One of the greatest Europeans of them all hugely admired Napoleon, until one day, he didn’t. Beethoven famously wrote his Eroica Symphony (one of his many paradigm leaps) in part as a homage to the tiny Corsican, but when the latter’s superstate ambitions and ego took over, Beethoven lost the rag. He had principles that weren’t for sale.
So it’s both irksome and ignorant of the EU to claim (in 1993) the Ode to Joy from the Ninth (21 years later, from a tired and reflective genius), as some sort of superstate anthem. Beethoven would not have approved.
The nadir of this cultural appropriation was when the routinely stupid SNP whistled and gurned it to ‘protest’ about Brexit (narrator: normal Scottish people are indifferent at best to the EU, don’t believe the hype).
In the real world, intelligent EU types, particularly in the German media, have sensed that the game is nearly up. Merkel has been a disaster, ultimately, and the future without the UK’s dosh and common sense looks scary to them. As it should. Here is one such piece in the mighty Der Spiegel, published on Brexit day, and written by the prescient Romain Leick. I have copied the whole thing. One of the key points in the road is spelled out: “Brussels did nothing to help the lamentable Prime Minister David Cameron win the referendum”. In fact they treated him like a turd on their elegant shoes.
Essential reading and reflection:
Just over 47 years ago, when the United Kingdom finally joined the European Economic Community, following intense debates and a close vote in parliament, the era-defining event was celebrated with a gala concert in London. It included a “Fanfare for Europe,” composed especially for the occasion. An idealistic, conservative prime minister – Edward Heath – had led Britain into Europe. In an effort to convince the skeptics, he said: “We have the chance of new greatness. Now we must take it.”
His eventual successor, Boris Johnson – a gambler rather than an idealist – used almost the same words to mark the country’s plunge into independence. He won his bet with the promise that Britain’s departure from the European Union would give control back to the people of Britain. He sold the illusion that a proud nation state is still the most powerful force of all, even in this age of globalization – freed of the shackles of a woeful and tedious alliance that had been inaccurately sold as a community of fate.
The EU considered the impending tragedy of Brexit to be so absurd, so idiotic and backward, that it was long unwilling to accept it as a possibility. Brussels did nothing to help the lamentable Prime Minister David Cameron win the referendum. The EU thought it had to be unyielding in negotiations with Cameron’s successor Theresa May (“this deal or no deal”) in order to convince Britain not to go through with it and to scare others away from trying.
But the EU achieved exactly the opposite: In the three-and-a-half years since the June 2016 referendum, the British only became more determined to leave and more disgusted with the bloc. The Continent must now be at pains to avoid repeating those mistakes by once again transforming negotiations over future relations into an obstacle course.
The temptation to succumb to resentment and take steps to penalize Britain remains strong in Brussels. Simply allowing a powerful member state like the UK to leave unpunished calls the EU’s own self-image into question. The European project is rooted in the belief that there is no other option – in the rationally, though not emotionally, coherent conviction that European nation states must sacrifice a portion of their independence in order to find success in a globalized world.
Germany had no trouble doing so. On the contrary, the country had forfeited its sovereignty in World War II and only completely got it back again following reunification in 1990. By then, it was already firmly anchored in the EU and in NATO. In order to allay concerns about a newly reunified Germany, particularly those in Paris, Germany agreed to give up the deutsche mark, the most powerful symbol of the country’s sovereignty, and join the currency union. From the very beginning, European integration was a path for Germany to release itself from the demons of its Nazi past and abandon its destructive dreams of a “special path.”
Now, Brussels shouldn’t keep the UK at arm’s length: It must be possible to have them both out and in at the same time. It would be the second act of the tragedy if Johnson were able to strike a trade deal with Donald Trump’s America quicker than with the EU. When it comes to foreign and security policy — for example, in relations with Iran — Johnson is closer to Europe than he is to the big brother across the Atlantic. It has not been forgotten in the UK that Blair’s downfall began when he followed George W. Bush into the Iraq War in 2003, while both Paris and Berlin declined. Johnson’s goal is to remain a political actor within the European system without becoming an also-ran in an asymmetric partnership with the U.S.
