The 2018 U.S. mid-term elections
Jeremie Arthur, 7 January 2019
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens’ famous paradox from A Tale of Two Cities captures the range of emotions likely felt among a polarized electorate as the results of the 2018 midterm election arrived two months ago.
For months, polling data had shown Democrat candidates with a wind at their back. Fundraising numbers for Democrats were equally strong, their party’s base seemed motivated to turn out and Sunday morning news shows were replete with talk of a ‘blue wave’ that would serve as a sharp rebuke to President Trump and his first years in office.
One particularly ominous sign worthy of mention was that in 2016, 64 GOP House candidates had raised $2 million or more for their respective campaigns 20 days out from the election. In 2018, that number of GOP candidates was 17.
In the early evening of November 6th, the first results hinted that talk of a blue wave may have been premature and polls may, as in 2016, have failed to discern the pulse of a silent majority. In Indiana’s senate race, the GOP challenger, businessman Mike Braun, defeated incumbent Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly, by a nearly six-point margin in what had been seen to that point as a tight race.
Rep. Andy Barr, the incumbent Republican from Kentucky’s 6th District, held that House seat despite facing a strong Democrat opponent, Amy McGrath, and millions of dollars in negative advertising. Early returns in Florida were no better for Democrats as they showed Governor Rick Scott holding close (and later leading) in his bid to oust the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson and Ron DeSantis leading his Democrat opponent, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, in the state’s race for governor. It should be noted that in the gubernatorial race, DeSantis trailed Gillum in 28 of the 29 public polls that were taken between August 28th and November 6th.
By 9 p.m. EST, however, the pendulum swung and it became clear that Democrats would return to power in the House of Representatives. The extent of their majority would take nearly three weeks to discern, but ballot counting has finally concluded and Democrats posted a net gain of 40 House seats.
In addition to winning a majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats picked up more than 300 seats in state legislatures across the country and they will be returning to the gubernatorial mansion in key central and Midwestern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas and Illinois (three of those being states that President Trump won in 2016). These victories will become increasingly important for Democrats as the 2020 census is taken and states evaluate their respective congressional district maps.
Republicans were not without their own victories on the state level. In addition to holding the governor’s mansion in Florida, the GOP held both Iowa and Ohio as well. The majority of polls leading up to November 6th had shown the GOP candidate in Ohio, Mike DeWine, trailing Democrat Richard Cordray (former Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) and the result was likely one of the evening’s high points for the GOP.
Ohio voters demonstrated a willingness to split their ticket by re-electing Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown at the same time they were electing Mike DeWine as governor—a sign that candidate selection continues to matter. Given the outsized roles that Ohio and Florida play in the Electoral College calculus of presidential elections, GOP victories in those states remain significant data points.
Republicans increased their margin of control in the Senate by picking up Democrat-held seats in Florida, Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri. Democrats were able to mitigate some of those losses by defeating Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and picking up the open seat in Arizona being vacated by Jeff Flake. Adding two seats to their majority in the Senate will make it easier for Republicans to confirm President Trump’s judicial nominees as well as other presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation.
Ultimately, as Charlie Cook noted in the Cook Political Report, the 2018 elections failed to tell us a great deal that we did not already know. “Every incumbent Republican senator in a state that [President] Trump carried in 2016 won reelection … and Republicans ousted Democratic incumbents in three of the five states where Trump won by 19 points or more.” Cook goes on to note that in House elections, “Republicans won 96% of the seats in districts that Trump either won by 7 points or more, but lost 96% of the seats in districts that Trump either won by less than 7 points or lost.”
Clare Malone at FiveThirtyEight also summed it up rather well with her quip: “the election was an accurate reflection of where the country stands: existentially muddled, politically divided and historically engaged with its politics.”
President Trump cited the GOP’s Senate gain as a victory for his agenda. While many conservatives take solace in the GOP’s retention of the Senate, some measure of reflection is warranted.
The relatively close result in both the Texas senate race, where Republican Ted Cruz defeated Rep. Beto O’Rourke by fewer than 3 ,age points and the Georgia governor’s race where Republican Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by fewer than 2 points, should give the GOP some pause as it begs the question of whether the party will need to divert finite resources in upcoming election years to states long seen as strongholds.
Moreover, Democrats posted strong results in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—three states critical to President Trump’s 2016 victory. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight observed that if you aggregate the votes cast in each of those states in 2018, Democrats won by 7 points, 8 points, and 10 points respectively. If President Trump loses two or three of those states in 2020, his path to re-election will become increasingly narrow.
Demographics may or may not be destiny when it comes to electoral success, but they are relevant to an examination of any cycle’s election results. The Cook Political Report’s review of 2018 exit poll data showed the GOP won male voters by 4 points (51-47)—but lost women voters by an astonishing 19-point margin (59-40). The GOP won voters aged 45 and older by a 1-point margin—but lost voters 44 years and younger by 25 points (61-36).
As financial firms often say in their disclaimers, past performance is not always indicative of future results—and, similarly, it is clear that the GOP cannot long endure with what Amy Walter has referred to as an “all base, all the time” election strategy. The Cook Political Report pointed out that while a GOP-base focused strategy was enough to draw 46% of the popular vote and an Electoral College majority in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, there is no indication that it will prove equally effective in 2020.
The GOP lost a significant number of House seats across suburban districts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, New York, and even Oklahoma. As Nate Silver pointed out, “Throughout the stretch run of the 2018 midterm campaign, Trump and Republicans highlighted highly charged partisan issues, from the Central American migrant caravan to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. And Republican voters did indeed turn out in very high numbers: GOP candidates for the House received more than 50 million votes, more than the roughly 45 million they got in 2010. But it wasn’t enough, or even close to enough…. Independent voters went for Democrats by a 12-point margin, and voters who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 went to Democrats by 13 points.”
John Fund at National Review credited the GOP loss of approximately 40 House seats to suburban voters awarding the GOP only 49% of their votes. Nowhere was this result more pronounced than in Orange County, California—once deemed by Ronald Reagan to be the place where “all good Republicans went to their reward.” The GOP of 2018, however, finds itself with no reward there and, for the first time in decades, it holds none of seven House seats that represent the area’s roughly 3.2 million voters.
A successful election strategy for the GOP will require enhancing the party’s appeal to suburban voters while at the same time closing the gap among women voters to at least historical averages. Democrats continue to struggle with rural voters as evidenced by their results in states like Ohio.
The results of the 2018 midterm election now appear to align with what Dan McLaughlin at National Review called the “normal ways of American politics.”
McLaughlin argued that presidential parties typically lose a little over two dozen seats in the House in a first midterm; and while Republicans will lose more than that, their losses are significantly lower than the 63 seats that Democrats lost in 2010 or even the 54 seats that Democrats lost in 1994.
“Both sides,” McLaughlin wrote, “got enough taste of victory and defeat to leave them hungering for more in 2020.” We will now have to wait two years to see if the 2018 elections portend a Democrat resurgence—or a GOP retention.
Jeremie Arthur is an attorney from Connecticut.
Charles A. Coulombe, 3 January 2019
It may seem odd to have an American address a gathering of Czech monarchists. Were not the United States born in a revolution against a King? Has not much of our foreign policy for the past century been dedicated to pushing monarchs off their thrones—and keeping them off? How can a patriotic American who claims to love his country possibly favour monarchy?
Good questions all, to be sure. But the fact is that a century ago the peoples of this continent took a very wrong turn indeed—one that in large part was forced upon them by my country’s president, Woodrow Wilson. As Winston Churchill observed, driving the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Wittselbachs, and the rest off their thrones set the stage for the next war. That debt of honour aside, Americans, like Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Latin Americans, and a host of other peoples scattered around Asia, Africa, and the Pacific are really Europeans— often enough ethnically, and almost universally in terms of culture, language, and religion. The first permanent European settlement in what are now the United States was founded in 1565, and the foundations of the country I love were laid by the Kings of Spain, France, and England long before our political independence came about. We were born of Europe, and Europe in turn was born of Altar and Throne.
The Europe that we Americans ought to revere as our common homeland is in terrible shape in many ways, precisely because of its rejection of the two institutions which gave her birth. Call it Christendom, l’Occident, Abendland, or what you will, the collection of Christian monarchies that together constituted the Mother Continent before the Reformation and succeeding Revolutions constituted the highest social and cultural achievement humanity has ever made. This was due not to some magical properties in European blood but to the Providential combination of Greek philosophy, Christian faith, Roman order and law, and Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic cultural energy.
Despite all the wrack and ruin of subsequent revolutions, innumerable local institutions, associations, customs, and practices—and, of course, the Church herself—continue to bear witness to the enduring greatness, humanity, and warmth of that accomplishment. Austria-Hungary was in many ways an exemplar of this; it is indeed fitting that its last Emperor-King was a Saint.
The Austria-Hungary that my president insisted on destroying will never come back. Yet Blessed Emperor Karl often said during his last illness that he was suffering “so that my peoples shall come back together”. One cannot help but think that the growing popularity of his cultus throughout Central Europe may help do just that.
What might be restored is a Central European Federation, with each member state individually and collectively ruled by the heir of the House of Habsburg. Such a grouping would provide a needed counter-weight to France and Germany within Europe and strengthen each of its members—as well as going far to help remove the remaining ill-will between Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, and perhaps other peoples as well.
But what of the wider European picture, to which Archduke Otto continually directed his attention? As a scion of both the Habsburgs and the Bourbons—who between them at different times ruled the vast majority of the Continent—he was perforce a European, who saw its innate unity. As His Imperial Highness headed the Paneuropa Union from 1973 on, so in the 1950s and 60s, he was associated with the Abendländische Bewegung. But the United Europe for which the Archduke and his various collaborators hoped, prayed, and worked was very different to the European Union of today. That EU is a reflexion of the secular nation states that comprise it (at least in Western Europe), ruled as they are by bureaucratic-political machineries dominated by the elderly generation of ’68.
Traditional monarchy throughout Europe, as defended and enunciated by English, Scots, and Irish Jacobites, French Legitimists, Spanish Carlists, Portuguese Miguelists, and a host of others (including a number of Central European writers) have produced a vast body of writing whose common elements constitute a real antidote to the poison that dominates so much of modern governance. Among these common elements are recognition of Christianity as the animating principle of society and culture, and the importance of the Church in national life; local and provincial liberties—that is to say, subsidiarity; minimisation of class, ethnic, and political conflict—or as is said to-day, solidarity; and a monarch garbed in authority that comes to him from both the past and on high, and sufficient executive power “to protect his people from their politicians,” in the pithy phrase of Franz Josef to Theodore Roosevelt.
