elusive as ever.
Modernity prefers problems that can be solved. As such, the short history of the modern world is the story of a civilization that staggers from one crisis to another. It derives its sense of self-worth and meaning from the problems it solves. It is existentially desperate for such problems.
No one historical event or idea created the modern world. It is an “accidental” philosophy, made up of disparate elements assembled in the wake of the collapse of the Medieval world (generally called the “Reformation”). The times that gave rise to modernity were revolutionary and radical (or were perceived to be). It’s heady stuff to be reforming the world. It’s also exhausting.
I have often thought that people generally have narrow interests. We want to work, to play, to love our family, to live in peace with some modest level of comfort. Of course, a consumer economy cannot operate in a world of satisfaction. Modern consumption with an ever-expanding economy requires that our dissatisfaction remain somewhat steady.
The same is true of the political world. For people to vote, they must be motivated (like shopping). Problems need to be advertised so that people will vote for their solutions. As such, our society has moved from crisis to crisis, slogan to slogan, with a faithfulness that can only be described as religious in nature.
Though America invented the notion of the “separation of Church and State,” nothing is more political than American religion, nor is anything more religious than American politics. Modernity is a religious project. (Christianity in its modernized forms is also driven by crisis and slogan. As such, it often resembles the politics of the world it inhabits).
Religion, per se, needs no gods or temples. It requires purpose and direction and a narrative for the direction of life. Human beings are not constructed in a manner in which we live devoid of religion. The term itself is instructive. “Religio” is a Latin word that refers to “binding” (“ligaments” has the same root). “Religion” is “that which binds us,” or “holds us together.”
Modernity, as a set of ideas, has been the dominant religion of Western culture for well over 200 years. What Christianity that continues to exist within it generally exists as a Christianized version of modernity. Modernity is the set of ideas, therefore, that answers the question, “What would Jesus do if He was going to fix the world?”
Ecumenism tends to flourish in such a setting because the “religious” differences between denominations are insignificant. What matters is the State and the culture as State. (The State is that arm of society in charge of “doing.” If Modernity as religion is about managing the world, then the State will always be its primary expression).
Modernity has been marked by a series of quasi-religious projects. The “New World” itself largely began as a religious project. The problem was not escaping persecution (an American myth). Rather, it was the dream of building a new world according to the radical ideas of English Puritanism (at least in New England).
The “rights of man” exploded as a religious campaign in France, sweeping away the old order as well as not a few heads. Again, it is a mistake to think of such fervor as “political” in nature. Politics is about governing – revolutions are always religious in nature – people “believe” in them.
America’s Westward drive can only be understood as a religious campaign. Notions such as “manifest destiny” married the American project to the book of Judges and the conquering of the land of Israel. Bob Dylan observed, “You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.”
The single greatest act of idiocy of the modern project was the “War to End All Wars” (World War I). The mass carnage of an entire generation brought nothing of significance as a result. Again, mere governance is incapable of such madness. Only the blindness of a false belief can create such nightmares.
Following the Second World War (which was utterly conceived in religious terms) the struggle with Communism became the great religious impulse of the post-war period.3 Towards its end, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be the “Evil Empire,” capturing the religious mood of an era.
Billy Graham’s preaching in the 50’s was as much about anti-Communism as it was about sin and redemption. Presidents loved him. It is worth noting that in its 220 years of history, the United States has only known 17 years of peace. To a large extent, the modern state exists as war (a religious war).
The collapse of the Soviet Union created something of an existential/religious crisis in the West. Historian, Francis Fukuyama, declared it to be the “end of history.” Without the religion of anti-communism, capitalism itself felt empty. Did we spend all of that treasure and energy resisting Communism just so we could have Walmarts?
Indeed, the spiritual emptiness of the West was apparent to almost everyone (except the West). Solzhenitsyn shocked American pundits when he described the vacuity of its spiritual life in his Harvard Address (1978). I live in Oak Ridge, TN. I moved here shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This city (the home of the Manhattan Project that built the first atom bomb) went into a bit of a tailspin in the 90s as the Cold War came to an end. It was a microcosm of the whole military-industrial complex (in which is located in some dark corner, the Vatican of modernity’s religion).
