Ryszard Legutko observes in The Demon in Democracy that the cultured despisers of religion will not rest until they have leveled every aspect of human life. He explains their ambitions: “Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations.” Nothing must remain of the old tradition’s desire for excellence, transcendence, beauty, and hierarchy. The stubborn proponents of that tradition are thus “extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms”—and they should be “treated with the harshness they deserve.”
Our elites are characterized by their pursuit of de-creation—an unending total war against the sacred order and its adherents.
With such gloomy thoughts for company, I listened to the chatter at a recent dinner party. The barbarism of the guests was hidden behind advanced degrees, prestigious university chairs, multiple languages, and well-appointed townhomes in fashionable zip codes. Doctors, attorneys, professors—privileged, comfortable, respectable, and free of any pangs of conscience. You’ve met the type, somewhat dissatisfied with what they have but utterly satisfied with what they are.
“Perhaps,” one diner said between bites (vegan, obviously), “perhaps it’s possible to place contraceptives in the water-supply and provide an antidote only to those qualified to be parents.”
“What if,” another added, “we genetically engineered predatory animals to be infertile so there would be no more meat-eating at all?”
“Imagine!” a third contributed, “these Trump supporters all want guns because they see threats everywhere in their war-like imaginations.” (Hadn’t she earlier claimed that the unborn baby was an “occupying force” legitimizing a woman’s right to self-defense?)
A yoga instructor gushed about how “civilized” the gathering was, how enjoyable after the awfulness of the election. “Civilized”: rich and powerful men and women speculating about rendering other humans infertile, while voicing mea culpas about the time they ate cage-free eggs. At a similar event, I heard a neo-Malthusian declare that all our problems could be solved if we pared down the population by four or six billion souls. Stalin would be driven mad with envy by these modern Lamechs’ boast that past tyrants had killed mere millions.
One young man apparently retained something of a moral imagination and quietly asked whether perhaps these ideas revealed a lack of empathy. Well, that was simply embarrassing, and one quick-witted member of the company moved us on from it. Nonetheless, some horribly vulgar man (if I may praise myself) reminded the company that the question had not been answered, and a woman (a Baptist if the rumors are true) tactlessly agreed.
Dessert was promptly served (warm granola) and the conversation stalled, with all commitments still in place and virtues clearly signaled. We were a virtuous group—all the best people say so.
Well, the best people are deathworkers.
We shouldn’t be so naive as to dismiss such table talk as idle chatter. As Philip Rieff explained, “culture is the form of fighting before the firing actually begins.” Successful cultures make “the ultimate political means of enforcement, armed force, unnecessary.” That is, the ideas held by these best sorts of people, once enshrined culturally, are as uncompromising and total as any police state or occupying force. And the deathworkers are serious in their aims; they mean it, and they’ve been waging cultural de-creation for some time now.
We could call this a culture war, except that it is a war between culture and anti-culture, a de-creation or de-culturalization. Legutko describes these people, despite their prestige and power, as “a homo novus, uneducated, vulgar, primitive, having nothing but contempt for tradition … for history, culture, and anything subtle, genteel, elegant, beautiful, or spiritual.” (Did you wince at the word “genteel,” as if it were unpalatable, unpleasant? If so, anti-culture is at work.) They may not have real culture, but the lack has not prevented them “from having mastered a remarkable dexterity in moving within the intricate mechanisms” of our society and its institutions. These postcultural new men—my dinner companions—are “products of the West, which at a certain stage of its history turned against its own culture; the respect for its achievements was gone, replaced by contempt, the rules of civility and propriety derided.”
Meanwhile, the rest of us spend down our cultural capital without investing much back into it. The universities, or many of them, have decapitated reason. The churches plod on in maintenance mode. Having swept away much of their cultural patrimony in a fit of iconoclasm, they offer little to form resilient souls, and feebly replace transcendence with social work or therapeutic argle-bargle. The schools, the media? They are purveyors of death, masters of anti-culture, and the opiate of the masses.
We are now faced with the enormous task of re-evangelizing the pagans and re-civilizing the de-civilized—while being ourselves poorly evangelized and mostly uncivilized. This, I wager, will be a more difficult task than was the first evangelization and civilizing of the barbarians. And we, like David before Goliath, have only small stones. Prayer, mortification, friendship, the sacraments.
I’m glad it’s advent, for we have atoning to do, preparations to make as we wait and watch for the day of our redemption. I hope it’s soon at hand, for the deathworkers are busy, and still we slumber on.
R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute.
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