Continental Europeans are fully aware, of course, that if the relationship were to remain sour on the long term, the harm to them would be at least as large as it would be to the British. Nevertheless, a majority of the European public appears not to have understood the consequences that the historical break could have. And many European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, must face up to criticism that they didn’t do enough to truly understand the reasons for the sense of alienation between the UK and the EU. Otherwise, they would not have stood by and done nothing over the years as the crack widened into a gaping breach.
The unique role Britain played in Europe was mocked and impugned, seen as a yearning for lost greatness and caused by lingering pain from the loss of its empire. Much of Europe acted as though Brexit was only about British – or, more specifically, English – sensitivities, as though it didn’t also have existential implications for all of Europe. Some of the most zealous federalists even appear to be hoping that the EU has now been freed of a major hindrance and that the path is now open to a political union, as was agreed to in the Maastricht Treaty almost 30 years ago.
But the tactical maneuvering, the delays and the missed opportunities since then cannot all be blamed on British intransigence. Europe has always been ready to grant exceptions to Britain (and others), so-called opt-outs – on the currency union, on the Schengen Agreement and on the European Social Charter.
That was the deal from the very beginning: Britain would never be part of a complete political union, preferring instead to just a member of a confederation of states with a common market. Continental Europe could comfortably hide behind this contradiction because it concealed its own conflict over whether it wanted the EU to be an association of states or a true union. Britain’s EU membership was a misunderstanding inasmuch as it rested on the EU’s own disparity between the goals it proclaimed and the reality it lived.
Now, though, it is time to soberly admit that the British, in their allegedly small-minded cost-benefit pragmatism, are actually the more far-sighted realists. The EU as a political project, devised in the late 20th century for the 21st century, in part also as a palliative against post-reunification German hegemony, has failed.
Not because the British sunk the project, but because Europe – in its euphoria over the convergence of the continent and the proliferation of democracy – overreached. Not an “ever closer union,” but a flexible union would have been a more successful strategy for an EU of 28 member states. The euro crisis and the debt crisis brought the north-south economic divide into stark relief while the refugee crisis split the east from the west. And all the crises together stoked anger at Germany’s “geo-economic nationalism” and “moral imperialism.”
Brexit has made it clear to everybody that the goal of a united Europe is far from certain. The British are leaving the EU because they can. The Irish historian Brendan Simms, who teaches at Cambridge, argues that if there is a power in Europe able to stand on its own two feet, then it is the British. That conclusion is borne out of the thousand years of conflict and cooperation in the British-European relationship and out of hundreds of years of parliamentarian sovereignty. In World War II, Britain was the only European participant not to have experienced occupation.
If the UK were to really turn its back on Europe, if it is driven into isolation by trade diktats from Brussels, then European geopolitics would have to be completely reimagined. The Continent would no longer be able to count on a disgruntled Britain – which remains the second-largest military and economic power in Europe – to stay engaged in the defense of Europe’s eastern flank in Poland and the Baltics. It would lose an ally with nuclear deterrent capabilities and with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. A severely weakened Europe would remain held back as a world power-wannabe.
Instead of sinking into haughty self-pity, into bickering and recrimination, the EU should set aside its arrogance and accept that for the foreseeable future, it will be a confederation and not a true union. Who, after all, could pave the way for a relaunch of the kind demanded by French President Emmanuel Macron in his September 2017 speech in the Sorbonne in Paris? Macron, weakened on the domestic front by unending strikes, is hardly a shoo-in for re-election in two years. In 2005, the French voted against a new draft constitution for the EU. It is also unclear who his partner might be in the German Chancellery.
Either way, boldness and an appetite for risk isn’t to be expected from Berlin. But it’s standard procedure in London. Boris Johnson showed that, if necessary, he had been prepared to accept a hard Brexit, complete with a hostile stance toward Brussels. And such acrimony is still a possibility if, as the British prime minister has demanded, a fair – and generous – trade deal isn’t reached between the Continent and Britain by the end of the year.
Bye-bye Britain? How about: Welcome to the neighborhood!
….and to counter the Remoaners’ and the EU’s traducing of Beethoven’s memory, here is a guilty pleasure – noted Brit musician and Germanophile Ritchie Blackmore’s far more fun take on the Ode to Joy….
This author, like many Brexiteers, didn’t really have a problem with the Common Market and its initial manifestations. It all went downhill with Maastricht (1992) and Lisbon (2007), where the terrible undemocratic behaviour of our politicians – not least Gordon Brown shamefacedly skulking away from the press – became writ large.