A Europe made up of such monarchies would no doubt reflect its member states even as the present one does. As Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP argued in his book, Christendom Awake! “The articulation of the foundational natural and Judaeo-Christian norms of a really united Europe … would most appropriately be made by such a[n Imperial] crown, whose legal and customary relations with the national peoples would be modelled on the best aspects of historic practice in the (Western) Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine ‘Commonwealth.’” As the good Dominican comments on his own proposal: “Let us dare to exercise a Christian political imagination on an as yet unspecifiable future.”
The 'Quaternion Eagle', a hand-coloured woodcut printed in 1510 by Hans Burgkmair. It depicts 56 shields of various Imperial States on the feathers of a black, double-headed eagle (with Christ on the Cross at the centre). The eight large shields at the top of the wings represent the seven Prince Electors and the titular Prefect of Rome.
Across Europe, the remnants of Christendom earlier mentioned as well innumerable commemorations of vanished monarchies and past triumphs and defeats of the Old Order continue. The memories of Royal Martyrs such as England’s Charles I, France’s Louis XVI, Russia’s Nicholas II, and, most certainly, Blessed Emperor Karl are constantly invoked by their devotees. While it would be tempting to look at these as mere remnants of a glorious past, they might well be—as Archduke Otto showed by his patronage of so many of them—the foundations of an even more glorious future. It is the task of today’s monarchists to explore this vast heritage, popularize, and build upon it.
In conclusion, it were well for me to point out that, as the Archduke Otto wrote, Europe really extends from San Francisco to Vladivostok—and one might add, to Buenos Aires, Sydney, and Cape Town. The health of the Mother Continent affects all of us in the daughter countries.
But there is more than that to be considered. We must never forget that He from Whom all monarchs derive their crowns is as much King over the New World as the Old, of Asia and Africa as of Europe. I pray that He may bless you and your deliberations richly—and speed the day when once more sovereigns guide their peoples “by the Grace of God.”
Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is A Catholic Quest For the Holy Grail. He is currently working on a biography of Blessed Karl of Austria. This article is based on a speech delivered at the Czech General Assembly in Prague on 24 November 2018. It appears here by permission.
John Laughland, 31 December 2018
Yvan Blot, the French politician, civil servant, and man of letters, who died on 10 October 2018 aged 70, was one of the central figures of the renaissance of right-wing thought in France over the last half century. Although France presents a left-wing and even socialist face to the outside world, French society is in reality largely conservative, as are a great number of her intellectuals who constitute a formidable undercurrent beneath the country’s politically correct surface.
The author of over 20 books and thousands of essays, Blot’s intellectual interests ranged very widely, encompassing the heritage of ancient Greece, Aristotle, Heidegger, contemporary Russia, direct democracy, immigration, and much else besides. The fact that hundreds of people attended his funeral was testimony not only to the great affection in which he was held but also to the considerable influence he had wielded over more than a generation of politicians and other public figures.
The key to Blot’s success lay in his two main qualities: lucidity and energy. A quietly spoken man who never seemed to get angry, even though his political career had made him plenty of enemies (having started politics in the Gaullist RPR party of Jacques Chirac, for which he was elected to the National Assembly, he joined the Front national in 1989 and represented it as a member of the European Parliament until 1999), Blot never gave up. An indefatigably curious mind led him to spend much of his time at conferences, either as a speaker or as a member of the audience, where his interventions were always concise and matter-of-fact.
On his deathbed, Blot was still writing. His last article, as so many of his lectures and books, was devoted to Aristotle’s teleology. But Blot had come to understand, especially towards the end of his life, that the key to his political belief system was in fact Christianity, whence the fact that in the sketch for his last article, God was at the top of the list of priorities. Although not publicly associated with Catholic politics during his public career, Blot had in fact been privately drawn ever closer to religion, thanks to the interest he developed for Russia at the end of his life. Having been a vigorous anti-Communist throughout his life (his first electoral victory, in 1983, was against the French Communist Party in Calais), Blot was fascinated by post-communist Russia and by the beauty of the Orthodox liturgy. His Christian name no doubt reflected his mother's Polish roots but, at the end of his life, he started to spell it ‘Ivan’ as a sign of his new Russophilia.
Blot saw in Putin’s presidency a formidable example of how a country can overcome its revolutionary inheritance by renewing with its ancient historical roots. He wished that the same thing might one day happen in his native France. Immensely proud of belonging to the Valdai Group organised every year by the Russian presidency, Blot called for a statue of King Clovis to be erected in Place de la Concorde in Paris, in imitation of the statue of St. Vladimir the Great recently put up just outside the Moscow Kremlin. However, having been drawn back to religion through Orthodoxy, Blot—a member of the Catholic Academy of France—received the last rites from a Catholic priest and the Requiem Mass said for him in the parish church of the kings of France, Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, opposite the Louvre, followed the traditional Latin Tridentine liturgy.
After a brief association with the Nouvelle droite in the 1970s, Blot’s intellectual activism started in 1974, when he co-founded the Club de l’horloge with a group of other senior civil servants like himself. Such men constitute the backbone of the French state and, like Blot, they continued to work in their respective departments in spite of their unorthodox views. That year was also the year of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and, therefore, of the decisive abandonment of Gaullism in favour of the centrist pro-Europeanism which has dominated French politics without interruption ever since. The election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017, who like Giscard was a former Minister of Finance, only serves to perpetuate this consensus for another five years.
In contrast to this soft-left, post-nationalism, the Club de l’horloge favoured the patriotic politics of national liberalism, which it convinced Jacques Chirac to adopt in 1981. The latter’s defeat by François Mitterrand that year caused the leader of the French Right to abandon such policies, and to imitate the Socialist who was to dominate French politics for 14 years: Blot left Chirac’s RPR Party to join the Front national as a result.
Blot’s genius was to be very pragmatic. Although he was deeply interested in metaphysics, on which he wrote widely, and although his enemies would have considered him a radical at best, his political books often tackled problems in a supremely practical way. Thus, he not only co-authored a book on Islamic terrorism—which he correctly identified as a ‘revolutionary’ movement, and on which he had worked professionally as an inspector in the Ministry of the Interior—but also became an ardent supporter of direct democracy, as practised in Switzerland and certain American states, and a fervent opponent of what he rightly called the oligarchy which controls France and Europe.
In his last book, La nouvelle lutte des classes (The new class struggle), he argued that Europe is the victim of a battle between self-appointed political elites and the people they are supposed to represent but whom, in reality, they betray. Blot formulated the idea that the true democrats were now on the right, where they are anathematised as populists and nationalists, with the ‘progressive’ left having drifted into support for highly elitist and anti-democratic globalist oligarchy. Thus the political class has haemorrhaged into a de facto monopoly, which, in the name of management-speak, it manages very ineffectively—whence the seemingly terminal decline of countries like France.
A man whose political opinions put him in opposition to mainstream politics, Blot, with his permanent reasonableness and balance, was a rare embodiment of the advice given by the 17th century Italian Jesuit, Claudio Aquaviva, to those desiring to convert society to the truth: be resolute in execution but gentle in manner. Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo should be Yvan Blot’s epitaph. He was, in short, the perfect gentleman.
John Laughland is a British author and professor, who specialises on political philosophy and international affairs. He has lectured at the Sorbonne and at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. He is also the former Director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris.
Geoffrey Smagacz, 20 December 2018
By some surfing accident on YouTube, I stumbled on a short black-and-white video of a Cuban journalist conducting a Spanish-language interview with Ernest Hemingway shortly after the American author was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. I’d never heard Hemingway speak Spanish, and I was astonished not by how halting and awkward his Spanish was, but that I’d still held illusions about Hemingway that could be shattered. It stunned me. I thought I had busted all his myths, and had years ago totally extirpated his deep influence—not only on my writing but on my life. Nevertheless, he continues to haunt me. Why?
It’s safe to say that Hemingway set me on the course of the writer’s life. He certainly loomed large in my development as a writer and as a man. Through my 20s, I read most of his novels and stories, particularly In Our Time, The Green Hills of Africa, and The Sun Also Rises (of which I’d read the latter twenty times or more). He led me to Turgenev and Twain and Sherwood Anderson, and at least one book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes. With some sense of urgency, I traveled to France and Spain. I worked on a newspaper. I began to drink heavily. Although it’s been at least 25 years since I’d consciously let go of Hemingway as any kind of a model, here I am having another go at him.
I’ll start with the interview I recently viewed. If you’ve read what Hemingway has said about himself, or what others have written about him in biographies—or, Heaven knows, hagiographies—you are told that he could speak French fluently, read Flaubert's Madam Bovary in the original, knew German, and also spoke Spanish. In The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea, as well as several short stores, he peppered his prose with Spanish words and phrases.
I don’t mean to be nit-picky but for crying out loud, after listening to the interview, I have to ask: Was this the level of his Spanish when he was driving an ambulance during WWI in Spain, or when he fought with the Republican Communists during the Spanish Civil War, or when he was chumming around with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba? He must have missed a lot of the conversation or had an interpreter.
And note, Hemingway was being interviewed at the end of his career, not at the beginning. Was he just having an ‘off day’? Had his brain already become pickled from years of heavy drinking? I speak Spanish more fluently. Gwyneth Paltrow speaks better Spanish. All these many years I continued to hold this idea of Hemingway as a towering intellect, a man of letters and languages; but in the interview, he used soy instead of estoy. He virtually ignored a complex question asked by the interviewer on how Cuba had influenced him as a writer and, instead, launched into the probably rehearsed, linguistic theme of The Old Man and the Sea on the difference between la mar and el mar in very pedestrian Spanish. Oh well.
I began to break free from Hemingway’s magnetic personality after I quit drinking at the age of 29 and sobered up. Shortly thereafter one clear-headed day I asked myself: Why in the world cannot I write ‘can’t’? Why do not I write ‘don’t’? Why will not Hemingway let me write ‘won’t’? Good grief. Hemingway adamantly didn't use contractions so I didn’t use contractions. Scales might have fallen from my eyes. I’m no polyglot but name me a language that doesn’t ellipse and elide, compress, blend in, or telescope in spoken and written forms. English does. Spanish does. That’s how people talk and write—and Hemingway’s writings are almost nothing but talking.
