If we could dialogue with our friends and enemies in a spirit of charity we would all be much happier and, more to the point, we would all be much closer to the truth of things…
I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarreled
—G.K. Chesterton, on his relationship with his brother, Cecil.
If we could all argue in the manner that Chesterton argued, without ever quarreling, how much better our beleaguered world would be. If we could dialogue with our friends and enemies in a spirit of charity we would all be much happier and, more to the point, we would all be much closer to the truth of things.
Although I am not as good at the art of argument as was Chesterton, I have him as my model and my mentor, which means that I try to argue without ever quarreling. This was the case in a recent exchange with a journalist from England, who has worked for the BBC and with two of the UK’s national newspapers, The Guardian and The Independent. I would like to share our dialogue, or our argument, because I think it shows how we can agree to differ without wishing to bludgeon each other into submission. Since the argument took place in private correspondence, via e-mail, I am going to respect my interlocutor’s privacy by ensuring his anonymity. In the argument reproduced below, his words will be in italics and mine in normal text.
I’ve just come across your essay on Andrew Marr’s coverage of English history—and I wanted to respond to it.
Your argument against Marr’s approach is vigorous and substantial, but I’m surprised by your tone which is accusatory and hostile. You seem to treat Marr, and the erasure of Christian reference, as a phenomenon characteristic of contemporary Western liberalism (as embodied in the British Broadcasting Corporation) and therefore deserving of emotive disapproval.
But the erasure of Christianity is not an unusual phenomenon and by no means a special feature of the culture you wish to attack. When I was researching the teaching of art history in Germany in the 1920s, I found that scholars at the time were writing about religious art, especially in the Renaissance, in terms that seemed to welcome any manner of ways of understanding paintings—but never religion. I did not respond as you have, however. I noted the tendency but did not feel that it required censure. Historians at the time—many of whom were very far from being liberal democrats and many of whom were ardent nationalists—wanted to explore a number of new critical structures and religion wasn’t one of them. They felt that the religious aspects of religious art had already been dealt with; they wanted to see in what other ways one could make meaningful statement about art.
I don’t see that this needs to be attacked; why do you?
I’m sorry that you disapprove of my essay.
The erasure of history is always an evil worthy of censure. History is a living tradition with the power to inform the present about the accumulated wisdom of the human experience. Its erasure by those who allow the zeitgeist to dominate their thinking always presages disaster. The example of 1920s Germany serves as a case in point.
Orwell’s warnings about the contempt for the past should never be forgotten, nor should Chesterton’s quip that the modern man is like a contemptuous cad who superciliously kicks down the ladder by which he’s climbed.
I think that that’s not the point I was making. All I was suggesting is that one can’t always say everything, doesn’t always need to say everything, and that not saying everything is not necessarily evidence of a decisive rejection of everything. Secondly that there are periods when certain things that seem not to have been said before seem to need saying for the first time. This, after all, is the goal of all academic work: How can we add to and build on what is said? So the fact that something isn’t said doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t apply, only that the writer was focusing on something else. That’s not tantamount to Stalinist erasure or contempt for the past, as you put it: It’s simply a shift of emphasis. At the same time, because history is a living tradition, it doesn’t always inform the present in the same way: If it did, it wouldn’t be a living but a dead tradition. Such seems to have been the fate of China over many centuries—endless repetition of the same lessons. If you don’t agree, then I think we really are coming at this with different sets of values—but I hope not and can’t quite believe that there can be such distance between us.
Your reply seems to forget that the BBC program I was criticizing was purportedly a history of Britain. It is absurd to suggest that the philosophy of the historian gives him the right to ignore the philosophies of the past with which he disagrees. On the contrary, objectivity demands that he engages with the ideas that animated the past. To produce something on Anglo-Saxon England, allegedly seeing it through the lens of overtly Christian poems, such as Beowulf, without mentioning the overt Christianity which inspires and animates the lens, is an Orwellian rewriting of the past. This was my point and there’s nothing that you’ve said that addresses it.
In a country that is well aware of its Christian past, does one have to keep repeating the Christian element of the story or can one not take this as given and explore other resonances?
Of which country are you speaking which is well aware of its Christian past? Surely you can’t mean the U.K.? If you mean that people are vaguely aware that a belief that is known as Christianity (of which they know nothing) was a factor in British history (of which they also know nothing), then you might have a point. The much bigger point is, however, that people know nothing of Christianity because anti-Christians have airbrushed it out of the culture, and nothing about history because those who take their lead from the zeitgeist believe that the past is irrelevant so should also be airbrushed out of the culture. The rationale is that you need to bury the old man (historic man) so that the New Man (zeitgeist man) can rise from the ashes. The New Man must therefore be ignorant of everything that might prejudice him against the ideology of the social engineers. In this sense, as Winston Smith understood, the past sets us free from the tyranny of the present.
Is Donald Trump Christian? Is Stephen Bannon Christian? — in the sense you are, or that you applaud, I mean.
Don’t be silly. Christianity in its fullest form is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (of which I presume President Trump and Mr. Bannon know nothing) and is the fruit of millennia of learning and accumulated wisdom. If you must ascribe names to Christianity, you should mention precursors such as the Hebrew prophets, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the living Tradition from the time of Christ in theology, philosophy, literature, the visual arts, architecture, music and the physical sciences (in which Christian scientists have played a major part). As a historian, you are only making my case when you endeavor to reduce such a living Tradition to the reductio ad absurdum of an ad hominem argument of this sort.