Today is Brexit Day, and one of the Guardian’s headlines shows you just how deluded Remainers became, whilst admitting that there might have been a teeny problem with the EU..
….are you sure about that?
In any event, I have a lot of time for some of the early EU types – Monnet, Schuman, de Gasperi and even Jacques Delors -but their civilising influences were swept away by the ghastly ungodly bullying technocrats who followed.
Here is the Great Spartan of Scotland, Gerald Warner, from behind a paywall at Reaction, on today’s events, and the preceding decades. Superb stuff:
Today is the day. After 47 years of sovereignty submerged beneath the Brussels behemoth and three and a half years devoted to frustrating the attempts by the EU fifth column within our domestic elites to overrule the result of the biggest democratic exercise in our history, Britain finally reclaims its place among the sovereign nations of the world.
Membership of the European Union was a catastrophic mistake. The people of Britain were lured into the snare by an endless series of false prospectuses, deceit and downright lies. Our accidental protector was Charles de Gaulle, whose implacable “Non!” deferred our entry into the EEC for years. De Gaulle himself believed in a Europe des patries and would have given short shrift to the integrationist policies being championed by his remote successor Emmanuel Macron.
The monstrosity whose disintegration we shall now watch with a mixture of morbid curiosity and satisfaction from the safety of offshore was introduced by a process of osmosis: who could possibly feel threatened by a Coal and Steel Community? The project, ironically, was conceived by its founders not only as a political project, but as a culturally Christian endeavour – a kind of restoration of the Holy Roman Empire.
In post-War Europe, groping around uncertainly for security and guarantees of peace in the face of an escalating Cold War, by coincidence three Catholic statesmen had come to dominate the European geopolitical landscape by 1950. They were Robert Schuman, the foreign minister of France; Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of West Germany; and Alcide De Gasperi, prime minister of Italy. So devout was Schuman that he has been declared a “servant of God” by the Church, the first step towards beatification. This Catholic influence in the founding of the European Steel and Coal Community (ESCC) might seem to play to the delusions of those today who make the historically illiterate error of comparing Brexit to the English Reformation. In that, they echo Ian Paisley’s strident condemnations of the Treaty of Rome. Any comparison of the mainly spiritual powers of the Pope, plus the modest dues of Peter’s Pence and Annates paid for the upkeep of the Church, before the Reformation is completely derisory compared to the vast powers and massive fiscal exactions of the EU.
In any case, this initially Catholic inspiration was being dissipated as early as 1950: when Schuman read the Declaration that bears his name, founding the ESCC, the text had already been edited by Jean Monnet. Thereafter, relentless secularism increasingly captured the European project. When the EU was drawing up its constitution in 2004 the Vatican and seven member states pressed in vain for even the briefest acknowledgement of Europe’s Christian heritage. Later, on the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Benedict XVI condemned the EU’s increasing marginalization of Christianity as “apostasy of itself”.
That was true even in a secular sense: the present-day European Union is totally deracinated from its original philosophy and character. It no longer knows what it is or aspires to be. No two member states share the same vision. Just as the north-south divide has brought the euro currency to the brink of collapse, interpretations of the EU as diverse as those prevailing in France and Hungary create an irreducible tension that can never be resolved except by either the reduction of the number of member states or the dissolution of the whole Heath-Robinson contraption.
One thing is certain: the EU is not democratic. Unelected apparatchiks hold the reins of power. Any attempt at asserting democratic values has – until the success of Brexit – been cynically and ruthlessly crushed. This is most observable in the EU’s treatment of referenda in member states. As long ago as 1992 a referendum in Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty. Some cosmetic changes were made, including exempting Denmark from adopting the euro, and the following year the Danes held a second referendum and obediently fell into line.
Because the Irish constitution requires all treaties to be subjected to plebiscite, in 2001 a referendum was held in Ireland on the Treaty of Nice, which was rejected. After frenzied propaganda by the establishment Ireland voted again in 2002 and accepted the Nice Treaty, with a face-saving provision of exemption from joining any future EU army. In 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands both rejected the draft EU constitution. Since forcing a re-run in two countries would have been bad PR, Brussels re-packaged the constitution as the Lisbon Treaty. But a referendum in Ireland in 2008 rejected the treaty, so 16 months later the Irish were required to vote again and this time they came up with the right result.