I’m inclined to think that his hard-headed dicta was a manifestation of his addictive personality, the obsessive compulsive behavior of the alcoholic. I know all about it. Maybe if he’d loosened up a little bit, he would have grown as a writer; but instead he held to this narrow principle his entire life. Couldn’t he have taken a risk and tried something new? Couldn’t he slip the surly bonds of his own hidebound code? He could hunt kudu in Africa, elk in Idaho, game fish for marlin in Cuba and Mexico, sip brandy and chomp a cigar as he watched Che Guevara murder his political enemies in Cuba—but he couldn’t use a contraction?
And who really talks like Hemingway’s characters talk? After 60 years of B-grade TV and movie theater dreck, I’d say you only find that kind of dialogue spoken by a bit player with a bad accent pretending to be a foreigner.
Compare Hemingway’s dialogue to John Kennedy Toole’s, to Nathaniel West’s, to P.G. Wodehouse’s, to Evelyn Waugh’s—who, by the way, praised Hemingway’s dialogue. They all did it much, much better. Even Erle Stanley Gardner did it better. Finally, I could agree with the criticism that, yes, all of Hemingway’s characters do sound alike, the women as well as the men, like laconic Gary Coopers.
Here’s another matter: Hemingway was NOT the inventor of the ‘plain style’. Rather, he took the plain style and infused it with his very massive and charismatic personality. It had been done already and done quite well by Sherwood Anderson and Mark Twain—and better still by Edgar Allen Poe. Read Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and then tell me that Hemingway invented the dialogue-driven spare style, without adjectives, using active rather than passive verbs, and showing rather than telling. Poe should get 100% of the credit for its invention. In fact, what modern fiction genre didn’t Poe invent?
Poe’s story also had an added bonus. It had a plot, which Hemingway was always in search of. What is so different about modernity that you can’t tell a story with a beginning, middle, and an end? Any good conversationalist spinning a yarn knows how to start and then build his narrative to a satisfying payoff.
As for Hemingway’s eschewing the Latin-based word for the Anglo-Saxon, so well examined by Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, this also has been done. The English language has experienced this tension between the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin forms since the Norman Conquest and this juxtaposition was particularly examined by the Romantic poets—by Robert Burns and especially by Keats who opined about it in his letters, and tended to the Anglo-Saxon.
Speaking of Keats, Hemingway exercised the same humbuggery as the poet did in his biblical borrowings. Remember, writers make things up. Hemingway himself wrote: “A writer of fiction is a congenital liar.” So Hemingway dipped into one of the shortest books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, to find the title of The Sun Also Rises, just as Keats dipped into Ruth to find his mega-famous alien corn metaphor in his most famous poem. This made them both seem like biblical scholars. It certainly gave their works added gravitas. Thank you, Holy Bible. Good thing for me, too, because pondering Ecclesiastes’ lament that “there’s nothing new under the sun” deeply planted a small seed—or shall I say, gestated a small seed—that sprouted years later into full-blown Catholicism.
Here’s another one: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” I guess this was Hemingway’s way of saying that an original writer has to make up an original frame—as if there really was something new under the sun! Did he mean that if a writer used a plot then he’d merely be engaging in interior decorating? What man wants to be an interior decorator, right? But what in the world was he talking about? Is a short paragraph and a simple declarative sentence architecture? His later writing is so repetitive. For example, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) is a sure-fire snoozer. I’d pondered that statement up and down as if it really were profound and concluded that if Hemingway's prose was architecture, I’d have to compare it to the plain, boring, boxy, modern glass and steel buildings of today’s cities that commuters can’t wait to flee at 5:00 pm. Can’t a writer add a flourish? Can he never maximize? Can’t he accessorize?
Didn’t anyone ever tell Hemingway that plots are the wooden frames, that they’re the metal T-bars and I-bars? How else does one build and hang a tale?
The list goes on. I pulled off a large chunk of Hemingway’s persona during a chance visit to the Zane Gray museum in Roebling, Pennsylvania. I’ll grant you that it’s not as if Zane Gray were the first American writer to cultivate the larger-than-life personality. Twain, a huge influence on Hemingway, developed one to a T on his late-in-life speaking tours dressed in all white gabardine. But Zane Gray, a generation before Hemingway, had already ‘done’ Hemingway. He had the upper middle class background, same as Hemingway: son of a dentist; Hemingway, son of a doctor. He had the wealthy first wife who supported him and had the family who bailed him out. He had the mistresses. He had the blustery bravado. He hunted for big game and fished for marlin in many of the places Hemingway later did. He won fishing trophies and rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars. Yes, it’s true that Gray wasn’t the craftsman that Hemingway was. However, what an eye-opening museum visit that was.
Then we have Hemingway as pugilist taking on other writers as boxing opponents. Hemingway once wrote: “I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.” Did he? I don’t think he wrote anything better than Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and never limned a better character than Bazorov the Nihilist. Hemingway also literally knocked down poet Wallace Stevens and slapped a prominent critic in the face. And he spawned at least one imitator—Norman Mailer—who took on Gore Vidal.
Yet Hemingway didn’t invent the writer-as-fighter meme, either. Horace did in Ars Poetica. Perhaps someone thought of it before Horace. I’m not a classics scholar so I couldn’t tell you for sure. Only instead of the ring it was the Campus Martius with the loser laughed at by the spectators outside of the ring. Now, I can’t swear that Hemingway read Ars Poetica but I’m certain that he did. It’s just short enough for a former journalist to read and to steal and to make himself sound like a thinker for the ages.
Having worked as a journalist, I know that the typical journalist learns just enough about a topic to seem like an expert. I once covered a town hall meeting about pollutants coming from a sewage treatment plant—so I read a couple of brochures, put long but readable stretches of scientific jargon in my article, and was thereafter treated as an expert when doing subsequent follow-ups. People on my beat looked at me differently after that, and I didn’t disabuse them by divulging my magician’s trick.
But it could be argued that Hemingway should have either chosen his battles more wisely or stayed out of some altogether. During the Spanish Civil War he fought on the side of the Communists. I want to be clear as a tolling bell here. I am NOT saying he should have been fighting on the side of the Fascists. He shouldn’t have been there at all. The Spanish Civil War was not a war of good against evil; it was a war of two evils, between two man-centered ideologies, two modern scourges that continue to reverberate and manifest themselves long after both towers have fallen.
It’s well known that Hemingway flirted with the KGB, fished with Castro and Che, witnessed Che’s firing squads, fought on the side of the Stalinists during the Spanish Civil War, and probably propagandized for them, too, while practicing his journalism there. He allegedly sullied John Dos Passos’s reputation because Dos Passos became disillusioned with the Republican Stalinists. Maybe he would have tried to do the same to George Orwell if Orwell hadn’t become so famous for telling the truth. In other words, Hemingway was one of the forerunners of Vladimir Lenin’s famous “useful idiots” club.
But mine is not a polemic. I’m not an ideologue. I won’t and can’t dismiss Hemingway because I don’t agree with his politics. I can’t dismiss him even after sifting out all the chaff because, safe to say, early on he was a consummate craftsman. In his early works he did what Poe suggested that a short-story writer do: Make every word count (and count they did, almost like poetry).
Personally, he made me pursue the writer’s craft. Without Hemingway, I wouldn’t have discovered Turgenev who led me to the other Russians, wouldn’t have pondered style and literary theory so deeply, wouldn’t have spent so much time perfecting dialogue. I wouldn’t have traveled to France and Spain, and played Frisbee with a young woman in the Luxembourg Gardens. And perhaps I wouldn’t have let the wine bottle become the Virgil that led me to Hell, trying to follow my own code of behavior—nor would I have had my moment of Grace leading me out again.
When I re-read The Sun Also Rises in my 40s (the last time I picked up one of Hemingway’s books), I began to think that the Holy Spirit used that book to bring me to Christ. Did Hemingway intend that book to be so religious? Or was he just a keen observer of a Spanish way of life permeated at that time by the Catholic Church? I don’t know. The main character—the eunuch Jake Barnes—is more than once compared to a Catholic priest. I also think that pondering the following from Ecclesiastes at an early age inclined me to become conservative (with a small “c”):
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.
What’s more conservative than that?
However, to become conservative and Catholic, I had to break out of Hemingway’s clutches. If I hadn’t, maybe I would have wound up like Breece D’J Pancake, a slavish Hemingway imitator who drank hard, converted to Catholicism, and committed suicide before he hit 30. How many countless impressionable souls like me did Hemingway also lead to perdition? One wonders about this aspect of his literary legacy.
Geoffrey Smagacz writes from New York and Mexico. A collection of his fiction was published in 2013 under the title of A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills by Wiseblood Books. It won the 2014 Independent Publisher gold medal for Mid-Atlantic Best Regional Fiction. His rhymed and metered poetry has also been published in various literary magazines and e-zines, including 14 by 14 and Dappled Things.
Alvino-Mario Fantini, 12 December 2018
While change is inevitable, it should never be abrupt. History has repeatedly taught us this, particularly in terms of political change. And over the centuries, revolutions, drastic policy changes, and the pursuit of abstract political ideas — with little or no reference to reality — have led to innumerable horrific regimes and drenched the earth with the blood of their victims.
This is why one of the heroes in our conservative pantheon is Edmund Burke. He believed in natural change and in the gradual evolution of society. That is, he defended the idea of change guided by balance, sobriety, and wisdom. He was thus not averse to political reform but rather thought of it as the ongoing improvement of an existing system or regime. In the words of the American conservative writer and thinker Russell Kirk, Burke believed in a “politics of prudence”.
In An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, In Consequence of Some Late Discussions in Parliament, Relative to the ‘Reflections on the French Revolution’ (1791), Burke wrote: “Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.” Sadly, these days, few people read Burke — or Kirk, for that matter. But the importance of prudence in all matters, of incremental change, of constantly striving to slowly improve things — without succumbing to the impatient temptation to pull everything down and start suddenly anew — remains paramount.
We at The European Conservative also seek to embody this idea in our work. Since our first edition was published in 2008 by the Center for European Renewal, we have evolved from a four-page newsletter circulated among a few dozen friends to a 60-page hard copy edition published once — or, in a good year, twice — a year. Our early editions had no cover to speak of, while the most recent editions have incorporated full cover images — which themselves have also gone from black-and-white to full color. Needless to say, we are somewhat hide-bound by tradition, and for the moment continue to exhibit a preference for old engravings, antique prints, and traditional paintings for these covers. However, having commissioned a firm last month to design and build a proper website, we have taken yet another step forward. This will allow us to eventually move toward a fully functional website of which we can be proud.
