Catesby Leigh notes in his essay “Monumental Contrast” (October) that the removal of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial in New York City is a sign that the “monumental aesthetic” in public art is an “endangered species.”
Those of us in the art world know only too well that in civic art the monumental aspirations of the past, complete with classical allusions to beauty and virtue, have given way to art created according to an aggressive “critical aesthetic.”
This critical aesthetic, rather than creating art that reminds us of what was great about our nation and of our highest aspirations and virtues, instead seeks to chastise our nation for its failures and to serve as a record of our vices, both real and imagined.
For the past half-century, one is hard-pressed to find a memorial or monument that did not in some way focus on the negative aspect of its subject. The critical aesthetic is at home in such memorials as Michael Arad’s 9/11 Memorial in New York, Reflecting Absence. Rather than transfiguring the horrors of that day into something beautiful and sublime, worthy of reflection, the Memorial instead forces the viewer to gaze into a bottomless pit and ponder how this tragedy is ultimately meaningless.
And yet Nietzsche, no stranger to pondering the abyss, in his “Use and Abuse of History’’ describes how history has a “monumental” and a “critical” sense, the former shaping heroic narratives and the latter destroying them. One need look no further than the New York Times’s 1619 Project to see the analogue. In history and in art, the dominant culture of the critical sense is rampant. No longer content merely to refuse to create monumental art, the art world has turned on its past and is seeking the active erasure of monuments that extol the virtues of the American nation.
In history as well as art, we can recognize that virtue often exists with a dose of vice. Understanding the vices to avoid them is like treating a cancer in an otherwise healthy person. The critical aesthetic, when taken to the extremes, however, kills the patient as well.
But then again, perhaps that’s the real point after all?
I agree with Robert C. Koons that prudential decision-making is especially valuable during crises (“Prudence in the Pandemic,” October). I would, however, emphasize the role of accumulated wisdom and virtue in prudence.
As Koons notes, most civic decisions require trade-offs. There is no algorithm leading to costless answers. The choices can be grueling—because of the costs and because the stakes are so high. This, I believe, leads to the two types of flawed approaches he identifies.
Sentimentalists ignore the complexities by elevating one principle above all else and following that principle as far as possible. This thinking enables its adherents to give themselves absolution when consequences get messy. Calculorists imagine they can dispassionately foresee and measure all the pluses and minuses of a decision’s effects. But we can’t truly know all of the consequences of a major decision, much less impartially calculate the influence each consequence has on the common good.
Both, then, seem to wish away the nitty-gritty work of public decision-making, the first by simplifying a complex equation to a single variable, the second through an exercise of false precision. Nevertheless, both possess important insights that should inform public decision-making: There are some principles (for example, the preciousness of innocent life) that rise above bean-counting, and we should recognize and account for the ripples caused by our actions.
Koons rightly sees the ancient concept of practical wisdom—understanding the goodness of particular actions in the particular context in which they are applied—as an alternative model. But I see practical wisdom as what results after generations of experimenting with sentimentalism and calculorism. Real decision-makers grappling with real problems across societies and centuries have reasoned from fundamental beliefs the value of life, the meaning of justice, and more. They and their successors learned through trial and error the various forms those beliefs can take.
Those lessons, curated over the ages, have been condensed into different types of rules of thumb. This includes customs, institutions, norms, and law. So we are given far more than good manners when we’re told, “be honest,” “act civilly,” “care for the elderly,” and so on. This is also time-tested, accumulated wisdom about public life and the common good.
Such lessons are transmitted through the craft of governing. By engaging in real public service, you learn from those more experienced, working through real-world challenges, and being shaped by institutions that have been involved in the work for eons. You learn about prudent governing in concrete, not abstract, ways. Bringing practical wisdom to life also requires character—habits of mind and action. These habits are cultivated in us by good people and good institutions.
So prudential decision-making in governing is largely contingent on leaders of virtue and experience who respect norms and institutions. Said another way, we should anticipate imprudent decision-making, especially during times of crisis, when our leaders lack experience and virtue and revel in flaunting norms and institutions.
