Ryszard Legutko gained fame this spring when he was informed by Middlebury College’s president that his lecture was canceled. Though 40 brave students gathered to hear Prof. Legutko speak in a classroom, the irony was that the episode confirmed his very point that liberal democratic societies have become in many ways just as barbarous and oppressive as communism…
In his “Notes & Comments” column in the November issue of the New Criterion, editor Roger Kimball dilates on the truly daring nature of the new Christ Chapel at Hillsdale College, designed by the eminent architect Duncan Stroik. It’s not just the daring of a college building a beautiful building in classical style in 2019, but it’s that it would have “a cross on the roof above its main entrance. Talk about transgressive!”
Mr. Kimball closes by brooding on the impotence of much modern conservative reaction to the “onslaught of barbarism,” probably because political struggle isn’t enough. Nor is culture. He cites T.S. Eliot’s observation that when we “boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis and Goethe” we end up with “pretty thin soup.” The dilemma for mankind is that culture is not enough and that in the end, as Eliot had it, “you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist.” That this claim, says Mr. Kimball, is “controverted, even by many conservatives” is a great part of our problem today.
Yet it’s not just the answer of transcendent religion that is controverted. It is also the question of the diagnosis. Is it barbarism that we face? Or is it progress? Many claim that we cannot possibly be facing barbarism since we are a democratic society—and the vox populi is the vox dei. We believe in the consistency of the wisdom of crowds.
Except, of course, when we don’t. It’s gloriously democratic, nay the inexorable Progress of History when we like it and rude Populism and Atavism when we don’t. And Populism and Atavism must be stomped out according to modern Progressive politics. Liberalism as a phenomenon has taken a turn that is itself somewhat illiberal. And on many campuses it is just as transgressive to say so.
Ryszard Legutko, the author of The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies—unsurprisingly published in its English form in 2016 by Roger Kimball’s Encounter Books—gained fame this spring when, on arriving at ultra-progressive (and expensive) Middlebury College, he was informed that his lecture was canceled at the last minute by the president of that institution. President Laurie L. Patton said the university “would not have the capacity to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks at either the lecture or the counter event.”[*] This assessment was made after students and faculty, who had little to no knowledge of Mr. Legutko’s position, nevertheless declared him “a homophobe, a racist, a misogynist, a sexist, a bigot.”
What is Prof. Legutko’s position? That it is indeed our very liberal democratic societies that have become in many important ways just as barbarous and oppressive as communism. That the new identity politics that animates these societies crushes real thick communities in the name of thin but powerful currents of thought. Though a professor at Middlebury managed to gather about 40 brave Middlebury students to hear Prof. Legutko speak in a classroom and engage with his positions, the irony was that Prof. Legutko had to be brought in through back doors to address the students, a strange harkening back to his days in communist Poland. The episode at Middlebury was a kind of performative confirmation of Prof. Legutko’s very point.
It was with this problem in mind, as well as the solution, that a group of colleagues at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota planned a one-day conference addressing the problems of the totalitarian temptations in liberal society as well as the answers found in Christian revelation. On November 4 we presented “Totalitarian Temptations in a Free Society & the Gospel of Jesus Christ” with Prof. Legutko (currently serving as a member of the European Parliament) to diagnose our ills and Fr. Robert Spitzer, the Jesuit philosopher and theologian to present the answer to these problems in a Christian vision of the human person. We have some beautiful chapels that speak to the transcendent on our campus, but it is supremely important to keep saying in words what our buildings say with their beauty and crucifixes.
What happened? Are you ready for some good news? Unlike the Demon in Middlebury, what we had at St. Thomas was a very welcoming attitude on the part of administrators and a good number of faculty members present at the lectures. No public protests, no security threats. No doubt there were some at St. Thomas unhappy to have such a conference in which Prof. Legutko spoke so openly about his view that so many of the terms of contemporary liberalism end up meaning effectively their opposites. Diversity too often means everyone sharing one view, while tolerance means intolerance, and the world is “only safe for pluralism when there is a unanimity of opinions.” That making many things like education “democratic” means destroying them. That the number of thoughtcrimes (Orwell’s phrase) seems larger under liberal society than it did under communism. That even the communists didn’t politicize toilets or pronouns. Prof. Legutko’s words were a clarion call to do as Solzhenitsyn said and “Live not by lies!”
It was good to hear out loud a diagnosis and a cursing of darkness. But it was also good to hear how to light candles. Prof. Legutko indicated the need for people to look again to Aristotle. Fr. Spitzer’s address, which began by reminding the audience of the importance of maintaining a variegated society in which culture and the state are not one thing and should not be. Culture, derived from cultus, has much to do with worship and the powers of the soul. Fr. Spitzer spoke on developing those powers of the soul in a rational and independent way such that persons can find their deepest happiness. Clearly our world that drunkenly reels between sensual pleasures and the pleasures of enforcing the drinking of a thin dogmatic soup (thinner even than Horace, St. Francis, and Goethe) by the public attains no long-term or deep happiness. Instead, we see more and more depression and suicide, when the violence isn’t directed outward.
The answer to our ills, Fr. Spitzer claimed, is to see the human person anew—made in the image of Christ and destined to know the truth, love the truth, and speak the truth. It’s only when we know the truth that we are truly set free and can give others their freedom—neither shrugging whatever at others’ behavior nor accusing them of thoughtcrimes and canceling them. Totalitarian temptations to barbarism can be fought politically and culturally, but they are exorcised only when we see the human end in Christ.
Such truths may be controverted, but on November 4 they were heard in the modern university. At the evening session nearly 500 people attended. That is a triumph for which we can all give thanks.
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[*] I take my account of this event from Ryszard Legutko’s account of it in the August 2019 issue of First Things, “The Demon in Middlebury.”
The featured image is “View of the Dining Hall in Magdalen College, Oxford” (1856) by Joseph Nash the Elder (1808-1878), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.