Untimely Observations

No Way Out


Jim Kalb’s critique of competing views of modernity is rather thorough, and like him, I find much to criticize in what is dissected. Most of the alternatives posed to the present liberal tyranny, Jim points out, are flawed or unworkable. Glorifying the wills of some superior individuals or an ideal community based on biological similarity or working class élan may be to retreat into wishful thinking or else to open the door to alternative forms of tyranny. And the liberal hedonism on which the current democratic managerial order is built enhances control by “social professionals” and “scientific administrators,” as soon as we recognize that hedonistic egalitarianism cannot provide equal gratification for everyone. What this eccentric but now prevalent ideology produces is having “experts” and “human rights” priests decide on whose claims to gratification are to be satisfied. The others will have to go to the back of the line.

Although Jim is accurate in his comments on these late modernist schemes, he is nonetheless short on solutions. It is all good and well to mention the soul and Christian transcendence, but it is hard to see how these ideas could be made to work in the present situation. Are we to command the political class and its allies in the media, the entertainment industry, and public education to change their worldview? And even if they all converted to the religious position Jim advocates, would the people follow?

Somehow I doubt it. By now the people are habituated to the present political class, and they believe they live in the happiest and freest society that has ever existed. Also Americans learn from movement conservatives and Republicans as well as from conventional leftist sources that what we’ve achieved, thanks to wise leaders, is so marvelous that it must be defended everywhere and at all times. There is also no indication, as far as I can tell, that Hollywood entertainment is about to stop distributing its noxious products or that Americans will plunge into such dire poverty that they’ll be forced to rethink their social and existential premises.

And even if real disaster struck, I’m not sure the populace would be screaming “crux, ultima spes.” They would simply look for new masters who would promise them material gratification and the possibility of discovering new expressive freedoms, at the cost of older liberties. Jim may be going too far in believing in the educability of the mass of people, something I would describe as the “rationalist fallacy.”

Finally I’m not sure that Christian institutions could do much good, given their present state. Mainline Protestant denominations belong to the Left, while traditional Protestants often regrettably identify themselves with the Religious Right and its politics. Would a form of Christianity identified with a neoconservative foreign policy and with such “conservative Christian” political figures as Mike Huckabee bring about the kind of changes that Jim has in mind? Pardon the rhetorical question!

As for the Catholic Church, there seem to be two distinctive groups within it. One is the conventional Catholic Democrats, who abound in my work place. Many of these attend Mass at least once a week and claim to believe in some vaguely defined religious doctrine. But for the most part they are indistinguishable from liberal Protestants, except for their resentment against Protestants who it is claimed paid low wages to their ancestors or kept them out of universities and snobbish clubs.

The second group of Catholics is more devout and has a restraining influence right now on the Supreme Court. But some Catholic traditionalists are harming the cultural Right, when they go about bashing Protestantism in a predominantly Protestant country. Such name-calling has become ritualistic among some Catholic zealots on the right and one is given the impression that some of them yearn to re-fight the religious battles of the sixteenth century. If only Catholics could successfully counter the theological errors and pernicious effects of Luther and Calvin, one is led to believe, our society would then be open to the proper Counterreformation thinking. This would supposedly help us to get a grip on things.

But I should not exaggerate the evil caused by such gripers. Their harm is less widespread than what has come from the Protestant Palin-ites and GOP boosters. Among such Protestant advocates we hear empty chatter about “family values” identified with Republican candidates, and we learn about Christ as a teacher of global democracy. Such types have been around since the Abolitionists and the Crusaders for Democracy in World War I. I doubt they’d be more useful for Jim’s project than the egalitarian hedonists who are now helping to shape American politics and culture. One must therefore conclude that while Jim underlines real intellectual and cultural problems, he has not provided cogent solutions. On the other hand, neither have I. There are situations in which one has to respond “nescio” or in colloquial English “dunno.”