Robert C. Koons replies:
I am happy to find Andy Smarick agreeing with me on many points, including the unacceptable consequences of both sentimentalism and calculorism, and the central importance of prudence. Smarick seems, however, to think of prudence as a kind of compromise between sentiment and calculation, drawing on the “important insights” that both possess. I reject such a view; prudence is a real alternative to, and not merely a blending of, sentiment and calculation. Additionally, Smarick has a very different conception of the role of experience in shaping prudence. He seems to have a Baconian understanding of experience, with the prudent person as a kind of scientist testing hypotheses and gaining deeper theoretical insight by trial and error. This scientistic model is wrong. Prudence learns from experience by acting in concrete situations, thereby gaining greater power to perceive the relevant features of those situations as they really are. What is gained is practical and not theoretical knowledge. And the only thing our experience with sentimentalism and calculorism teaches us is how harmful such errors can be: the social Darwinism and quality-of-life ethic of the calculorist, and the horrors of rampant sentimentalism in the Reign of Terror and the Soviet Gulag.
Smarick is right in thinking that normally the prudent person will cherish and respect his society’s norms and institutions. But what about the abnormal situation, in which those norms and institutions have been thoroughly corrupted by philosophical error? In the West today, many of our norms and institutions, in the press and media, in the academy and law, and within governmental, corporate, and non-profit bureaucracies, incorporate the false premises of a kind of bourgeois, technophilic Marxism. In such a situation, the prudent man will willfully oppose existing norms and institutions in order to create space in which wholesome institutions can be recreated. Consider the example of Bonhoeffer or Solzhenitsyn. It is important to find virtuous leaders, but in desperate times the prudent will seek allies, and even leaders, among those who, while deficient in virtue, refuse to embrace those aims that are destructive of the foundations of virtue. When a virtuous man acts for a bad cause, his virtue can be an instrument of evil. Conversely, when a vicious man resists evil, even his vice can create opportunities for good.
Darel E. Paul’s review essay “Against Racialism” (October) is among the most succinct and incisive statements of the problem of the left in America today. Nietzsche wrote in the late nineteenth century that the West had lost confidence in itself and would soon “feed parasitically on every culture under the sun.” That was multiculturalism. America’s left-leaning elites dispensed with that several decades ago. They have moved on to feigned sympathy for the innocents, which they purchase by scapegoating members of lower classes they imagine to reside beneath them, who must be racists for their own fragile, imagined world to cohere. Fearing that they will be called out for their elevated standing in society, which purports to be based on merit but which no longer really is, they hide behind the fig leaf of social justice to give them cover. Their lives are made secure by the institutions they alone have the liberty to attack without cost, leaving the least among us to suffer the consequences of the weakening of the very institutions they need in their long labor.
Once Christianity declared that Christ, the divine scapegoat, takes away the sins of the world. Today’s left-leaning elites have replaced this with an immanent version of that Christian claim: “Whiteness” is the source of the sins of the world, and in order for social death to pass them by, they must relentlessly deride “whiteness” and seek out every instance of the sin of whiteness, no matter how rare or statistically insignificant. For every black American killed by a police officer, 270 black Americans die from black-on-black crime. The response of our left-leaning elites to this catastrophe? Silence. They seek the cover of righteousness and little else. Whoever cannot provide it for them does not concern them. Neither the thousands of black Americans who die from violence in their own neighborhoods nor the tens of thousands of rural whites who die each year from opioid addiction ever enter their minds. The betrayal of the elites of the left is on full display, and Paul’s review provides the light by which we can see the form it takes today.
Darel Paul’s excellent review of the Kendi and DiAngelo books should be required reading for all the poor souls who are going to be given them, or distillations of their arguments, to ponder as part of their mandatory antiracism training at work, school, or both.