With that history of consistent refusals to accept a democratic verdict it is unsurprising that the EU imagined that, with the help of the Remainers in Britain, it should be possible to force the UK to hold a second referendum, after years of Project Fear scaremongering, and secure a penitent revocation of Article 50, with a chastened Britain returning to the EU fold to be treated with obloquy for the indefinite future.
The British, happily, are made of sterner stuff and cherish the rights for which they made large sacrifices in two world wars. So, we are leaving, and not before time. Since we joined the EEC in 1973 this country has contributed £215bn to the EEC/EU budget. And for what? The continual erosion of our independence, the imposition of foreign courts and laws on our legal system, the hobbling of our natural instincts of entrepreneurship. We have always been a net contributor to the EU: apart from propagandist froth, no British project has ever benefited from “European money” – only from a portion of our taxpayers’ money returned to us on its own terms by Brussels. So far from benefiting from EU membership, three decades of Brussels regulations have hobbled productivity and real wages, causing loss of growth of around 0.2 per cent annually, totalling £120bn over 30 years.
Now it is over. The psychological effect of restored sovereignty will be enormous. It must be reflected in Britain’s approach to the 11-month negotiations during the transition period. Michel Barnier must be made to realize he is dealing with a wholly different entity from the cap-in-hand suppliant that was Theresa May. Domestically, the government has got off to a bad start, losing the opportunity to draw a line under the past by instantly excluding Huawei and scrapping HS2. That would have sent a robust message to Brussels which still believes the deep state is in control in Whitehall. Our negotiating position must be unyielding: no extension after 31 December, no concessions on fisheries, no ECJ, no alignment with the regulations that have for too long crippled enterprise in this country.
It will be virtually impossible for a defeated and discredited Remoaner rump to demonize a WTO exit if EU intransigence makes it inevitable. The mood is confident; we are a great nation. When the present Queen came to the throne there was much optimistic talk, despite the weakness of our post-War economy and the continuing dissolution of our Empire, of a “New Elizabethan Age”.
An establishment philosophy of managed decline and the constrictions of EU membership stifled that aspiration. Perhaps now, in the later stages of the reign, that neo-Elizabethan vision can finally be attained. Welcome, Brexit, and welcome the return to the world stage of a sovereign, independent Britain.
I only very rarely lift whole articles, really only when it’s something that expresses a profound and important concept, in a way that demands the argument be cited in full, as opposed to breaking off choice fragments.
This is one such piece, on the whole issue of Western civilization, and the perceived threats to it, along with its complex and undeniable intertwining with religious – specifically Christian – belief.
This stuff isn’t boring, and it will never be irrelevant. The author is the immensely gifted and bullshit-freeAndrew Klavan, whose own personal story (1, 2, 3) is fascinating. My apologies to him (and the excellent City Journal) for this blatant theft:
The West is falling. Quietly, politically, without a violent upheaval, the Islamists are taking control of France. A dissolute literature professor named François retires to a monastery near Poitiers, the place where Charles Martel stopped the last advance of Islam in 732. A man at once mesmerized and dejected by the sensual pleasures of cultural decadence, François is seeking to reconnect with the Christian religion that formed the great French culture of the past.
But faith in that religion will not come to him. “I no longer knew the meaning of my presence in this place,” he says of the monastery. “For a moment, it would appear to me, weakly, then just as soon it would disappear.” He leaves the monastery, ready to convert to Islam and submit to the new order.
“I’d be given another chance; and it would be the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one,” he says. “I would have nothing to mourn.”
This sequence from Michel Houellebecq’s controversial 2015 novel Submission is a near-perfect fictional representation of a phenomenon I’ve noticed in many intellectuals since the latest rise of radical Islam. These thinkers see the great days of the West ending, while a violent, intolerant form of Islam infests its ruins. They believe that Europe has lost the will to live and that the loss is linked to a loss of faith in Christianity. But while they yearn to see the West revived—and while they may even support Christianity as a social good or a metaphorical vehicle for truth—they cannot themselves believe.
