Legend recalls lyricist Ira Gershwin turning up at work looking miserable and recounting to his brother, the composer George, a recurring nightmare in which Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and other classical greats “all came back to life…but with good lawyers!” Were Richard Crossman not dead, he might get rich suing for rights to his much-borrowed book title, The God That Failed.
Mr. Crossman, a British anti-communist socialist statesman, led six others to write a 1949 volume of confessional essays on how they moved from supporting communism to opposing it publicly. Contributors included André Gide, Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender. It harnessed a growing Western intellectual discontent with communist totalitarianism in the early days of the Cold War, and such American figures as Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Norman Podhoretz championed the term.
Next, in 1995, a rock band called Metallica released a song called “The God That Failed,” about a band-member’s mother who died of cancer, untreated because she was a Christian Scientist, and that was supposedly God’s fault. That the Deity had spent a busy century provoking the discovery of radiation and chemotherapy, advanced surgical procedures, building medical schools and modern hospitals apparently did not enter into it. A prominent pop composer describes it as “Very nice…Slow, heavy and ugly.” Metallica’s failed god may be cruel for separating a musician from his mum, and unexpectedly heretical—even recalling Mark Twain’s definition of a Christian Scientist as being: “like Grape Nuts, neither grapes nor nuts.” If it’s some kind of god it failed, but nobody needs to warn Moses or Pope Francis.
Only marginally less tuneful but older and more interesting are Buddha’s gods that failed. They are all mortal, he taught 2500 years ago, just so very old that they’ve come to believe that they live forever. Eventually they too, as Yorkshire folk say, pop their clogs. This teaching seems meant to describe various subsidiary gods such as Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, or the ancient Himalayan ones with ten arms and filed teeth, or Zeus and whatever swan he’s dating this week. But since Buddha achieved enlightenment well before the age of public relations (and maybe because of that), he did not produce a best-selling book or a hit single mentioning gods that fail; he just pioneered the concept but gets no royalties. In that sense Buddha resembles those black ladies who sang the early Motown hits.
Yet Buddha doesn’t seem to reject a true God and creator, such as that of Abraham. His disciple, either Ananda or Subhuti, caught him between lectures and asked if the universe was eternal or was created, and if so by whom and when, why and for how long. Buddha “took the Fifth,” replying that if he tried to explain then his disciples would get it wrong, break into fractious sects and create mayhem. Better, he suggested, they meditate, secure their own enlightenment, and come to understand such complexities later. Nowadays, no one that honest would ever get tenure.
In 2001, a decade after communism had croaked, libertarian Hans-Hermann Hoppe wrote Democracy: The God That Failed. Using many arguments of the Public Choice School which describe democratic asset-capture and rent-seeking by special interest groups, Mr. Hoppe marginally supports monarchy which contains family incentives for longer-term stability, but prefers what he calls “private property anarchism,” or anarcho-capitalism, which I suppose would have curtailed Hitler with civil litigation by insurance companies.
Ten years later Christopher Ferrara, an American lawyer, Catholic activist and columnist with The Remnant, wrote Liberty, the God That Failed. He exposes the studiously-ignored, anti-religious fervour of Hobbes and Locke, showing how both predicted the excesses of modern left-liberalism, and how such ideological decadence is the logical conclusion to the virtue-free, Godless experiment stretching from the Restoration to the Enlightenment, from Masonic lodges to the French Revolution to America’s Founders, its Civil War, imperialism, materialism and modern government-led oppression at home.
From the beginning, says Mr. Ferrara, the ideological experiment was logically bound for failure because it centred on the pursuit of happiness and deified liberty, sacrificing virtue, society going to bed on time, eating its broccoli and so forth. Some 600 pages crammed with interesting detail, it can be very crudely summarised by the vulgar old joke asking why a dog licks himself. Answer: because he can. Implication: we’re not so different.
Mr. Ferrara’s argument may remind you of the Frankfurt School, German, Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Almost perfectly forgotten today, his concept of Repressive Toleration argued that sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, credit cards and discounted Disney tickets repressed people by granting their wishes, and distracted them from more important stuff, in his view the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the “inevitable” dictatorship of the proletariat. Completely misunderstood, in the 1960s the elderly communist grump was dubbed The Father of the New Left, and in California exuberantly confused hippie-chicks stripped off their tops and rubbed their half-naked bodies over him until he squealed and ran away. When Dr. Russell Kirk first told me the story he nearly convulsed with laughter.
But Mr. Marcuse and Mr. Ferrara both believe that people abuse liberty to get what is not good for them, diverting capitalist-materialists from equality via communism, or virtue via rule by the Church. They aren’t alone. Concerned Confucists, such as those running Singapore, try to meld relatively free markets and massive wealth generation with civic restraints such as mandatory savings and social limits on some unwelcome behaviour. Russia’s President Putin has jailed politicised publicity hounds for interrupting religious worship and homosexual advertising. Moderate Muslims look at the West’s degeneracy, debt and bastardy, and mostly tremble in fear under the assault of materialist media, while a smaller number long for the cruelties of radical Islamist governance. Around the world, chiefly outside of America, a mounting chorus of voices want some kind of limits on choice. Freedom, they believe even if they are short on detailed remedies, has either stopped working or can be harmful in large doses. They might even still want more for themselves, or for the creature comforts it brings to societies, but few think it is a safe commodity.
It is hardest for Americans to understand what life would be like within another system inculcating different values. America is a bumper party-platter of ideologies as much as a nation, starting with “self-evident” rights on to whatever benighted backwater is tonight being bombed for its own good.
Founders are deified and placed reverently beyond the mildest criticism to most Americans, and especially to conservatives who sometimes suffer cognitive dissonance when their ethics or their ideology-monitors go off inconveniently. Years back at a London dinner with two American conservative friends, I offhandedly mentioned Jefferson banging the servants and one guest nearly swallowed her dentures and dropped her wooden leg in the gazpacho. Her husband intervened chivalrously, explaining how the best historians have now proven conclusively that Jefferson did not indulge, but that after supper, brandy and cigars, his guests at Monticello were free to rape what slaves they chose. A different matter completely.
To U.S. conservatives, except a few such as Mr. Ferrara, America’s founding documents are sacred second only to the Bible. Democracy and liberty are god-words, swilled down by the tankard-full without a moment of analysis—other than sneering materialist references to benighted foreign peoples with less “stuff” than Americans have, who are not “free” to ridicule or interrupt everything at any time and place. Even our defences betray our biases.
A few future essays will explore what other values and other systems might look like from the inside. If, after all, we wish to restore the greatness of Christendom, we need to know where to go and what it might look like, what to bring along and what to leave behind.
Meanwhile, all gods seem to fail but the Biblical God Himself, the hero of the book and the movie. Fancy that!
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