The decades since have been marked by a fevered search for a religious substitute. This has partly been found through the propaganda-driven recreation of the Cold War by the demonization of post-Soviet Russia. Both political parties today channel a hatred and fear of Russia that eclipses anything ever expressed about the Soviet Union.
The single most successful current religious movement surrounds the issues of climate change. I am not suggesting that the climate is not changing nor that human activity is not a contributor. Rather, I am suggesting that it has gained a religious basis that serves the larger purposes of modernity and its religious needs. If fingers were snapped and tomorrow the climate suddenly stabilized and returned to 1960 standards, the emotional loss for many would rival the death of God.
When the pronouncements of religious leaders agree with the headlines of the New York Times, we do well to ask which religion is being espoused. Regardless of actions taken and not taken, we will not “save the planet” nor lose it. However, the concept of saving the planet serves well the unifying cohesion of modernity’s religious needs. (Communism itself was a religious project. Its wholesale destruction of the Orthodox Church was an effort to eliminate a threat to its own religious claims).
The religious character of the current “crisis” is not to be found in a concern for the environment. Rather it is in the concern for a crisis. How desperate things are has little or nothing to do with the matters at hand and everything to do with modernity’s desperate need for purpose and meaning. The very people who wring their hands about future suffering justify present suffering (such as the wholesale slaughter of the unborn) in that its presence helps pay for the uninterrupted lifestyle of consumer capitalism.
The concerns of modernity’s religious demands often contain an element of truth. That same truth is ultimately swallowed up by the unattended destruction that provides for its way of life. Fulfilling those present demands is no more a solution to the problems of the world than any of its previous wars, genocides, and head-chopping revolutions. Filled with good intentions, they are the demands of a religion of insanity.
Christian theology has a concern for all things: “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” As such, it is possible to construct a “theological” account that supports the various projects of modernity. However, the Church does not exist to serve the demands of a false narrative. Coming to understand who we are and why we are is essential to Orthodox existence. Its endangerment may be the only true crisis of our time.
Rusty Reno, editor of the prominent religious conservative journal First Things, here couples an original diagnosis of how we got to the vicious decay of now with very muted prescriptions. This is a good enough book, earnest and intent, but it is cramped. Reno offers as an alternative not strong gods, nor even coherent positive visions of the nationalism and populism of the title, but only the tired and repeatedly failed call to return, though some unspecified mechanism, to vaguely conceived virtue.
I’m all for virtue, but Reno refuses to acknowledge that, more likely, and more desirable, the strong gods are those who will inevitably, as Kipling said, with fever and slaughter return, to scour the Earth in preparation for the rebirth of actual, living virtue.
In brief, this book is an extended attack on the so-called open society, created by the so-called postwar consensus of how the West should believe. We are all indoctrinated that the open society, never really defined, is wonderful, so Reno’s attacking it at first seems like attacking Nutella. This is true for liberals, for whom unlimited openness has been the goal since John Stuart Mill, and for twentieth-century conservatives, who were long taught to associate openness with anti-Communism, and thus saw no reason to question it, until its poisoned fruits came to full ripeness.
I don’t disagree with any of Reno’s extended history and analysis of the open society; I just think it’s too limited. As with Reno’s 2017 book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, he is too abstract, and will not grapple with what can be, and with what must be, done.
I am much exercised, as regular readers know, with the very recent split among conservatives, between those who have come to reject the whole of the Enlightenment as a dead end, broadly speaking, characterized as post-liberals, and those who accept Enlightenment principles, and thus the premises of their enemies, and merely want to dial back some excesses, or if denied that by their masters, reach Left goals a little slower. No points for guessing which group has been in charge while conservatives have gone down to crushing defeat again and again.
Reno does not fall clearly into either group, which I think is meant as a compromise among ever-louder competing voices, but is really an unstable balancing act, in which Reno finally falls between two chairs.
He starts by acknowledging post-liberals such as Patrick Deneen and (an early voice) Alasdair MacIntyre, and if I had not read this book, I would have guessed that Reno mostly agrees with them. Yet, after some wavering, he comes down on the side of the Enlightenment—that is, of liberalism, of atomized freedom, and the destruction of all unchosen bonds in a desperate quest for total emancipation. For Reno, we find, it was not 1789, but 1945, which was the year that it all went wrong.