By chance, Houellebecq’s novel was published on the very day of the Islamist massacre of workers at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as this essay is being published shortly after the slaughter of peaceful Muslims by a white supremacist in New Zealand. But such upsurges of hateful violence should not be allowed to silence the underlying debate among people of goodwill.
Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, a 2008 book by Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera, is the clearest example of the phenomenon I’m describing. Written in response to 9/11, it depicts a Europe paralyzed by self-hating lassitude, willing to pay homage to any culture but its own. “The West today is undergoing a profound moral and spiritual crisis, due to a loss of faith in its own worth, exacerbated by the apostasy of Christianity now rife within Western culture,” Pera writes. He makes clear that by Christianity, he means the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, and he goes on to say, “Without faith in the equality, dignity, liberty, and responsibility of all men—that is to say, without a religion of man as the son and image of God—liberalism cannot defend the fundamental and universal rights of human beings or hope that human beings can coexist in a liberal society. Basic human rights must be seen as a gift of God . . . and hence pre-political and non-negotiable.”
This sounds like the cri de coeur of a passionate believer, the sort of thing we used to hear from Europhile Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote the essay’s introduction. But not so. The book’s title gives the game away. Pera could have called it Why We Should Be Christians. But he is an atheist. He accepts Immanuel Kant’s famous argument that God is necessary to the existence of morality. But from this, he reasons not that we must have faith but that “we must live . . . as if God existed.”
Urgently needed as Christianity may be, he cannot believe.
In 2017’s The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray finds the death spiral of Islamist aggression and Western self-hatred still more advanced. Witness, just for one example, the “grooming” gangs of men of Pakistani, Iranian, Turkish, and other Muslim-immigrant backgrounds, which abused thousands of local girls in Rotherham and elsewhere while authorities turned a blind eye, for fear of being called racist. Like Pera, Murray understands that the loss of Christian faith is a powerful contributor to “the problem in Europe of an existential tiredness and a feeling that perhaps for Europe the story has run out and a new story must be allowed to begin.”
“Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through,” Murray writes. “After all, though people may try, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be able to invent an entirely new set of beliefs.” But Murray, too, is a nonbeliever, as he told me explicitly during a conversation on my podcast. Again, he knows that faith is needed, but he cannot believe.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson has become a popular sensation by riding the horns of this dilemma. His videos, speeches, and best-selling self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos all argue for imbuing life with the meaning and morality that Kant maintained must be logically attached to the existence of God. But when it comes to declaring his actual beliefs, he is evasive. “I act as if God exists,” he says in one video, echoing Pera. “Now you can decide for yourself whether that means that I believe in Him.”
If I must decide for myself, I think that Peterson is a Jungian. Beneath his abstruse verbiage, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung essentially reimagined spirituality as an emanation of the deepest truths of human experience. “We cannot tell,” he wrote, “whether God and the unconscious are two different entities.” In practice, this means that the Jungian god is ultimately a metaphor, a means of externalizing our collective unconscious and its “archetype of wholeness.” No amount of evasive verbalization can disguise the weakness of a metaphorical god. He is the signifier of human meaning as opposed to a living objective Presence who is the source of that meaning.
So even while attempting to address the Western crisis of will brought on by our loss of faith, Peterson, too, I suspect, cannot truly believe.
What stands between these minds and faith? Peterson, for one, rebels against the question “Do you believe in God?” because, he says, “It’s an attempt to box me in. . . . The question is asked so that I can be firmly placed on one side of a binary argument.”
But this strikes me as unsound. All statements of belief box a thinker in. If the world is round, it cannot also be flat. And if there is objective morality and meaning in that world, it must have an ultimate objective source. To live “as if there were a God” is essentially to insist on the conclusions of a syllogism the premises of which you reject. Pera and Peterson notwithstanding, this makes no sense, and arguments that make no sense eventually collapse.
Murray’s objection to faith, however, is more coherent. He believes that science and historical criticism have done “most likely irreversible damage . . . to the literal-truth claims of religion.” If he is right, it makes no difference whether faith is required; faith is impossible. You can’t ask a society to pretend to believe in what isn’t so.
But is Murray right? Have science and criticism truly undermined Christianity? Or is it simply that disbelief has become the intellectual’s default conviction? It seems highly possible that faith is being thwarted by a powerful social narrative that insists that Christianity can’t thrive in the modern world as we know it.