It is a startling fact that in both of these writers, and almost all the others who are producing material in this genre, one encounters nearly total ignorance of the domains they would need to know to speak intelligently about race. Neither gives any indication that they know the first thing about the scientific discussion of the meaning of race in our species, the complicated but fairly generalizable ways in which social categories come to overlay observable phenotypic differences in groups, how to distinguish race from ethnicity, what we require in a proper social-scientific effort to understand the causes for racial disparities, or a range of other questions.
As Paul points out, both Kendi and DiAngelo believe whites are a unified, monolithic class with the same interests and the same view on race in America. How can they have somehow failed to see that the central political divide in the country is between progressive, racially woke, and largely socioeconomically and culturally elite whites and conservative-leaning, culturally traditionalist, lower-middle-class and working-class whites? The antagonism between these two groups is palpable throughout the public sphere today. The evidence of working-class white disdain for elites is recognized and reported on with some frequency, but you can gather your own data on the reverse angle of the equation by asking a white person in your neighborhood with a “Hate has no home here” sign in their yard what they think about white Trump voters. (Answer: They hate them).
Like Paul, I teach in a university and am committed to preserving free intellectual debate in higher education. Over the past several months, since the George Floyd case became a matter of national interest, the precipitous careening of many institutions of higher education toward still fuller embrace of the simple-minded, totalitarian ideas propagated by people like Kendi and DiAngelo has been nothing short of terrifying to watch. Paul’s perspective on this is invaluable for the present moment.
Darel E. Paul replies:
The social conservative rediscovery of class is one of the few salutary outcomes of our being driven from the halls of power. Nearly every American corporation, professional organization, newspaper, sports league, government bureaucracy, publishing house, university, high school, and public library becoming simultaneously woke is a remarkable spur to clear thinking. By rushing as one into the ideology of antiracism, leaders of our disparate institutions have shown themselves to be a class united behind a common idea and a common social project. That such actions speak more of moral panic than righteous crusading makes little difference to those now tarred as “racist” for opposing racialism and subjected to antiracist power.
I think it too facile to say, however, that American elites are hiding behind wokeness. There are too many obvious examples of true believers in high positions to think otherwise, and those who may not be woke themselves nonetheless feign wokeness out of well-placed fear. As a branch of diversity ideology, antiracism does indeed serve the material interests of our elites. But it also gives managers and professionals much-needed social purpose. It assigns them noble tasks and concentrates bureaucratic power in their hands to accomplish those tasks. Antiracism promises to make elites into heroes. No wonder the ideology is so attractive to those in power.
Thus any struggle against racialism cannot be only an ideological struggle. It must also be a class struggle. Elite power today seeks to make race the measure of every policy, every social pattern, every human interaction. Thus the more we know race, the more we become objects of that power. To refuse to identify first and foremost by race therefore must include a refusal to be identified as such by bureaucratic power. To refuse to engage in antiracist newspeak must include a refusal to hear and even to learn it as well. As religious Americans committed to universalistic creeds, we should be especially well prepared to claim the discarded banner of “not racist” for our own institutions and cast away racialized multiculturalism for instead “brothers all.”
With “Suicide of the Liberals” (October), Gary Saul Morson has joined the rising chorus of historical analogies between our present crisis and the revolutions of the past century. Morson’s emphasis on what unites liberals to the revolutionaries is especially helpful.
Our riot-smitten liberals, like those of pre-revolutionary Russia, cannot stand up to domestic terrorism in part because they sympathize with the terrorists’ philosophy of history. Both the liberals and the terrorists confess “progressive pieties.”
Progressive piety differs from true piety on every point. Rather than honoring his father and mother, the well-catechized revolutionary renounces his “family and even his own name.” Rather than loving one’s actually existing country while seeking its conversion, the pious progressive entertains loyalty only to what Richard Rorty called “a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning.” Rather than worshiping the God who is the origin and object of the human creature and all creation, the progressive worships humanity itself and its moral, intellectual, and technological accomplishments—past, present, and projected.