Of course, all these changes and improvements were not conceived overnight. They are the result of another undertaking — which is the creation of a new partnership between the Center for European Renewal (CER) and the Transatlantic Christian Council-U.S. (TCC-U.S.). This partnership will not only facilitate our expansion and growth, it will also bring together two vibrant networks of committed conservative, Christian, and traditionalist thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is important to remember that the broad civilizational context to which these networks belong is what we formerly knew as ‘the West’, or ‘Western Civilization’, or reaching further back, ‘Christendom’. Regardless of how one chooses to refer to it, what we have in mind — what we essentially seek to defend and promote — is the Judeo-Christian West, the product of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem.
In the coming weeks and months, this publication — as well as the CER and the TCC-U.S. — will seek to bring to the attention of readers the ideas, thoughts, and works of those who share a commitment to the values of this civilizational inheritance. We will also seek to advance our common heritage, as well as the ideals of national sovereignty, and the dignity of “a Europe of nations”— not only as expressed in the conservative Paris Statement of 2017 but also as embodied in that shared transatlantic Western culture.
It’s important to recognize that one idea at the heart of our common heritage is the concept of human dignity. Its importance to both civilization and culture is critical. Distort its concept or meaning, or willfully manipulate its understanding to suit some narrow political agenda, and you will debase culture and degrade man. Our efforts then will also seek to promote the international work of those who are working tirelessly — in some cases, fearlessly — to defend the idea of human dignity in markets, in marriage and the family, and in the modern understanding of the self.
At a time when so many people have either neglected a proper understanding of human dignity or have willfully tried to destroy our shared inheritance — whether from within or without — ours has increasingly become a shared existential struggle. This struggle cannot be successful if we work independently from one another. Thus, we shall continue to seek your engagement and your support as we try to vigorously promote and defend a “respectable conservatism” — one that embraces the many varieties of conservative thought on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is only through a shared understanding of our common inheritance that we may have a chance to preserve and renew the Greek, Roman, and Christian foundations of the West — on both sides of the Atlantic.
Alvino-Mario Fantini is the Editor-in-Chief of The European Conservative.
Todd Huizinga, 3 December 2018
Sovereignty — especially American sovereignty — stands in the way of creating a better world. Sovereignty keeps us from developing adequately the institutions we need to achieve full respect for human rights globally. In fact, ‘self-government’ is a myth, and only perpetuates the oppression of the weak and marginalized. The American obsession with America is thus a major obstacle to building a better world.
These are the conclusions implicit in the thinking of the American Left and of the majority of America’s European allies. Why is this so? What is national sovereignty, and why do so many who enjoy lives in sovereign democratic nations hold views necessarily opposed to sovereignty? The answer lies in the conflicting worldviews that underlie the idea of sovereignty — and its principal rival, the ideology of global governance.
By ‘sovereignty’, we understand national sovereignty, such as the one on which the ‘American experiment’ is based: the idea that self-government is rooted in the nation-state and, accordingly, that the Constitution, as our basic law, trumps any international law that might contravene it.
In the arena of international affairs, national sovereignty does not mean any sort of ‘splendid isolation’ or the renunciation of international cooperation. Rather, it simply means that the United States insists on its right to participate in international affairs as a sovereign nation-state. It means that the U.S. government is primarily responsible to its own citizens, and that its powers are circumscribed not by the desires of other nations but by its Constitution, which the American people accept as their basic law against which the legitimacy of all other laws, treaties, and agreements must be judged.
Here, the concept of “We the People” is key. In the U.S. system, sovereignty resides not in the government, but in the citizens, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. The power and authority of the U.S. government are derived from the American people, and the American people alone. This is what Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte calls “Philadelphian sovereignty” or “democratic sovereignty ... the sovereignty of a self-governing, free people”. Democratic sovereignty is the heart of the model of government elaborated by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.
But democratic sovereignty entails limited government — and thus limited ambitions for government. As it happens, democratic sovereignty is also rooted in a traditionalist — and essentially religious — worldview. For the most part, both the American Left and America’s European partners harbor much greater ambitions for government. And they certainly do not hold anything resembling a traditionalist worldview. In fact, most of America’s closest European allies belong to an organization whose very existence implies an eventual rejection of national sovereignty — namely, the European Union.
The European project
To be sure, with the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, widespread terrorism — and now Brexit — the European Union is in deep trouble. Because of these crises, the European Union is on everyone’s lips. But despite all the attention it is attracting, very few people really know much about the EU. In fact, very few people have the foggiest idea what the European Union is — and understandably so. The EU is unlike any other international arrangement. Though economic integration is central to the European project, the EU is much more than a free trade area or customs union. Nor is it like other international organizations.
The Organization of American States (OAS), for example, is a regional organization like the EU and is pan-American while the EU is pan-European. But their similarities end there. With their policy coordination and common institutions in Brussels, the 28 EU member states are much more closely integrated than the member states of the OAS — or those of any other international organization.
On the other hand, the EU is nothing like a United States of Europe. Its member states continue to exist as independent nations.
When all is said and done, the EU is a supranationalist project. The countries of the EU — in the interest of realizing an unprecedented degree of peace, stability, and prosperity — have relinquished significant elements of their national sovereignty. They are ceding large aspects of their governing and law-making powers to EU institutions that function independently above the national level.
The essence of the European project is precisely this supranationalism. The process of European integration arose out of the ashes of World War II and the determination of European leaders that war should never again arise from European soil.
But the European Union is not just about Europe. The EU’s supranationalism is all about global governance — an effort to realize world peace by overcoming the inordinate sovereignty of nations, which the EU believes is a primary root of war among nations. And here the EU, with all its troubles, does have credibility. After all, it is the only actually functioning model of how such global governance might work.
So what is global governance? As John Fonte has written, global governance is the attempt to introduce a global rule of law in the interest of achieving an unprecedented degree of worldwide peace, stability, and prosperity. This is done not through a ‘one-world government’ but by the development of an ever more comprehensive network of international institutions that administer an ever greater body of international law to which nation-states are subject in both foreign policy and substantial areas of domestic policy.
The key to global governance is the development of a global rule of law. However, no one quite knows exactly what this global rule of law will look like in the end. Whatever that end-state might be, there is a fundamental clash of visions between the EU’s notion of the world organized by global governance structures and the American idea of democratic sovereignty — that is, self-government based in the nation-state.
Even though Western and Central European countries remain among our closest allies, this clash of visions puts the EU and the U.S. on a collision course. As the world’s most powerful nation-state — one that jealously guards its national sovereignty — the United States stands in the way of the EU vision.
Fundamental religious differences
There are many factors that have led to this difference between the U.S. and the EU. A central factor is rooted in a religious difference. The U.S. system is based on a very sober, Judaeo-Christian view of human nature — and thus of government. This is the whole reason for the separation of powers and the checks and balances foreseen in the U.S. Constitution. The EU, by contrast, is largely secular.
It is striking to note how deeply indebted the Federalist Papers, for example, is to Christianity (regardless of whether the authors were themselves believing Christians or not). Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay accepted that human beings, while capable of great good, were also flawed (‘sinful’, as Christians would put it). Therefore, the powers of government had to be limited and divided into multiple branches so that the flawed human beings who hold government power would not be able to become tyrannical.
The EU’s supranationalism, on the other hand, flows out of a basically secular, social-democratic view of human nature. It stems from the idea that social justice can and must be achieved through government action and central planning. For most people in post-Christian Europe — and certainly for its governing elites — this world is all there is. Thus, justice must be determined by human beings, and pursued via politics and government.
Of course, the situation is rather fluid. The clash of visions between the U.S. and the EU today might be moving toward resolution — but not in favor of democratic sovereignty. Although global governance may appear to be on the wane, given the crises buffeting the EU, its animating worldview is not. In fact, the EU’s worldview is gaining ground in the United States as well — and may be close to winning the day throughout the West.
Additionally, the specter of an inchoate, trickle-down form of postmodernism is haunting the West. A dictionary definition says it well: postmodernism is “characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power”. And it has become for many of us the implicit basis upon which we think.
This type of subjective relativism — this suspicion that truth is not really truth but simply the tool of the politically and economically powerful — has seeped into virtually all areas of life. This inchoate postmodernism rejects the idea that there is any truth claim that can command greater allegiance than the feelings or opinions of any individual or group, especially those that are deemed to be oppressed or disadvantaged. Therefore, reality itself is nothing more than what each individual or group feels it to be. Individual choice and group identity reign, and reality can and must be reshaped in the service of individual choice and group identity. Ultimately, the only thing that is objectively true is each person’s subjective assessment of what is true for himself.
In the sphere of international politics, the spirit of postmodernism has seized the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War for new ways of thinking about world order. In the last 30 years political postmodernism has shunned the old certainties of modernism — such as the belief in reason and in the ability to know truth, for example — in order to create space for a new view of politics. It has brought about, in Nietzschean terms, a “transvaluation” of all political values — a deconstruction and redefinition of political categories associated with modernity. This includes, for example, the nation-state, national sovereignty, international law, and human rights. Instead, it has sought to assert a new, post-national view of governance and a new kind of human rights (based on a denial of truth) and a commitment to the absolute autonomy of the individual (and the absolute priority of free choice).
No longer does ‘human rights’ mean the right to live, speak and act in accordance with the unchanging truth about human nature. Rather, ‘human rights’ now stands for the right of the atomized individual to transform himself in whatever way he chooses and to be liberated from the constraints imposed by the truth claims of others.
Global governance and the new human rights serve as the twin pillars of this post-Cold War political postmodernism. They are interdependent. Without global governance, there can be no global realization of the new human rights; without the new human rights, global governance loses much of its purpose.
The new global ethic
The Belgian-American social critic Marguerite Peeters has characterized this intertwining of global governance and the new human rights as the “new global ethic”. This global ethic, like the EU and the global governance movement, is a child of post-modernity, whose basic tenet is “that every reality is a social construct, that truth and reality have no stable and objective content — that in fact they do not exist”.
As Peeters puts it, human rights (as understood in the global ethic) promotes “the ‘liberation’ of man and woman from the conditions of existence in which God has placed them”. Personal autonomy trumps all outside constraints and truth claims, since “the individual, in order to exercise his right to choose, must be able to free himself from all normative frameworks”. In fact, “the right to choose”, Peeters observes, “has become the fundamental norm governing the interpretation of all human rights”.
It is certainly true that human rights correctly understood are inherent and inalienable. But what one believes about human rights depends on what one believes about human beings — and here we’ve seen that the abandonment of our Judaeo-Christian roots and the embrace of a culture of relativism, novelty, and choice has profoundly affected the idea of human rights. The new human rights — based on the notion of the absolute autonomy of the individual — are transformative and emancipatory, like the postmodern view of politics and the accompanying global governance ideology.