This narrative—let’s call it the Enlightenment Narrative—has been with us now for centuries. It goes something like this: the fall of Rome in the fifth century plunged the West from Classical civilization into cultural darkness. For the next 1,000 years, the Church encouraged superstition, stifled intellectual freedom, and repressed scientific inquiry. With the Renaissance of Classical learning, reason was set free, science was discovered, and faith was left behind as we marched into a world of wonders.
The Enlightenment Narrative had its beginnings as a sort of humanist propaganda campaign. Terms like Dark Ages and Middle Ages were created at the dawn of the Renaissance (a loaded term in itself). They were meant to solidify the new generation’s self-congratulatory idea that they had relit the fire of knowledge after a dark “middle” period.
The campaign worked. The Enlightenment Narrative has dominated the Western mind. It is the context in which Don Quixote went mad trying to imitate old chivalric values out of keeping with the new reality. It is why Shakespeare imagined a Hamlet stranded without certainty in the sudden absence of clear moral truth. It is why Hegel declared that “trust in the eternal laws . . . has vanished” and Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead.” And while many mighty minds—such as Coleridge, Dostoyevsky, C. S. Lewis, and Pope Benedict XVI—have protested that no, even in the enlightened world, God still lives, the prevailing sense among thinking elites was expressed by Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”: the Sea of Faith, once at full tide, is inexorably receding with a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”
The latest proclaimers of this narrative reject even the melancholy. Their vision stands in direct opposition to the morbid predictions of observers like Houellebecq, Pera, and Murray. For them, the West and the world are doing great—better than ever—and the death of Christianity is a big part of the reason.
Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now makes this case with gusto. These are the best of times, he says. We live, quite suddenly, in a world of “newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.” Reason and science—which “led most of the Enlightenment thinkers to repudiate a belief in an anthropomorphic God who took an interest in human affairs”—are not the cause of our dissolution but the founders of our feast.
Indeed, Pinker believes that reports of the death of Western civilization are greatly exaggerated. He dismisses such pessimism as a fashionable intellectual pose fueled by negative biases in human cognition. “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” he argues, and that progress is likely to continue as long as we live out the Enlightenment Narrative and leave religion behind.
Pinker’s optimism is appealing but not entirely convincing. I have questions about his assessment of the present. Is increasingly atheistic Europe—especially Scandinavia—really the “gold standard” of happiness, peace, and human rights, as he maintains? Or is it, rather, a moribund client culture, wholly dependent on the military might, scientific inventiveness, and financial strength of the far more religious United States? Without the Bible-thumping U.S., wouldn’t enlightened Europe quickly find itself overrun, at least geopolitically, by Russian or Chinese authoritarians? The way pessimists like Murray see it, it is being overrun right now in a more literal sense, by a slow-motion Islamist invasion, which could end with our enlightened optimists silenced mid-hurrah.
As for the future: all throughout the triumphant strains of Enlightenment Now, I kept thinking of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional,” written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. At that moment in 1897, England specifically, and Europe in general, were, like the West today, celebrating cultural and scientific achievements unmatched in the history of humankind. And yet Kipling, no devout believer himself, marked the occasion by warning his countrymen against atheistic pride, praying:
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Lest we forget that not all intellectual misgivings are as baseless as Pinker says, just 17 years after the poem was penned, Europe was engulfed in the three-decade cataclysm of world war that brought its cultural dominance to an end—war brought on by the anti-Christian philosophy of Nazism and followed by an era of unimaginable mass murders in the name of the atheistic philosophy of Communism.
Pinker comes across as liberal in the best sense of the word. But there are hints in his philosophy that Pera is correct and that human rights need something more than Pinker’s hyper-rationalism to sustain them. Enlightenment Now’s materialistic defense of democracy is weak. Overall and over time, freedom can make us happy and rich, it’s true. But what if, for a while, it doesn’t? What if it needs to be defended through war or economic collapse? Once the sacred status of liberty is lost, will mothers send their sons to die for a generally upward trend on a statistical graph?
Then there’s Pinker’s frequent praise for “moral realist” philosopher Peter Singer, whose utilitarian defense of infanticidal euthanasia is both poorly reasoned and morally barbaric. The ugly truth is that we can live quite happily in a world of scientific miracles even as we transform ourselves into moral monsters.