As Reno sums his view up, in his own italics, “The distempers afflicting public life today reflect a crisis of the postwar consensus, the weak gods of openness and weakening, not a crisis of liberalism, modernity, or the West.” Reno’s argument is that after the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, the ruling classes of the West chose to create societies of “openness, weakening, and disenchantment,” in an explicit attempt to prevent the “return of the strong gods”—“the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that united societies.”
Rather than simply trying to wall out only the terrible strong gods, the ruling classes chose to wall them all out: truth along with fascism; loyalty along with Communism.
At least Reno openly rejects any need for preemptive apologies, wherein as a conservative he would, in the past, have been expected to first talk at length about the evils of Nazism and fascism, and dissociate himself from them. He refuses, since he knows this is a propaganda trick used to make conservatives behave and look weak.
Instead, he begins with something unexpected, but apt—a lengthy attack on Karl Popper, whose The Open Society and Its Enemies he identifies as the first philosophical attempt to create the postwar consensus under which openness was the first and only commandment.
Popper rejected claims of metaphysical truth and insisted we must each seek, and create, our own meaning—not truth, merely meaning, a small and ambiguous word. Reno then draws a straight line from Popper to George H. W. Bush’s infamous 1990 address to the United Nations, where he demanded that we create “a new and different world . . . of open borders, open trade, and, most importantly, open minds.”
With the Left, all words have special meanings, and here it is no different. “Open” here means not actually open, but closed against the strong gods and minatory toward their adherents. “Open” does not mean free, but coercive—Ryszard Legutko’s “coercion to freedom,” where “democracy” only happens when votes are for the Left, and “liberalism” is where Left social goals are realized. It is no coincidence that that evil little troll, George Soros, was a student of Popper, and named his left-wing pressure group, most famous recently for losing the vicious battle it waged against the Hungarian people, “The Open Society Foundations.”
But none of this is acknowledged by Reno, who does mention Soros, but fails to draw the obvious conclusion: that calls for the “open society” have, and always had, a double purpose—to avoid totalitarianism of the Right, and, just as importantly, to enthrone totalitarianism of the Left. He is so busy being thoughtful that, as in the Edgar Allan Poe tale “The Cask of Amontillado,” he is walled in by his enemies by the time the talking is done.
Critically, though, it is not only from such obvious leftists that Reno derives the “postwar consensus.” He also identifies conservatives equally responsible. For example, he draws a tight connection between Popper and Friedrich Hayek.
Hayek’s main target was central economic planning as leading to totalitarianism, but in so doing, Hayek exalted individual choice and rejected any concept of the common good, except as arising through individual choice. Government regulation was permitted, to be sure, but only to effectuate individual choices in achieving maximum freedom of play. Social consensus for Hayek was a threat, if it was anything but hortatory, unless it was directed to achieving freedom of individual action.
During the Cold War, this was a powerful anti-Communist vision, which conservatives endorsed, not seeing the sting buried within. Reno points out that “Like those in the 1990s who predicted that capitalism would bring democracy and freedom to China, Hayek believed that the market mechanism is intrinsically anti-totalitarian.” Hayek was wrong, as we can see both from China, and from our own budding totalitarian combination of the Lords of Tech and woke capitalism.
And, compounding his sin in the eyes of elderly conservatives who, for some reason, still burn incense at the altar of William F. Buckley, Reno analyzes how Buckley, starting with God and Man at Yale, similarly rejected in practice any focus on the common good and himself exalted atomized individual choice—probably helped along by being called a racist and fascist for even the modest endorsement of public virtue in his first book, combined with his keen desire to continue to be socially accepted by Left circles in New York, which the name-calling threatened to prevent.
As we all know, Buckley spent much of his energy for decades thereafter policing the Right, throwing out anyone who was anathema to the Left, and ended his life having accomplished nothing. He didn’t fight Tolkein’s Long Defeat, he fought his very own Short Defeat, and took us down with him.
Reno attributes Buckley’s insipid approach to that “he intuited, at least in part, that he could engage in public life only if he adapted his arguments to the growing postwar consensus in favor of the open society. That meant no strong gods—no large truths, no common loves, and no commanding loyalties.” (This is the closest Reno gets to actually defining the “strong gods”).