This ongoing redefinition of human rights is a global phenomenon, with Europe and North America together leading the way. Unsurprisingly, it centers on exactly those human rights that Western secularists seem to care most about: women’s rights, children’s rights, and LGBT rights.
Transformation and liberation
The ideas of transformation and emancipation are central here. Just as the global governance ideology seeks to transform the world, liberating peoples from their traditional allegiances to local communities and nation-states, the postmodern view of human rights promotes a redefinition of people as autonomous individuals who can choose to transform their very nature — and in so doing liberate themselves from all traditional political, social, and sexual constraints.
In the case of women and children, liberation from the constraints of the family is a core concern. In the case of LGBT rights, the transformative aspect is central. The concept of a fluid, self-defined gender identity thus overrides the fundamental biological reality that every human being is either a man or a woman.
Ironically, such radical transformation and liberation cannot be brought about without the significant exercise of government power in suppressing truth. All human beings share inherent and inalienable human rights. In that sense, human rights are universal. But the notion of the “universality of human rights” serves a fascinating — and proto-totalitarian — function in promoting unlimited freedom of choice as the cornerstone of human rights.
A 2013 statement by EU foreign ministers entitled, “Guidelines to Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of all Human Rights by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons”, affirms: “The EU is committed to the principle of the universality of human rights and reaffirms that cultural, traditional or religious values cannot be invoked to justify any form of discrimination, including discrimination against LGBTI persons.” Approved by all of the EU foreign ministers, this sweeping statement declared LGBTI rights to be absolute and valid in all contexts, while relativizing cultural, traditional, and religious values.
It is especially ironic how religion — which in the West is the primary source of the idea of objective truth — is declared to be of only relative, subjective validity, while LGBT rights are given the status of objective, universal truth by proponents of a worldview that denies objective, universal truth.
Clearly, the new human rights are a non-negotiable priority for the global governance ideologues. But this has also generated great uncertainty because the new human rights are based implicitly on a rejection of anything that has traditionally claimed the mantle of truth in the West. Therefore, everything is now up for grabs, including the question of what human rights are.
The question of human rights
This uncertainty — this question of what human rights are — demands resolution. Thus, it becomes inevitable that human rights themselves will be re-determined — not by the individuals who are seeking transformation and liberation but by those who hold political power. After all, in a world without the authority of objective truth, only those who hold political power have authority that can be enforced. No relativist is ever very far from Mao Zedong’s famous dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Thus, the individual’s so-called unlimited right to choose becomes the government’s unlimited right to decide what may or may not be chosen. And as the government as guarantor of “universal human rights” expands, it increasingly becomes government as master. Furthermore, with the global reach of communications, travel, commerce, and ideas, government as master is also expanding geographically. And just as the power of government to determine what human rights are becomes unlimited, so too does it become impossible to limit the power of government to a certain region, area, or people.
Global governance becomes the only rational option, and national sovereignty becomes — in principle — an impermissible limit on the power of political elites to decide what is true and just. And the postmodern political project thus unmasks itself not as a benign desire to improve humanity’s lot but instead as an unlimited power grab to re-define truth and justice under the banner of ‘universal human rights’.
A perfect illustration of the intrusiveness and overwhelming scale of the postmodern political project of global governance can be seen in EU statements about the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), probably the UN’s most highly touted global governance project. The EU Council of Ministers states:
“The post-2015 agenda should … integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development in a balanced way across the agenda; ensure coherence and synergies; and address inter-linkages throughout the goals and targets. It is also crucial to ensure that the agenda ... encompass[es] all human rights and that it respects, supports, and builds on existing multilateral agreements, conventions, commitments, and processes .... The agenda should leave no one behind. … We should ensure that no person — wherever they live and regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, religion or belief, race, or other status is denied universal human rights.”
This statement reveals how the EU aims to achieve a utopian level of human rights via ill-defined yet all-encompassing structures of global governance. Its approach to politics — 0r ‘governance’ — is universal, global, comprehensive. There are no constraints and no limits to what it seeks. There are no checks or balances to stand in the way of outcomes to be accomplished. The language is almost messianic, ascribing a quasi-salvific power to politics and ‘governance’. It sets aside the West’s traditionally Judaeo-Christian recognition of human fallibility for the notion that, via activist global governance, the world can be transformed — and human beings can be liberated from the constraints of tradition, culture, and religion.
The erosion of the American system
The U.S. is far from immune from this. In fact, the American system of self-government has been eroding on two ends. On one end, freedom internally is being undermined by the crippling ideology of ‘political correctness’, which is, at its core, postmodernism as manifested in identity politics. In defining their identity, the elites of each group become the arbiters of that group’s own version of the truth. For each group, there is no objective truth distinct from that group’s identity. And each group demands that society at large not only recognize but also support — in language, thought, and legislation — that group’s self-definition. We see this now especially in the gender identity and LGBT rights movements, and in the resulting challenges to the religious liberty of traditional Christians.
On the other end, our national sovereignty is under assault by a fashionable globalism — a particularly American version of the global governance ideology. Supreme Court justices cite foreign court rulings as support for their judgments on American constitutional questions. Left-wing NGOs push unofficial, tendentious interpretations of UN human rights conventions and international law to assert rights heretofore non-existent in U.S. law and jurisprudence — and implicitly deny Americans’ constitutional rights if they conflict with the new human rights.
Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a battle that goes much deeper than mere political differences. In our domestic politics and in our relations with our European allies, we can no longer rely on a basic, Western worldview consensus. We can no longer safely appeal to objective truth or to normative claims about human nature.
The Judaeo-Christian view of an unchanging human nature embedded in tradition, religion, community, and family no longer commands the general allegiance of Western societies. The partisans of the postmodern political project of global governance and the new human rights are instead committed to a radical, secularist vision based on the virtually unlimited malleability of human nature, independent of traditional institutions and social relations. There are thus no limits — “no borders”, in the rhetoric of political postmodernism; nor are there limits to the powers that governments should wield in the pursuit of universal human rights.
This is a contest between democratic sovereignty and global governance. It is, as John Fonte has written, a zero-sum game. The two are implacably opposed. And democratic sovereignty — anchored in a humble respect for truth and recognition of the limits of politics — remains the only basis for realizing self-government in justice and freedom.
This battle between worldviews is one we cannot avoid. It is a struggle for self-evident truths — for objective truth and reason as the basis for tolerance and communication. It is a struggle in defense of the idea that government derives its powers only from the consent of the governed. Let us engage in this battle and do so in a way that seeks the good — not only for us but also for our opponents.
Todd Huizinga is the executive director of the U.S. operations of the Transatlantic Christian Council. He was a U.S. diplomat from 1992-2012. This essay is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College’s Seventh Annual Constitution Day Celebration held 14-15 September 2016 in Washington, DC. It is based on the author’s The New Totalitarian Temptation: Global Governance and the Crisis of Democracy in Europe (Encounter Books, 2016) and appears here by permission. An essay based on that book previously appeared in the Winter/Spring 2016 edition (No. 13) of The European Conservative.
Gergely Szilvay, 25 November 2018
What is your opinion about President Trump’s first year?
I don’t write much about politics, because ours is almost irredeemably vulgar and stupid. But, with that said, I believe that Donald Trump has been a fair success in his first year or so. He is not an ideologue. He is rather like the pragmatic New York liberals who dominated politics in the northeast in the 1980’s; the Republican he resembles most is Rudy Giuliani, whose common sense approach to policing transformed New York City from one of the filthiest and most violent cities in the nation, to a clean and relatively safe (and prosperous) place.
I wish that President Trump were more consistent; I do not like his appointment of John Bolton to do anything of importance in the State Department. Trump’s instincts are moderately isolationist, and we could have used more of that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Trump may best be described as temperamentally anti-progressive or anti-ideological. His achievement in Korea is quite impressive, but I wish he could be persuaded not to muddle around anymore in the Middle East, but to take a straightforwardly pro-Western approach: if a nation is reasonably just toward Christians and Jews, we will support it, and if not, not.
Do you think the last tax cut reform primarily serves the rich or is it good for the poor, too?
The rich have accountants, corporate devices, trust funds, and offshore vehicles for hiding or investing their money. Other people do not. The tax rate cuts have provided a nice boost for the economy, which redounds to the benefit of people with retirement funds, small businesses, and people for whom an extra thousand dollars a year is quite a nice raise. We are taxed far beyond anything that is fair: I figure I work from January 1 until about June 5 to support government at all levels. The serfs of the Middle Ages had only to tithe.
Do you follow the politics of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary? If so, what do you think of him?
From what little I know, which is little enough, Mr. Orban has determined to put the political welfare of Hungary above the welfare of the European Union, and the cultural health of Hungary above secular ideologies. That is altogether a good thing.
Central Europe has some disadvantages compared to the West — but from another point of view this lack of progress can be turned to advantage: the advantage of ‘backwardness’. What advice might you have for us?
Please, I beg you, do not emulate us. The nations of Western Europe are dead; the continent is a cultural morgue. The United States is not dead but is thrashing about in the throes of a dire illness. Do not rush to the brink of the cliff just because your ‘wiser’ predecessors have already pitched themselves headlong over it.
In particular: do not lose the family. Do not put in place the principle of the sexual revolution, which is that what two consenting adults do sexually is morally valid just by that fact alone. Do not dabble in the anti-scientific reality-denying madness that is gender ideology. Raise your boys to be men and your girls to be women, and raise them both with the healthy expectation that the sexes will be for one another. Emulate what used to be the bedrock strength of the United States — which was its sensible trust in ordinary people brought up within the character-forming disciplines of the churches. Do not emulate the secular withering of the churches and its consequent withering of the lower classes, the working classes, and now everyone else. Do not bind yourselves to a plague-ridden body.
You have written a book (Out of the Ashes) about the rebuilding of American culture. Why do you think that it is in ashes and has to be restored?
I believe it because it is true. A culture implies long memory, habits of love and veneration, and a common life, particularly common worship. We have no memory, we venerate nothing, and our common life is virtually dead. This may be hard for somebody from Eastern Europe to understand. The great majority of Americans, especially the young, have no knowledge at all about the great heritage of English literature; they do not know the history of England or of their own nation; they have no heroes besides the false ones provided by mass entertainment; they share no songs, no prayers, no dances, no holy days. We are the first people — we in the post-Christian West — in the history of the human race to exist without a culture.