But for a glimpse of how the Enlightenment Narrative’s embrace of pure reason can undermine the very foundations of the Western civilization that created it, you have to turn to Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Though full of quirky insights and fascinating information, it is a textbook example of how materialistic logic can lead to philosophical pathology.
Harari’s central contention is that the “ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.” He goes on to say that “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively,” by creating what he calls an “inter-subjective reality,” or “inter-subjective order existing in the shared imagination of . . . millions of people” and thus allowing them to work together in ways other animals can’t. “Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades,” he writes. “They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous.”
Among the fictions that create these intersubjective phenomena are religion, nationhood, money, law, and human rights. “None of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”
Here is an area where I can speak with some expertise. I am a lifelong maker of fiction, and I am here to tell you that this is not what fiction is; this is not how fiction works. Good fiction does not create phenomena; it describes them. Like all art, fiction is a language for communicating a type of reality that can’t be communicated in any other way: the interplay of human consciousness with itself and the world. That experience can be delusional, as when we hear voices, mistake infatuation for love, or convince ourselves that slavery is moral. But the very fact that it can be delusional points to the fact that it can be healthy and accurate as well. When it is healthy, the “common imagination of human beings” can be regarded as an organ of perception, like the eye. Fiction merely describes the world of morality and meaning that that organ perceives.
Because Harari does not believe that this world of moral meaning exists, he thinks that it is created by the fiction, rather than the other way around. For example, he refers to women as sapiens “possessing wombs” and declares that only “the myths of her society assign her unique feminine roles,” such as raising children. No one who has ever met a woman outside the planet Vulcan can imagine this to be the actual case. Harari himself speaks quite tenderly of the maternal feelings of sheep. What myths have the rams been telling the ewes? Different male and female roles are a human universal because womanhood is a complete inner reality. Myths describe it truly or falsely; they don’t make it what it is.
Harari can imagine the “complex emotional worlds” of cows. He believes that the existence of these worlds creates an obligation in us to treat cows more kindly than we currently do. Fair enough. But why, then, can he not deduce the reality of human rights, natural law, economic value, and femininity from the far more complex inner experience of humans? “Human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven,” he told an interviewer. “They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights.”
This language may not necessarily be malign. It may not suggest that Harari has no visceral respect for human rights. But it does not inspire confidence in his ultimate commitment to those rights, either. It is not exactly “Give me liberty or give me death!” In fact, Harari has argued that increasing information may require increasing centralization of power, the old progressive canard that the world has become too complex for individual freedom and must now be run by experts. This sort of thing makes one suspicious that Harari and other reason-worshiping thinkers are living justifications for Marcello Pera’s fears that freedom cannot defend itself without specifically Judeo-Christian faith.
It is the Enlightenment Narrative that creates this worship of reason, not reason itself. In fact, most of the scientific arguments against the existence of God are circular and self-proving. They pit advanced scientific thinkers against simple, literalist religious believers. They dismiss error and mischief committed in the name of science—the Holocaust, atom bombs, climate change—but amberize error and mischief committed in the name of faith—“the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, the European wars of religion,” as Pinker has it.
By assuming that the spiritual realm is a fantasy, they irrationally dismiss our experience of it. Our brains perceive the smell of coffee, yet no one argues that coffee isn’t real. But when the same brain perceives the immaterial—morality, the self, or God—it is presumed to be spinning fantasies. Coming from those who worship reason, this is lousy reasoning.
The point of this essay is not to argue the truth of Christianity. I argue only this: the modern intellectual’s difficulty in believing is largely an effect created by the overwhelming dominance of the Enlightenment Narrative, and that narrative is simplistic and incomplete.
Did we, for example, escape Christianity into science? From Roger Bacon to Galileo to Newton, the men who sparked the scientific revolution were all believing Christians. Doesn’t this make it seem plausible that—despite the church’s occasional interference—modern science was actually an outgrowth of Christian thought?
And is science still moving away from that Christian outlook, or has its trajectory begun to change? It may have once seemed reasonable to assume that the clockwork world uncovered by Isaac Newton would inexorably lead us to atheism, but those clockwork certainties have themselves dissolved as science advanced. Quantum physics has raised mind-boggling questions about the role of consciousness in the creation of reality. And the virtual impossibility of an accidental universe precisely fine-tuned to the maintenance of life has scientists scrambling for “reasonable” explanations.