No, I was only wondering if, having attacked the BBC as a defender of Western liberalism, you also vested your faith in President Trump and Mr. Bannon as, currently, the most visible opponents of Western liberalism. I wondered if you regarded them as fellow travelers.
I am no fan of President Trump or Mr. Bannon, though I sympathize with those who voted for President Trump as a protest vote against Hillary Clinton. I cannot sanction the culture of death and I see globalism as the greatest threat to democracy and political freedom on the world stage. Those on the Left need to ditch their naïve belief that a World Government, should it come into being, will be anything other than a tyranny serving the interests of the most powerful. They also need to know that there are many people who cannot vote for a candidate who believes in the systematic extermination of the weak and disabled through abortion and euthanasia. When people have become so alienated from the liberal elite, they will vote for anyone who offers an alternative (whether or not they should). The Left needs to wake up before it makes itself unelectable.
Oh, and as an addendum to my last e-mail, I never attacked the BBC for defending Western liberalism (whatever that means exactly) but for refusing to acknowledge the crucial role of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England.
The thrust of this conversation starts to bifurcate, but remains fascinating—for me at least.
I didn’t get the impression that Western liberalism (which I think we can grope our way towards grasping the gist of) was much of a love of yours; and, if it wasn’t, I wondered whether you were content to see Messrs. Trump and Bannon bring it tumbling down.
I understand that, prior to any of that goes your Catholic zeal, but following that, would you be willing to say where you stand on either? I’m in the U.K. so it’s all a bit long range but we’re all watching with eagle eyes this astonishing start to 2017 and trying to make sense of how the land now lies.
Your views on World Government are interesting, but I think many fear, looking around, that the notion of a World Government is a myth that no one has promulgated for several decades and only now exists in the minds of those who have, for whatever reason, acclimatised to the fear, or hatred, of socialism that has its roots in, say, Hayek. That is to say, that of all the socialist parties I can think of in Western Europe (and I have no knowledge of any further to the east), none has world government on its agenda, either publicly or privately. Again, as far as I’m aware, it only continues to exist in the rhetoric of the Right as a bogey to beat the non-Right with.
On the other hand, since President Trump took office, one starts to get a sense that Mr. Bannon and those of, let us say, an Ayn Rand tendancy, and neo-Nietzscheans, and purveyors of Big Data, have started talking about collusions of interest—a new amity with Russia, say, or new trans-national corporatism—that sounds very much like World Government or, to take the tang of public sector out of it, a world enterprise that dehumanises the rest of us and may amount to the same thing.
You might just agree. A little?
I suspect that we mean radically different things by “Western” and “liberalism/” I see “Western” as being rooted in the Church, and that the “West” begins to lose its way when it severs itself from its roots and follows the path of relativism. I believe in the “West” but it’s not the same “West” that others believe in. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc could call themselves “Liberals” a century ago but would be uncomfortable doing so today, which means that what is known as “Liberalism” is not the same thing that it was and, no doubt, is becoming something else as we speak. It is, therefore, difficult to pin one’s colours to something which changes shape and substance with the passage of time.
Mr. Bannon’s Weltanschauung appears to be almost Spenglerian in some ways and, as such, is very much a product of Enlightenment thinking, i.e. he is at radical variance with a truly Christian understanding of history. As for President Trump, I doubt that he has a Weltanschauung and doubt that he knows what a Weltanschauung is!
President Trump scares me. He’s the devil we don’t know. Hillary Clinton appalls me. She’s the devil we know. The most optimistic thing I can say about President Trump is that the devil you don’t know might not be the devil at all. Wishful thinking perhaps, but I can’t help being relieved that Secretary Clinton is not in the White House. (I had much more sympathy with Bernie Sanders, though his doctrinaire carte blanche of abortion would have made him unacceptable to many Christian voters.)
The reality of “World Government” will evolve from the globalism that is the political consequence of globalization. It’s global corporatism coupled with international finance with, ironically, the socialists buying into it. It’s capitalism writ large with a socialist endorsement. There was, for instance, nothing to choose between the Republican and Democratic leadership on their shared adherence to the alleged benefits of globalism.
As for those with Ayn Rand tendencies, they tend to be free market libertarians who worship the free market and hate protectionism and are not able, therefore, to question globalization. They are, in consequence, and ironically, on the same side as the Big Government politicians in both major parties with regard to globalization.
As for Russia, it’s ironic indeed that it’s now the Left who are the sabre-rattlers seeking a return to the Cold War, aided and abetted by the neo-cons who desire the same thing. History makes strange bedfellows, for sure.
I hope this helps a little….
Thanks. I think the horror for Hillary Clinton was not understood outside the U.S. and baffled many. She’s Washington to her roots but so is the rest of Washington. That’s how the system works. Anyway, let’s put that on one side.
I wonder if you can catch this BBC programme.
There’s a lot at the start about the rebirth of religion. I found the whole programme fascinating; you’ll no doubt hate it but maybe you’re right and it expresses a view of religion that’s intrinsically negative. Food for your next essay, perhaps.
Thanks for this healthy exchange. We need more of this sort of dialogue and dialectic, and less of the venom and vitriol which is currently marring and scarring political debate. Thank you, my friend!
I enjoyed it too. Our views are obviously not aligned, and we don’t know each other, which makes it that much more rewarding briefly to exchange thoughts. Thanks for participating.
Oh, and the BBC link is to a radio programme, not TV, which means you can do something else—the ironing or cooking—while you’re listening. (I love radio!)
Kind Regards ….
Thanks. I like radio for the same reason—much more than I like ironing!
Warmest wishes ….
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