When did things go wrong and why?
The forces of secular thinkers — the terrible educational leader John Dewey, for example — along with the leveling propensity of mass industry, mass entertainment, and now mass education have worn the American culture away. I see it in striking form when I compare, let us say, a literature textbook produced in 1916 with one produced a mere 30 or 40 years later. Whole realms of study have been abandoned: grammar, most obviously.
That process of oblivion has continued. It is now not sufficient for me to say that hardly any graduates of our high schools will be able to read a novel by Nathanael Hawthorne (19th century). Very few of our teachers will read one. Meanwhile, the consolidation of schools has continued apace, so that parents have less and less authority over what goes on in them; the State, like a cancer, grows by the diseases it spreads.
Isn’t it just another devolution story (like that of Oswald Spengler and others)?
Yes and no. Spengler was right about a lot of things. When I visit Europe, I have always the strange sense of visiting a museum as large as a continent and almost as dead. Civilizations do sag and sicken and die, and there is no reason to believe that ours will not also, or has not also. But I return to facts. I collect literary magazines that had an enormous rate of subscription in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and I know, first, that the majority of college professors would find it difficult to read those magazines, because they do not possess the general knowledge to make sense of what the authors are saying, and that nothing like those magazines, nothing close, exists now. English poetry — to take an example of the art that every human culture has possessed, until our own — was clearly an important part of the life of reasonably intelligent speakers of English in 1900. The arts also; ordinary people bought sheet music, played instruments, knew the difference between Bach and Handel, and so forth. Nothing has replaced this lack.
My young students at Providence College, where I taught for 27 years, would not be able to sing a single song known to their grandparents. They have been starved of culture, from the popular to the high; mass entertainment, ephemeral and shallow and usually ugly, has taken its place.
You have said that you would start by giving back the “proper names” of things. What do you mean?
Almost everything that every politician utters, and every journalist, and every teacher or professor who is mainly concerned with contemporary politics, is what we in English call “cant”. It is empty talk, not a deliberate lie, but a pretense so complete that the pretender comes to believe it himself. We cannot make any reforms unless we are willing resolutely to see things as they are and to name them accordingly.
The embryo in the womb is not a “clump of cells”, because “clump” has no scientific significance; it is an integral self-organizing life, human in origin and aim. A boy is not a girl, and a girl is not a boy. A man cannot have sexual intercourse with another man but can only mimic it, just as someone might mimic eating by consuming what is not really food (such as dust) or by inserting food into what is not meant for nourishing the body (such as the ear). A state that possesses the mechanical apparatus of elections is not, by that alone, a democracy or a republic. An institution that houses children for twelve years and does not manage even to impart to them the grammar of their own language (again, this is going to be hard for people from Hungary to imagine but it is quite true) is not a good school or a bad school but no school at all.
School and education, and the loss of the traditional curriculum, are important concerns for you. In Hungary, we have gone in another direction and try to teach as many facts as possible to pupils (the so-called ‘Prussian style’). How can we improve our approach to education?
Say: “To hell with both Prussia and America!” Teach as they teach in Italy. Do not be afraid of imparting factual knowledge, but by all means teach your heritage of literature, art, music, and religion. Do not be afraid to teach Homer, Virgil, the Scriptures, Augustine, Dante, Thomas Aquinas, Dostoyevsky, and so forth.
Many ‘education experts’ claim that Hungarian schools do not provide enough ‘equality of opportunity’. Can a school really eliminate social inequalities?
We must recover the truth: that parents are the real employers in education, and that they delegate a portion of their legitimate authority to teachers, to do some humble but necessary things. Those include teaching children how to read and write; the constitution of the physical world, especially in geography; the history of their nation, their civilization, and mankind generally; the habit of reading and enjoying good books; the mastery of arithmetic and algebra at least; an appreciation of the arts, and so forth. They do not include any specifically political aims. Teachers are no more to be trusted with partisan or contemporary politics than are plumbers or carpenters. Let them do their jobs.
Why do you prefer the 'Great Book Tradition'? Why it is good?
It has endured the test of time — the test of thousands of years. When we are long gone, people will be reading Homer, after they have forgotten the flies of the day. Homer has endured because he has seen deeply into the nature of man, and has expressed what he has seen with astonishing beauty and precision.
When I am in conversation, so to speak, with Homer, or Milton, or Balzac, or Goethe, I have the great benefit of their minds; and why should we toss that aside? That is like refusing to drink at the oasis after you have been wandering in the desert, just because the oasis has been there for thousands of years, and other people have come and drunk of its springs before you. Madness.
You say that Americans have lost the sense of beauty. What do you mean and what can be done?
Our cities are singularly ugly. It is not the ugliness of the Soviet system, gray and stark and modernist, but it has some of that, and some of the ugliness of consumption for the sake of consumption.
What is to be done? I tell people that they have before them a world of stunning beauty, available for their wonder if they would but go outside and walk and notice things. My students — where I taught until this last year — knew nothing about their heritage in the arts, and knew almost nothing about the natural world: nothing about the sea, or birds, or the skies, or rivers and mountains, or woods. I am guessing that the two forms of ignorance are related.
How did such an absurd idea as gender ideology become so influential?
By the madness of egalitarianism.
How should we respond?
Among other things, a love of the natural world. But we very much need to pay attention to boys, who have borne the brunt of the feminist hatred of the natural.
You openly prefer architectural styles such as neo-Gothic revival, among others. In Hungary, post-modern rock-star architects dismiss such styles as not “contemporary” and insist that since every age had its own style, we too should have our own. So traditional architectural styles — Roman, gothic, classical, etc. — are ridiculed by professionals. What is your response to them?
I wish that they had a style. They do not. We must distinguish between an ideological fad pursued by a narrow coterie of the well-connected, and a style that springs from the history, the beliefs, the passions, and the aspirations of a people; also from their natural surroundings, the materials nearby, the contours of the land. The post-modern “style” is no style but a hatred of style. It has no “place” and boasts that it has none. Such a building in Brasilia might as well be in Budapest or Kaliningrad or New York City; it is a defiance of place and tradition and a people's history wherever it is. The neo-Gothic had the advantage of at least being handsome, if perhaps not springing from the genius of the American people.
You would like to restore local communities that have been partly destroyed by technical progress. But this technical progress, which harms both communities and morals, cannot be undone. At the same time, you insist that we should bring ‘play’ back into our lives. What is the purpose of that?
We have tools for the sake of a human life; human life must never be made to subserve our tools. We have tools for our natural communities, especially the family, and those must not be made the tools of our tools, either. Now then, it is impossible to have anything like a community unless there are children and unless those children are a visible and vibrant part of everyday life in public.
We do not ask, “Why should there be play?” for the same reason we do not ask, “Why should there be happiness and love?” Work for work's sake is one of the sins of our time, what the medievals called "acedia," a spiritual sluggishness. We have come round to turning the play of children also into work, and with what result in our children's states of mind, our addiction to opiate drugs well shows.
Localism and the devolution of power are very important to you. In Hungary, the otherwise conservative government of Hungary has just centralized education among other things. Why is localism so important to you?
Localism is just a recognition that human beings are social. They should, to remain fully human, direct the public affairs that most concern them in their ordinary and daily lives. If we do not grant them this, we have robbed them of a crucial part of their humanity. It would be like compelling them to dress as we say and eat as we say.
You say that work should not be pursued for its own sake because we need a culture of leisure. Secular conservatives and religious conservatives are at odds here. So what are they serving?
I do not think that there can be a “secular conservative” because ultimately the secular man will revert to liberalism and the individualism of Locke, or the statism of Hobbes, or both, because they are what we in English call “kissing cousins”. Culture without worship is a contradiction in terms. The author to read here is Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture.
As I can understand, you prefer a kind of “pre-modern option” to a modern/post-modern one: returning to physical work, the Great Books, classic art, localism, etc. Am I right?
Not exactly. The modern world has granted us many good things. I do not believe that we need to renounce all of those things; we need instead to use them wisely, rejecting those that do us harm, and subjecting the others to strictly human ends. We need also to recover the good and human things that pre-modern peoples enjoyed to a greater degree than we do now. I do not believe that the task is impossible. I do believe that it is impossible if we accept anything of the ideology of modern-ism.
How can the ethos of the university be restored in an age of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘snowflakes’?
It cannot. You must choose. The pursuit of truth is never safe. If need be — and this would be like radical surgery — we will have to reinstitute all-male colleges, where everyone will take for granted that you are not entitled to an opinion, and that your feelings are of no consequence. You are entitled to an argument.
The conservative Hungarian writer, Thomas Molnar, who lived for a time in the US, said in his book, The Counter-Revolution (1970) that conservatives have never truly believed that they can undo things — so they have never believed in themselves. Do you agree? If yes, how can we change this?
Molnar was a prescient genius. He understood that conservatives, just because they were anti-ideological, lacked the fire and fury of their opponents. But by now we have seen not just the bloodshed that the secular ideologies have wrought; bloodshed can be impressive in a wicked way. We have seen the sheer stupidity; and stupidity is never impressive.
Because I am a Christian, steeped in the learning of the last 4,000 years, I can see through the shallow pretensions of the revolutionaries, and because I actually read and remember what the same revolutionaries used to say, I know that they have contradicted themselves, and that they have nowhere to go, no end in sight, nothing but confusion for the sake of confusion.
What advice to you have for the rest of the world?
Do not emulate our mistakes!
Dr. Anthony M. Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer-in-residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire (USA). He is the author of numerous books including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013); Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017). His most recent book is Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018).
Gergely Szilvay is the senior journalist at Mandiner, a Hungarian news portal. He earned MA degrees in history and communications at Péter Pázmány Catholic University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in political theory. His first book, published in Hungary in 2016, critically explored the arguments surrounding same sex marriage and gender theory. His areas of interest include the history and politics of the US, Catholicism, conservative political theory, and the ethnography and folklore of the Carpathian Basin.
Mandiner is a new conservative, centre-right, patriotic news portal launched in 2009. Its predecessors were the magazines UFI and Reakció (inspired by John Lukacs’ self-description). In addition to providing everyday news, Mandiner defends conservative ideas and seeks the preservation of custom, tradition, and national sovereignty. The interview above originally appeared in Hungarian in the 13 May 2018 edition of Mandiner. It appears here by kind permission.