Hewing to this line was the only way to “give conservatives a place at the table,” but over time, “the tactic became a strategy.” Maybe so, but more likely Buckley was simply not the right man for the job. That doesn’t mean there was a right man for the job—Reno endorses Yuval Levin’s thesis in The Fractured Republic that postwar America was doomed to follow this path. At this point, though, who knows?
In any case, that’s all in the first chapter; it’s mostly history. Unfortunately, three-quarters of the book is mostly history, and repetitive history at that, viewing the creation of the open society from slightly different angles. Reno, for example, ties the initial impulse to avoid totalitarianism to the growth of multiculturalism, a “therapy of disenchantment” that denies any role for the strong gods of one’s own society.
In another thread, Reno describes how, for a time, the Great Books were emphasized, not to teach truth, but to allow each reader to draw his own conclusions. Reno does not engage Patrick Deneen’s argument that the Great Books themselves are, mostly, part of the problem rather than the solution, since most of them are works of the Enlightenment.
Since Reno denies that there was any societal problem prior to 1945, that is no surprise, but again, it makes Reno’s argument neither fish nor fowl among contemporary conservative debates, and it feels like whistling past the graveyard.
Thus, Reno attributes the decay that began in the 1960s and accelerated thereafter to an excessive attachment to the open society, not to Enlightenment principles. For him, it is a problem of disenchantment, and he seems in some places to think that we could have held the center if not for that obsession.
The truth is that the open society is, of course, merely a later manifestation of John Stuart Mill and his kind. While Reno mentions Mill in passing, he insists that all this is a postwar phenomenon. This is unconvincing. The open society is merely the latest guise of the Enlightenment project, protean as usual, able to pretend in one decade that it is the antidote to fascism and in another to fascistically force bakers to bake cakes for perverts. Reno simply skates on by these crucial matters.
We also touch on modernist architecture as emblematic of the open society, identity politics as the Caliban of the open society, and, citing Douglas Murray, how the open society results in leaders who hate their own people, something even more on display in Europe than here, though Hillary Clinton certainly gave Angela Merkel a run for her money.
Finally, we get to solutions. Well, not really. We instead get Émile Durkheim, who first pointed out, in 1912, that the Enlightenment had destroyed the old gods, and new ones were yet to be born. (Reno does not seem aware that his endorsing Durkheim suggests that he is wrong that the problems arose primarily after 1945).
We get a Durkheimian definition of the strong gods: “whatever has the power to inspire love.” We get talk of “we” and of the res publica, and a note that “the open-society therapies of weakening” cannot overcome the bad strong gods, “the perverse gods of blood, soil, and identity.”
Then we get a petering out, ten pages of rambling about “us” and recovering virtue, recommending mild nationalism and highly limited populism, “new metaphysical dreams,” concluding “Our task, therefore, is to restore public life in the West by developing a language of love and a vision of the ‘we’ that befits our dignity and appeals to reason as well as our hearts.”
What this would look like or how to get there we are not told. Weirdly, Reno is even aware that this is totally unsatisfactory, noting in his Acknowledgements that all his readers “warned me that I come up short in my final chapter.” If I were told that, I would rewrite my book, but Reno seems to think this is some kind of virtue.
Throughout the book, Reno is unwilling to follow his own thoughts, shrinking time after time from the obvious conclusions because he is afraid of being seen as too devoted to the wrong strong gods.
For example, after noting the deficiencies of mass democracy, he maintains that it is a “blessing,” because, you see, it “encourages [the populace] to transcend their me-centered existence,” a thesis for which he gives no evidence and which is contrary to all historical fact.
He even points out that “the freedom Romans loved was not individual freedom but the freedom of the city, the liberty of a people to make its own laws and embark on its own projects.” Yet he cannot see that exalting autonomic individuality is fatal, and its origin has nothing to do with 1945.
Self-hobbled, therefore, Reno offers not strong gods, but merely what remains of the strong gods after being emasculated by the Enlightenment, and he has no plan for releasing even them from the pen in which our rulers have confined them.
But you are in luck today. I’ll do what Reno fails to do—I’ll tell you what should be done with the strong gods, or rather, what will happen with the strong gods, who, after all, exist whether we want them to or not. It is instructive to note that the cover of this book features a statue that, at first glance, appears to be the Archangel Michael, a young, winged man with a sword.
