Far be it from us to strip down and leap into the hot-tub with Hegel and Lenin; and yet…and yet… there is an attraction to thoughts of historical inevitability. It seems as if Western collapse is a chain of unavoidable causes and effects, but this is a mistake. Unlike a lesser stage magician, its progenitor even tells us how the trick works—even, perhaps, on the pope.
First two partial diagnoses, superficial but as good as most conservatives provide. A retired prison physician and keen observer, Dr. Theodore Dalrymple looks at the feminist reign of terror and knee-jerk “group-think” that cost Nobel scientist Sir Tim Hunt his job over a limp but innocent joke. He was booted from his university and the scientific establishment so thoroughly intimidated by the Progressive orthodoxy, even before the Twitter harpies began to circle in earnest.
He writes: “such is the modern thirst for moral or political outrage, which is the tool of the mediocre to bring about their revenge upon the gifted, that words are now taken in the most literal sense and given thereby the worst possible interpretation.“ So the symptoms are described well, but we are given no full diagnosis.
Next, that admirably indefatigable British journalist, Mr. Christopher Booker, links the Ukraine crisis to Greek default to much more; all part of the pan-European experiment to ignore thousands of years of separate cultures, in hope of creating a federalist fairyland as a component of planetary government. This and the cult of manmade global warming, which he says has even deluded Pope Francis, comprise two fatal follies:
“When future historians come to look back on our age,” he writes, “few things will puzzle them more than the extent to which our politics became so dominated and bedevilled by two belief-systems, each based on an obsessive attempt to force into being an immensely complicated political construct which defied economic, psychological and scientific reality.” Meanwhile, China and Russia and India opt out of the West’s suicidal delusions.
Yet Mr. Booker gives us no full diagnosis either; only symptoms, but that thoughtful old conservative comes closer than his predecessor. It is easier for members of our parish; followers of Dr. Russell Kirk, who analysed true conservatism as deeply as Edmund Burke espoused it. What these two sets of symptoms share is ideology; a form of dementia in which every logical step contributes to a Great Nonsense. Warmism, feminism and the other “ismic” cocktails defy “economic, psychological and scientific reality,” reflecting only a fantasy land of our dreams or nightmares.
Why does this happen, we may ask; and true conservatives point to a loss of faith and community shattered like a brandy snifter hitting a marble floor. Is that sufficient? Is it enough to diagnose, say, pulmonary oedema, where the heart beats too weakly to clear the lungs of fluid and so the patient effectively drowns? Why did the heart beat weaker, and what made it so? What makes tens of millions, across what remains of Western Civilisation, take voluntary leave of their senses? If religion reduces such delusion among its members, why do so many others throng for visas to cuckoo-land?
Some real conservatives ask Who Killed Cock-Robin; putting a name on whatever man purportedly stuck the dagger into Religion and poisoned Community’s chalice. It makes them feel better, but is it an answer? Was Rousseau or Marx, Luther or Bacon so powerful? Or do modern academics flatter themselves by exaggerating the effect of an idea? Others see broader economic changes afoot; that reduce community cohesion and, with it, the social pressures that instilled values including the outward behaviour that encourages inward faith.
We can arrive late for the third act in the Decline of the West by observing my great-grandfather, August Blessing, who was a wealthy Detroit saloon owner before Prohibition and the Depression. In what was then one of the wealthiest cities on earth, community was still sufficiently integrated that he knew, personally, his customers and every supplier up the so-called “supply-chain.” He knew Stroh the brewer and his problems, his own barmen and waiters and janitors, the grocer at the corner and some of the farmers who supplied him. He did not know the New England oystermen, for his saloon’s free oysters came in iced barrels by rail, but the local fishmonger knew them from annual visits east. My great-grandfather knew the firms that made glassware or cigars, the manufacturers or salesmen of table linen and bar cloths, and the organisers of relatively new trade unions too. He knew Detroit’s Greeks and Germans, Irish and Italians, and perhaps the black people who began to come north for assembly-line jobs. Thanks to his prominent bar, he knew the mayor and probably the leading clergymen, the chief of police but also cops on the beat, firemen and a few schoolteachers.
Allowing for social differences his employees did too, or saw Detroit’s vast socio-economic cavalcade from a subsidiary level. They neither worked nor lived in a cocoon. And while, a century ago, modern political, social and even ideological divisions were beginning to form, everyone had parents and grandparents to illuminate tradition. My great-grandfather’s father-in-law came from Germany in 1848 as riots and revolution raged.