Mark Almond, 19 November 2018
obert Schuettinger (“Bob”), the founder and director of the Oxford Study Abroad Program which brings hundreds of US and other visiting students to Oxford University each year, died on 3rd September following a long illness. A committed Anglophile, Bob Schuettinger spent more than thirty years in Oxford guiding visiting students through the intricacies of university and British life, but over his long career he had been a university teacher, author and editor of academic works and public servant in his native United States.
Bob Schuettinger was born in 1936 in New York City and received his BA from Queens College in the City University of New York before studying at Columbia, Oxford and the University of Chicago (where he received his MA in 1968). During his study years he was the student of Chicago’s Nobel Prize-winner in Economics, Friedrich Hayek, who encouraged the publication of his early studies of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1961. At Oxford, his graduate supervisor was Sir Isaiah Berlin. Hayek and Berlin were key figures in the intellectual movement challenging the hegemony of socialist thought in the West, a cause to which Schuettinger’s forty publications also contributed.
Growing up in a post-war America which went from the confidence of the 1950s to the crises of mid-1960s and the growing economic woes of the 1970s, Schuettinger’s commitment to classical liberalism as opposed to the US variant of social democracy which called itself “liberalism”, Schuettinger published on both the economic fallacies of price- and wage-controls but also their authoritarian implications. Scarred by Nixon’s failed efforts to control wages and prices through administrative mechanisms rather than monetary policy, Schuettinger was an early populariser of monetarism in his book, Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls (1979) showing how even the much more draconian penalties imposed by ancient emperors had proved equally futile when supply and demand were distorted by the boosts in the money supply or uncontrolled government spending. First published in 1979 (it was reissued in 2014 as challenges to what had become monetary orthodox were rampant in the aftermath of the crash in 2008), the fact that his co-author was Eammon Butler of London’s Adam Smith Institute was an indicator of Schuettinger’s outreach across the Atlantic to the intellectual milieu which was helping promote Margaret Thatcher’s reversal of Britain’s years of Keynsian-inspired stagflation.
Schuettinger’s period at Chicago under Hayek introduced him to the free market network, the Mont Pelerin Society, to which he remained loyal for the rest of his life. The heirs of Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School of Economics, Hayek and Milton Friedman, were proponents of reeling back the state from its over-extension into economics and leaving it to concentrate on its core functions, public order, defence and other matters that Adam Smith had defined as “more important than opulence” as Bob liked to recall.
If Nixon’s domestic agenda was a disappointment, Ronald Reagan’s election offered Bob Schuettinger the chance to serve his country as a presidential aide. Although he had taught political science, political philosophy and history at the Catholic University of America from 1966-68 and at Lynchburg College, Virginia in the early 1970s, he was always attracted by seeing the political process in practice and contributing to it. He also noted wryly that although his intellectual philosophy was out of kilter with his tenured colleagues who tended to the left in the anti-Vietnam and Watergate era, his students who were heading to the real world after graduation were more appreciative of his approach. That meant that at Lynchburg, he won the “Best Professor of the Year Award”, only to be promptly fired by the tenured radicals.
Later he would teach again, at St. Andrews University in Scotland and at Yale, where he was an Associate Fellow of Davenport College. He lectured at the Kennedy School of Politics in Harvard and was also a Visiting Research Fellow in International Relations in Mansfield College, University of Oxford for a three year term (1989-92), but in the 1980s he was able to participate in the Reagan Administration (starting at its inception as Assistant Director for National Security Policy in a Presidential Transition Office) and to observe how politics are made from a perch in the Executive Office Building as he had as a Congressional aide. He had a ringside seat as the New Cold War after 1981 gave way to the Reagan-Gorbachev détente that heralded the end of the Cold War and more importantly of the Communist model as an alternative to Schuettinger’s preferred free market democracy.
During those years in the US government when Schuettinger served as a senior aide in foreign affairs in the US House of Representatives, as deputy to the Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, as a senior policy aide in foreign policy in the White House and in the Senior Executive Service in the US Information Agency and the Pentagon (Director of Long-Range Policy Planning), he remained committed to the need for an intellectual counter-revolution to cement the role of classical liberal ideas –- now often called conservatism –- in American and Western public life.
Schuettinger had worked side-by-side with Ed Feulner in Congress so he was a natural choice to join Feulner’s Heritage Foundation which was almost at once the key “conservative” think tank in Washington. As Director of Studies at Heritage, Bob Schuettinger was founding editor of its social science quarterly, Policy Review, now published by the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Policy Review brought clearly-written and well-argued conservative ideas to a wide audience of politicians, journalists, business people and students. It reflected Bob’s penchant for popularising ideas started with his selection, The Conservative Tradition in European Thought (1970), which drew on politicians’ speeches and political thinkers at the cross-over of liberal economic thought and traditional values. Apart from articles and reviews, he authored/co-authored and edited 19 books, including, Lord Acton: Historian of Liberty (1977), The Conservative Tradition in European Thought, and Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls, while he wasn’t afraid to tackle controversial contemporary Cold War issues as in his edited collection South Africa: The Vital Link (1976).
The establishment of the Oxford Study Abroad Program/Washington International Studies Council in 1983 gave Bob Schuettinger the opportunity to return to his role of educator and to his adopted intellectual homeland in Oxford and Britain. Although both American and European universities were accustomed to students taking semesters of study at different institutions to benefit from particular professors’ teaching or the resources of given libraries and faculties, it was a new idea for Britain. Bob worked hard to persuade Oxford colleges of the benefits to their university of receiving visiting students. Soon enough dons saw that they could teach high quality students who wanted to study subjects off the core –- and one might say –- unchanging Oxford syllabuses that happened to be the scholars’ particular interest. Colleges got students who joined in activities from sports to music-making.
Bob himself was an Associate Member of the Senior Common Room of Christ Church, Oxford, as well as, for instance, a Visiting Research Fellow (2013-14) at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford, where he worked on his intellectual mentors, Lord Acton and Tocqueville. At the same time he fostered his links with US academe and served as an affiliated faculty member in International Relations at the Institute for World Politics in Washington, DC, whose bright graduates were frequent visitors to Oxford in its Trinity (summer) term. Bob also inaugurated a Reagan-Thatcher studies programme in the summer vacation to encourage serious study of the ideas and the key practitioners whom he had admired.
Bob threw himself into British life. He expanded his friends and contacts in public as well as academic life. A member of the Beefsteak Club in London, he was a generous host who expected his guests and fellow members to debate with no holds barred. He enjoyed bringing the politicians, economists and military figures he met in London to Oxford to speak to his American students in addition to the normal Oxford round of tutorials and lecturers. Schuettinger used his extensive contacts in the world of politics and economics to broaden his visiting students’ understanding of Britain and Europe and contemporary issues helping successive generations to see issues like the War on Terror or Brexit through other eyes.
Never ashamed of his Yankee origins, but a sincere Anglophile, Bob tried manfully to explain the exotica of British culture –- from the parliamentary system to pudding “not dessert” -- to American students in Oxford.
Bob’s sometimes irascible personality and politically incorrect utterances hid a generous heart, in sympathy for human frailty and vagaries. Student follies would excite eruptions of contempt when told about them by his staff, followed by quiet mollification of their consequences.
Always enamoured of sea-faring folk, despite his classification by the US Navy following his service as its member with the least mechanical ability, Bob was happiest at sea, enjoying cruises and the conversations with old friends, sparring partners, and new acquaintances which they offered. As illness weakened him, he was determined to enjoy one last voyage. Despite his frailty, he took himself on a river cruise down the Danube and confounded medical prognostications by returning to Britain, where sadly his final illness took hold. But even in the last months of his life Bob remained a lively presence, enjoying playing host to old friends and cared for by his loyal staff at OSAP, who tended to his needs as well as responding to his hand on the office tiller to the end.
He is survived by two brothers, Kenneth Schuettinger (and Ken’s children Donna, Kathy, Michael and Kenny) and Dennis Schuettinger (and Den’s children Cheryl, Susan, Kristen and Lynn) of Long Island, New York, and by many great nieces and nephews. He will be buried in his native country.
May he rest in peace.
Mark Almond is an 'affiliated member' of the faculty of history at Oxford University and an esteemed Tutor. This tribute originally appeared in a newsletter from the US-based Philadelphia Society dated September 26, 2018. It appears here with kind permission.
Solène Tadié, 1 November 2018
"Every time society has gotten rid of the divine we have seen it return as unfriendly divinities demanding human sacrifice.” — Rèmi Brague
A few years ago, in a lecture at an event co-sponsored by the Acton Institute, St. Mary’s University of London, and the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, philosopher Rèmi Brague reflected on the foundations of humanism, and on those factors that foreshadowed the radical change in man’s perception of himself, and his relationship with nature and the cosmos. In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano after the conference, Brague elaborated on his views, summarizing what he believes to be the root cause of modernity’s demise.
Your work focuses on the nature of ‘value’, a concept which seems abused in a day and age when everyone calls upon values to defend just about anything and everything. Would this be an expression of what G.K. Chesterton called “Christian virtues gone mad”?
The concept of value is my favorite enemy. What people today understand as values is found in both pagan and Christian sources within the Western tradition, although expressed in different terms. Pagans talked about virtues while Jews and Christians spoke about commandments. Even so, the content is exactly the same. One could rewrite the Ten Commandments as a list of virtues: “You shall not kill” would be the virtue of justice. “You shall not commit adultery” would be the virtue of temperance. Vice versa, one could rewrite Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics according to the Jewish and Christian context.
After all, this is what has been done throughout history. The great Christian patristic and medieval moralists, without hesitation, drew upon moral concepts found in Cicero and Seneca, and even recopied entire passages from them. Take, for example, a treatise written by Roger Bacon, the late 13th century Franciscan moralist. His writings contained entire sections transcribed word for word from Seneca’s very own works.
From such virtues and commandments, we then moved on to talk about modern values. Bear in mind, when it comes to assigning value to something, it is assumed that an evaluation has been made of that particular thing. This means, in effect, that at a given time someone — whoever he may be — has decided to assign value to an object, saying that such a thing will cost ‘X’ amount. Thus, value is a concept partly of economic origin. It is what you give in exchange for something. The concept of value has a major drawback in that it assumes reality in itself is worthless until we attribute some value to it. Look at how it works in economics, the way John Locke explains the value of products derived from human labour. What nature provides has no value. It is human work that gives it value.
And today, what is it that defines a value?
This concept reached its height in [Friedrich] Nietzsche who introduced values into the market of ideas, some of which he made noble. He tried to determine the specific cases which gave value to ideas. Nietzsche, therefore, believed to have made a most interesting discovery: namely, that it is the ‘will to power’ that attributes value. It is this will to power that assigns value to objects. I must have that thing because in this way I affirm and increase my range of action and the depth of influence of my own will to power.