It is not the Archangel, though. I had to dig outside the book (which does not refer to its cover art) to find out what the statue is. It is a detail of a monument in Madrid, the “Monument to the Heroes of the Second of May,” commemorating Spaniards executed in 1808 by the French after an armed uprising against Napoleonic occupation, a precursor to the Peninsular War. (This is the same event shown in the famous Goya painting of a firing squad).
The specific virtue of which the statue is meant as an allegory is “Patriotism.” Meditating on this shows the wrong turn in Reno’s approach. For him, patriotism is a gauzy love, one that can be shared by all, with overtones of ice cream and Independence Day parades. He calls it a strong god, nonetheless, since it has to do with human loves.
Yet we must recognize that it is not for nothing that the angel carries a sword, drawn for action. He seeks not delicious cold treats, but blood, for his enemies hem him round, having already slain his companions, and he stands ready to strike, for God and country—as did the Spaniards whom the angel commemorates.
Reno calls for unity, but fails to perceive, or admit, that unity cannot be accomplished among a people that lacks sufficient commonality to share a joint concept of ordered liberty. He precisely analyzes the so-called open society, and its effects, but refuses to draw the obvious conclusion—that its principles have corroded the foundations of American society, so unity is impossible until the corroded foundations are rebuilt. And that they can only be rebuilt in a manner such that Left, or Right, will rule permanently, and the other suppressed permanently.
Where wholly incompatible visions of the good live side by side, someone must rule. Today that is the Left—the hard Left in all social matters, and the neoliberal Left, combined with segments of the supposed Right, in economic matters, papering over our social pathologies with consumerism. We are propagandized that this is natural, inevitable, and unchangeable.
But in truth, as it is said, past performance is no indicator of future results. What we need, and what Reno should have called for, is the return of the real strong gods, those that fired the imagination of men like Hernán Cortes, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Robert Gould Shaw. They will bring unity, a unity of the Right that permits us to win the power to rule.
The alternative is waiting for years, or decades, as the Left finishes its project to choke the life out of the West, then collapses utterly as reality catches up, no doubt leading to a long dark age. We should not permit it, nor allow their crimes to be visited upon future generations.
What will initiate open, two-sided conflict, if it comes, is opaque now, as it always is. Only in retrospect will it be obvious, yet we can be sure that as it comes, the real strong gods, of men’s love of family, of country, of righteousness, of justice, will return.
G. K. Chesterton, as usual, saw this a long time ago—that rather than interminable repression by the Left, “Likelier the barricades shall blare / Slaughter below and smoke above, / And death and hate and hell declare / That men have found a thing to love.”
This is far from the first time I have suggested violence is the near-inevitable end of our societal arc, and I risk being repetitive, so I will not belabor the topic, and hope to avoid it for a while after this review. Within the frame of his book, Reno nods to his desire for a Christian renewal, yet despairs of it. One suspects, though, that his renewal, if it arrived, would be insipid, unable to actually deal with the Left, and Cortes and Shaw would not be invited.
Insipid Christianity is not in short supply; we don’t need more of it. I have written in detail recently, in my review of Bronze Age Mindset, of the ferment on the post-Christian Right.
In this context, post-Christian does not mean anti-Christian; that we are a post-Christian society is, in large part, the fault of Christians themselves, and far from the worst choice is allying with those not Christian who at least do not hate and wish to destroy us.
I predict, in short, that this ferment on the Right, only a few bubbles of which are yet visible, will soon remake the world around us, through the agency of the real strong gods. Buckle up, and make ready, for I have little doubt that, soon enough, all our lives will be a lot more interesting.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Casting Out the Mnney Changers,” by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890).
Is there a God “out there”? God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” we say in our Orthodox prayers, but is He “out there?” For what it’s worth, I want to suggest for a moment that He is not. Largely, what I am describing is what takes place in our imagination – that is, what we picture when we pray and how we think of God as we seek Him.
There are, to my mind, two primary ways of thinking and speaking about God. One is “juridical,” the other “ontological.” Juridical relationships are largely how we imagine relationships in our modern culture. We think of ourselves as individuals with rights and obligations, with a series of demands made on us by others and on others by us. The rules and laws of our society govern these forces. For us – everybody and everything is “out there.” Thomas Hobbes, writing during the years of the English Civil War, described this as the “war of all against all.” He opined that only a strong government could manage such a state of nature.