What is to be done? Practically, we must reverse the “decline in courage” observed by Solzhenitsyn in 1978 and conspicuous in nearly every American institution in 2020. Insofar as courage is a physical phenomenon, its acquisition entails physical practice. We aren’t going to theorize—or meme—our way into acquiring nerves of steel. To train ourselves to confront the social, financial, and physical threats of today’s revolutionaries, we must quit our unnatural and enervating alienation from embodied reality—especially the outdoors, where our limitations (and potentials) are unmistakable.
Intellectually, we must reject progressive idealism and recover classical realism. Matthew Schmitz’s essay in the same issue, “The Anti-Romantic,” shows the way, though his topic is films about love rather than riots in our streets. Christians in particular are sometimes tempted to think they must choose between a virtuous idealism (right, but impractical) and vicious realism (effective, but immoral). That dichotomy is false. Christianity perfected rather than rejected classical moral and political thought, which is nothing if not anti-romantic. In addition to classical philosophy, we must recover the pre-modern, pre-progressive approach to the study of history, practiced not only by the Greeks and Romans but also by the American Founders. In so doing, we might cure ourselves of the ideology of historical progress—which joins the worst of “idealism” to the worst of “realism” to produce the terrifying “nihilistic moralism” described by Morson—and remind ourselves that humanity admits of more possibilities than the infernal depths and moderate heights of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos
wyoming catholic college
Gary Saul Morson replies:
I want to thank Pavlos Papadopoulos for a very thoughtful reply to my article.
Many readers have detected analogies between my description of the Russian experience and America today. My article does not draw these analogies; it restricts itself to the Russian experience and the lessons it implies. I am not an expert on American history, so I prefer to leave to others, better informed than I, the possible application (if any) of those lessons to the United States today.
Papadopoulos mentions Solzhenitsyn’s warning that the Americans and British should not consider themselves immune to totalitarianism. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn wrote:
All you freedom-loving “left-wing” thinkers in the West! You left laborites! You progressive American, German, and French students! As far as you are concerned, none of this amounts to much. As far as you are concerned, this whole book of mine is a waste of effort. You may suddenly understand it all someday—but only when you yourselves hear “hands behind your backs there!” and step ashore on our Archipelago.
To the extent a situation resembles pre-revolutionary Russia, it would be well to keep in mind what the Russian experience suggests:
1) For the revolutionaries, the “progressive pieties” Papadopoulos mentions are insincere. Lenin was quite clear about that: One says whatever will bring people out in the streets against the current order. The Bolsheviks promised the peasants land, when they knew perfectly well they would, as soon as possible, take it away along with all other private property. They complained of police repression as they planned far worse.
2) Revolutionaries of the sort I described do not stop when they achieve some professed goal, whether it be nationalized healthcare, worker control of factories, or anything else. Anyone who might proclaim “Let’s stop here” would be denounced and liquidated. The slide toward more and more repression and violence ceases only if sufficient counterforce arrests it. This requires, as Papadopoulos puts the point, real courage.
3) Papadopoulos mentions approaches toward history. For revolutionaries of the Leninist type, truth—historical and any other—is whatever serves the interests of the Party. A fact is what fits the story the Party wants to tell. When Orwell, in 1984, described “the mutability of the past,” he had this view of “facts” in mind.
4) As the slide progresses, more and more people are discovered to be counterrevolutionaries (or whatever the currently designated word of reproach might be). In the French Revolution, Girondists found themselves on the guillotine. In the Russian case, not just liberals, socialists, and Mensheviks were led to execution; so were wave after wave of the Bolsheviks themselves. And the ones arrested had no way to object, because they had done the same to others. They could hardly appeal to Party distortion of truth, since they had themselves rejected the possibility of any truth outside the Party.
Papadopoulos concludes by reminding us that “humanity admits of more possibilities” than our infernal times actually realized. His reminder is right on target, because the essence of movements like Lenin’s is to restrict human possibilities. That is why Dostoevsky, and his great interpreter Mikhail Bakhtin, insisted that human beings are richer in potentials and possibilities than any philosopher or social engineer could ever specify.
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