The problem, from this perspective, is that values enter into a self-destructive dialectic. This is so, because if value is determined by the value I give it, the activity [of willing] is more important than the value itself. “The act of evaluating is of all things the highest value,” says Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
This means that by the same act of giving value to something, I diminish the object’s value because it is my will to power that determines value, which is worth more than the value itself. As a result, the concept of value is driven by its very constitution to self-destruction. This generates a sort of escalation towards an even greater value given to the will.
It is strange that this concept has become a part of Christian conversation. In today’s political world, we speak of ‘our values’ without really knowing what they are. I think it would be better to change this line of reasoning and stop talking about values. It would be better renew discussion of virtue or commandments or simply speak of the good, since it is not we who determines that something is good. In my opinion, the concept of values can be eliminated [from moral philosophy].
You point to the late Renaissance when there was an upheaval in man’s self-understanding, with respect to his relationship to God and his own dignity. How did this shift in paradigm come about?
The real change took place at the beginning of the 17th century. It is the third stage in humanistic thought [….] I suppose there was a transition from a serenely possessed dignity and nobility to a sense of superiority that must be acquired, while subordinating everything else to it as a consequence of psychological evolution. I compare this phenomenon to the type of person who needs to show that he is worth more than others: like a show-off upstart, the ‘nouveau riche’.
Take, for example, Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, who is most modest among the characters in this television series because for him his nobility is a given. Not so for the ‘nouveau riche’, as seen in the origins of the word ‘snob’: sine nobilitate. He who has no nobility must ‘snub’ others in order to prove his own worth or value. We get the feeling that modern man’s desire — from the 17th century — to subjugate the rest of nature to himself may be actually due to him losing the awareness of his own dignity.
It is interesting to observe the tradition of treatises such as De Nobilitate, published in the mid-15th century and throughout the 16th century, which was interrupted by the technical domination of nature. Modern man is consumed with self-doubt. He is no longer certain that God has granted him a higher dignity with respect to other objects in nature and, therefore, remedies his own insecurity by trying to dominate nature.
We are still dealing with this type of person, today, although the environmental movement has somewhat softened this trend. Environmentalism has sought to develop an awareness of the debt we owe nature. Yet, it lacks the metaphysical foundation according to which nature is viewed as creation. If nature is not created, there is no way to understand why we should show our respect for it.
On the other hand, it is a whole different perspective if we view nature as a creation towards which man has duties, especially in managing, cleaning, dealing with it as he would care for a garden. When we enter the contrary way of thinking, we alternate between violent attitudes towards nature and idolatry of nature itself, to the point of desiring mankind’s extinction so that nature can be restored unto itself.
Would this mark the emergence of a new paradigm, born out of the failure of the modern project or a sort of swan song for modernity?
The modern project has had some great achievements. We owe modernity some debt of recognition. Think about advancements made in medicine or in agriculture that have allowed us to feed a large number of people who in the past might not even have been born. Modernity has also given us a serious science of nature, more focused than that which was taken up in ancient times. Even Aristotle, the ultimate exponent of ancient physics, is not much of a scientist when compared to Galileo. I do not know if a new paradigm is taking shape, but I would say it should be.
What would you hope for in this sense?
If we are unable to legitimize what is human, that is, to give valid reasons for its subsistence, then we will have no reason to continue to exist. The only possible option in this regard, would be to organize the co-existence of people who are already alive, but forbid them to appeal to future generations for their advice.
In no way would it be possible to entrust humanity and its continuation to instinct, as some do, because we are now able to decide whether or not there will be future generations. Human instinct functioned well in the past, in the sense that it was way for the human species to show that it wanted to survive. Therefore, if it is true that evolution has produced everything (which is, by the way, an inappropriate way of speaking: we do not say Napoleon was a product of history), we conclude then that it was the influence of blind forces that produced intelligent beings. But if such intelligent beings do not have the right to consciously and freely continue to do that which they have produced unconsciously and without freedom, it would be a real betrayal to their [power of] reason.
The hardest thing, I must say, would be to give a concrete version of the classical definition of man as a ‘rational animal’. It has to do with preserving man’s two dimensions without his ‘rational’ nature opposing his ‘animal’ nature. I believe that our present duty consists in reconciling these two dimensions from which we have tended to stray.
Take for example transhumanism, a subject for which I don’t have a clear opinion because I haven’t studied it thoroughly. I don’t even know if the idea is feasible, but the interesting thing is that transhumanism reveals a sort of despair in relation to man as he currently is, insofar as its aim is to transcend him.
There was a time when we tried to develop human nature in order to empower it and give it more moral qualities. We developed the double meaning of the adjective ‘human’: We speak of the ‘humane’ treatment of animals, which has a very specific meaning. But now we get the impression that, according to Nietzsche’s original definition, man is something that must be transcended. It is Zarathustra’s famous formulation. I do not know what exactly what Nietzsche was trying to say.
[On one hand] he flirts with Darwin’s thinking which is found everywhere in European intellectual currents; yet [on the other hand] he said at the end of his life that he had never meant to replace man with a new species. If so, he should have expressed himself more clearly, especially when he said: “You have walked the path from worm to man, why not go further?” It is, indeed, a very clear reference to biology!
At any rate, what interests me here is to demonstrate that there is a loss of confidence in man, because there is a wish to replace him with something else. Or at least there is a desire to improve man, so as to eliminate the need for morality. This is so because a ‘rebuilt’ man would not even think of acting maliciously, against the rules of good and evil. In my book, I refer to some very curious examples of this desire, including Robespierre who believed it would be ideal to produce a man who would be spontaneously virtuous without having to ask himself any questions.
Today our dreams are a bit like this. I don’t know if virtue is what the leaders of transhumanism want in the first place, but the project is a part of this tendency and it is far more ancient than what one might imagine.
Rèmi Brague is a French philosopher and winner of the 2012 Ratzinger Award. His books include Le règne de l’homme: Genèse et échec du projet moderne (The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and the Failure of the Modern Project, published by Gallimard in 2015).
Solène Tadié is a French journalist based in Rome. This interview originally appeared in Italian in the 16 December 2016 edition of L’Osservatore Romano and was later translated by the Istituto Acton in Rome. It appears here by permission.
Books in brief
Ensayos de Economía Política
Jesús Huerta de Soto
Madrid: Union Editorial, 2015
Huerta de Soto, a Spanish economist of the Austrian School, is a professor at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid and a prolific writer. This new collection makes available some of his most important essays since the publication of his seminal 2002 work, Nuevos Estudios de Economía Política. They focus on the main contributions of the Austrian School, and elaborate on the work and ideas of some of its principal exponents — Hayek, Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Israel Kirzner, among others. The book demonstrates the rich variety of applications that the Austrian approach has for analysing and understanding the economic and political challenges of our day, and offers scholars a glimpse of the evolution in Huerta de Soto’s own thinking.
Le traité transatlantique et autres menaces
Alain de Benoist
Paris: Éditions Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2015
In The Transatlantic Treaty and Other Menaces, the controversial French academic — and founder of the Nouvelle Droite (of which we are often critical) — explains his opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the US. Seeing it as nothing more than a mechanism that would facilitate the ‘take-over’ of Europe by multinational corporations, Benoist considers it one of several threats to national sovereignty. In the face of such threats, he argues, the only response is to rebel. P.P.
La tradizione e il sacro
(Sir) Roger Scruton
Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 2015
La tradizione e il sacro (Tradition and the Sacred), published this year by Vita e Pensiero of Milan, the label of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, collects six previously published essays by Roger Scruton. Scruton’s point is really the question of the day: “What keeps us together?” The answer, he suggests, is found in the question itself — where ‘us’ stands for Christian Western Civilization, and what remains of it that is still Christian and still Western — despite the contemporary narrative of triumphant irreligion. M.R.
A quick introduction
This is the temporary website of the occasional publication, The European Conservative. It is a work in progress. This site shall be replaced by an entirely new website by the end of 1Q19.
Editorial Board, 7 October 2018
During a late summer evening in a convent in Dubrovnik a year or so ago, we had the chance to ask Sir Roger Scruton a question that had been on the mind of several of our editors for quite a while.
In his autobiographical work, Gentle Regrets (2006), ‘why’, we asked him, ‘do you write that you have no problem with the precepts of the Catholic Church -- except the premise of God’s existence, while all your latest books seem to be about God?’
His reply seemed to suggest that either he is not the same person he once was, perhaps increasingly unconvinced by his own arguments, or that, despite the difficulty of accepting the premise of God, he has. His prodigious output certainly seems to reflect one or the other, and at times both, of these responses.
It’s worth recalling that Sir Roger’s prestigious Gifford Lectures were gathered and published in the form of the book, The Face of God (2012), while the equally prestigious Stanton Lectures appeared as The Soul of the World (2014). Over the years, he has also written about the Anglican Church, the environment, aesthetics, and the history of philosophy, as well as several novels and two operas. Scruton is clearly a modern ‘Man of Letters’. But he has never quite been seen as a religious writer, certainly not a theologian, though he seems to be on some kind of meandering path to Rome.
Last year, the anthology The Religious Philosophy of Roger Scruton (2016) was published. The book, which brings together essays by many leading philosophers of religion, comments on Scruton’s religious thought and his writings on matters relating to the Christian Church. The writers include Mark Dooley, John Cottingham, and Chantal Delsol. But the book also includes a conversation between Charles Taylor and Sir Roger -- which was held at the McGill University in 2014 -- on the sacred and the secular.
Central to Sir Roger’s thinking is that the transcendent is still important. We often speak of things as ‘sacred’ and ‘pure’ but also as ‘profane.’ For Scruton, there is a sort of ‘cognitive dualism’, which is not meant in an ontological sense but as two ways to look at the world. That is, we can see the world as it is described by the natural sciences; but we can also search for meaning, which can only be done by help of transcendental concepts. This points to a world beyond the reach of our senses.
Scruton, whose thinking is deeply influenced by Immanuel Kant, claims that we can never quite reach outside of this world. It is as if we were standing by a window on our way up a staircase, looking out on the beautiful landscape just beyond. Alas, Scruton reminds us, “we are prisoners of time and our steps trudge always onwards and up”.
Irrespective of Sir Roger’s own journey, his eloquent writings about religion, Christianity, and the divine are superb resources for modern man, as he gropes his way towards his final destiny. We are better off having Scruton’s writings accompany us along the way.