Ideology, in its modern sense, existed then. My great-grandfather was a contemporary of Lenin, after all. But in well-integrated Detroit it was an expensive hobby socially because your friends and family would have thought you nuts; and hard to sustain when people you knew could use personal experience to puncture your hot-air balloon of make-believe. Not so today, when we live and work, and choose our media and our notions, among others just like us. Who does Barbra Streisand meet who calls her a fool? Who punctures Bill O’Reilly or the rightwing claque in the bowling league? Every man is a king surrounded by flattering courtiers of his own choosing.
Atomised community, then, may be the result of a more complex economic world; one in which Henry Ford (whom Blessing knew, of course) could neither design a modern motorcar all by himself, nor even master the metallurgy that now requires whole buildings full of scientists and engineers. It may be that once we are subdivided we lose a broader perspective, and create the fantasy worlds that we now inhabit. One might see division, the ensuing lost sense of reality and collapse as inevitable results of technological complication and the economies of scale. We may be like dinosaurs that eat and eat, and grow and grow until we can no longer walk.
What resembles inevitability is actually the result of choice; not a one-off choice such as suicide, or even deciding to play Russian roulette. Rather it is the sort of incremental choice that starts with one drink, then four, and culminates in alcoholism and fatal cirrhosis. It is one beginning a chain reaction that runs from a glass of wine with a nice boy to a whole bottle, then an unwanted pregnancy, an abortion or a truncated education and a still-born career. Wind the tape back from Lenin to Marx to Hegel, and the only honest man among the three revealed the choice by calling the supposedly inevitable process Dialectical Materialism—the second word gives away the game.
The process of Dialectal Materialism is true and inevitable only if you agree to Materialism, the belief that the physical world is all there is or all that matters. Ascribing all of History to class-warfare, as Marx did, proves his point only by ignoring every other possible cause. This strikes me as the logical fallacy called circulus in probando, best explained in Professor Madsen Pirie’s clever book:
‘I didn’t do it, sir. Smith minor can vouch for my honesty.’
‘Why should I trust Smith minor?’
‘Oh, I can guarantee his honesty, sir.”
Just as Materialism is optional so is the dialectical process; and one may separate the strength of the former from the false inevitability of the latter. Argue chickens and eggs all night if you wish; but did people wake up one morning deciding to remove God from the Renaissance Rolodex, or was there a process? If so, what convinced or, more likely, distracted them? On, say, a Thursday in 1825 or 1936 did people decide to abandon family and community, or did it sneak up after many little choices?
The chain reaction led from, say, wanting an extra goat made affordable by better livestock breeding for bigger towns. Next came the means to buy more fuel or cook-pots; then meat on weekdays and warmer clothes. Fast forward to greater cooperation, widespread trade, luxuries redefined as necessities and on to spices from the Dutch East Indies. It took speed as never before in the ultra-efficient American Way, a synonym for the Empire of Temptation now gone global. At each step came a choice, until even the act of choosing became a moot point, a Materialist assumption by default. Yet it was not ever so—the stonemasons never signed their work on medieval cathedrals because they felt that God deserved the credit. Multitudes still seek out monasteries and convents, ashrams and cooperative farms for similar reasons. Others merely restrict their consumption and never enter the institutional radar. More darn their socks even though they could easily afford new ones. Thoroughly conditioned, we think them peculiar.
We may blame the devil for our own bad decisions, so Satan may perhaps be absolved of inventing Materialism and its sneaky temptations; of Mammon blinding his worshippers until reality becomes invisible and ideology paints a plausible world that is actually quite mad. But if the devil wished to defeat his Enemy, on this his only planet, what better strategy might he choose?
Pope Francis loses sleep over this, as does the Dalai Lama and many wise rabbis and Hindu priests; with each faith, as CS Lewis noted, looking at the same things through clearer or dustier lenses. Schooled in salvation for eternity, not in biology, and unable to separate good science from bad, the pope may see real or false lessons in global warming.
What is scientific truth, or moral truth in a scientific wrapper, or a metaphorical approximation of truth that still contains an important message, may be low on his list of priorities. Instead he has his eye on the ball—not the globe, but instead the seven billion immortal souls who live on it, and where they go next.
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