“Ontological” means “having to do with being.” My relationship with myself is ontological. I am not “out there” from myself. In the modern imagination, that is where ontology stops. There is my existence (“in here”) and everything else and everyone else is “out there.” The war goes on.
This is a deeply inadequate view of life. Consider the relationship we have with our parents. We are, quite literally, “bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.” We share a biological reality that is itself our existence. This can be extended towards other human beings. We never(!) exist alone. We can be “considered” alone for the purposes of study and the like, but we are no more alone than any of the cells within our bodies. We are social beings, but social in a manner that has to do with our very being and not merely with juridical arrangements.
The story of Joseph Stalin’s death is an interesting case in point. His exercise of brutal force on all those around him (including members of his own family) was a triumph of juridical ideology. As he lay dying (so the story goes), no one goes to his aid. There is too much fear. In the end, relationships that are shaped along purely juridical lines fail to give life. Indeed, they foster death.
St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life.” Nothing better states the ontological character of our existence. If my brother is my life, however, what is this space between us? An image that comes to mind is leaves on a tree. The life of every leaf depends on the life of every other leaf, just as all leaves depend on the life of the tree. The “space” between the leaves exists only in an imaginary manner. They are connected in a single life. The life of one is the life of all.
The space between is part of our modern imagination. The language of rights, for example, seeks to assert connectedness by juridical means, but only increases the emptiness of the space between. It is little wonder that this juridical imagery, when turned towards God, fails to nurture the soul. What we know of “out there” is always surrounded with uncertainty and anxiety. The juridical depends, ultimately, on violence. We can only “make” (“force”) things to bridge the empty space between us. And, of course, the space remains empty, regardless.
The modern paradigm, composed of juridical relationships, is the mother of loneliness, teaching our hearts that they exist in a fragmented world of temporary, negotiated cease-fires in an otherwise war-of-all-with-all. The language of rights, rooted primarily in older warrior cultures of Northern Europe, have given us our world of contracts, but never a world of true being.
God is not “out there” in the sense imagined by the juridical mind. At its very heart, “everywhere present and filling all things” means that there can be no “out there” with regard to God. God is only “here.” The Scriptures commonly describe God as dwelling “in us.” St. Paul describes our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit.” The language of Holy Baptism is not one of establishing a juridical relationship. It is the language of union, as is the language of the Holy Eucharist: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:56).
All of this can easily remain little more than an intellectual distinction. My conversations over the years, however, tell me that our juridical imagination dominates how we see God. We long for a relationship with One who is “out there,” while remaining oblivious to the God who dwells in us. In a recent conversation with a young convert who was struggling with a sense of God’s absence, I said, “But you breathe Him!”
Life (and existence in all forms) has been reduced to science-facts, objects or properties of objects. In truth, all things have their existence in God (not in themselves). We live in a creation that was brought into being out of nothing – it has no being in and of itself. From an Orthodox perspective, the existence of anything is proof of the existence of God.
We recognize, however, an even greater union within human beings. Of us alone, it is said that God breathed into us and we became living souls. To know God is also to know oneself – and, we may say, we cannot know ourselves apart from God, for there is no such self.
Of all the writers in Scripture, the one who says the most about problems of being, existence, connectedness and such, is St. John. And, for St. John, the key within all of these things is love. Consider this classic statement:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
“…if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” This is the language of mutual indwelling that has no place within a juridical model of relationships. God is love. Indeed, in this passage there is a consistent blending of action and being. God not only does (He loves us) but He is what He does (God is love).
This manner of being is the image according to which we are created. Love constitutes our true being. “My brother is my life.” This is more than a moral statement: it is a reflection on the very nature of true existence. For this reason, the “space between,” must be seen as a delusional artifact of the juridical imagination. We are created to exist as love – love of God, love of the other, love of self. When we withdraw from the love of God and the love of other, then the love of self collapses into a solipsistic loneliness. Sadly, we have frequently structured the modern world to accommodate and promote the lonely self. Our neighborhoods, our cities, our mode of transportation, our world of entertainment and consumption thrive on the lonely self and seek to fill the space between. However, you cannot fill emptiness with emptiness.