Like Pinker, some try to explain these mysteries away. For example, they’ve concocted a wholly unprovable theory that we are in a multiverse. There are infinite universes, they say, and this one just happens to be the one that acts as if it were spoken into being by a gigantic invisible Jew! Others bruit about the idea that we live in a computer simulation—a tacit admission of faith, though it may be faith in a god who looks like the nerd you beat up in high school.
In any case, scientists used to accuse religious people of inventing a “God of the Gaps”—that is, using religion to explain away what science had not yet uncovered. But multiverses and simulations seem very much like a Science of the Gaps, jerry-rigged nothings designed to circumvent the simplest explanation for the reality we know.
Pinker credits Kant with naming the Enlightenment Age, but ironically, it is Kant who provided a plausible foundation for the faith that he believed was the only guarantor of morality. His Critique of Pure Reason proposed an update of Plato’s form theory, suggesting that the phenomenal world we see and understand is but the emanation of a noumenal world of things-as-they-are, an immaterial plane we cannot fully know.
In this scenario, we can think of all material being as a sort of language that imperfectly expresses an idea. Every aspect of language is physical: the brain sparks, the tongue speaks, the air is stirred, the ear hears. But the idea expressed by that language has no physical existence whatsoever. It simply is. And whether the idea is “two plus two equal four” or “I love you” or “slavery is wrong,” it is true or false, regardless of whether we perceive the truth or falsehood of it.
This, as I see it, is the very essence of Christianity. It is the religion of the Word. For Christians, the model, of course, is Jesus, the perfect Word that is the thing itself. But each of us is made in that image, continually expressing in flesh some aspect of the maker’s mind. This is why Jesus speaks in parables—not just to communicate their meaning but also to assert the validity of their mechanism. In the act of understanding a parable, we are forced to acknowledge that physical interactions—the welcoming home of a prodigal son, say—speak to us about immaterial things like love and forgiveness.
To acknowledge that our lives are parables for spiritual truths may entail a belief in the extraordinary, but it is how we all live, whether we confess that belief or not. We all know that the words “two plus two” express the human version of a truth both immaterial and universal. We likewise know that we are not just flesh-bags of chemicals but that our bodies imperfectly express the idea of ourselves. We know that whether we strangle a child or give a beggar bread, we take physical actions that convey moral meaning. We know that this morality does not change when we don’t perceive it. In ancient civilizations, where everyone, including slaves, considered slavery moral, it was immoral still. They simply hadn’t discovered that truth yet, just as they hadn’t figured out how to make an automobile, though all the materials and principles were there.
We live in this world of morality and meaning—right up until the moment it causes us pain or guilt or shame or gets in the way of our ambitions or happiness. Then, suddenly, we look at the only logical source of the meaning we perceive and say, “I do not know Him.”
Understood in this way, there is no barrier of ignorance between Christian faith and science. Rather, the faith that made the West can still defend it from the dual threat of regressive religion and barbaric scientism. In fact, it may be the only thing that can.
A West whose ethicists coolly contemplate infantile euthanasia, whose nations roll back their magnificent jurisprudence to make room for the atrocity of sharia, whose historians argue themselves out of the objective reality of human rights because they have lost faith in the numinous basis of those rights—such a West may not be heading for disaster as much as it is living in the midst of one, a comfortable and prosperous disaster to which our default atheism makes us blind, a dystopia in which we are increasingly happy and increasingly savage at the same time.
It need not be so. Outside the Enlightenment Narrative, there is absolutely no reason to abandon the faith that created our civilization. The flowering of the Western mind took place under the Christian sun. The light that led us here can lead us on.
…I mean, I’m a Catholic, and I have been lucky to have had a long experience of Notre Dame on a functional level and an aesthetic level. But why are so many other people, the secular non-believers, so genuinely upset?
I don’t doubt their sincerity at all. But….there are ruined churches everywhere in the European landscape, and we cope with it.
Here is the great and learned Victor Davis Hanson offering a spontaneous riff on the question:
After 800 years, we were the steward of this iconic representation of western civilization, Catholicism, Christendom. And of all the years, 2019, at the height of our sophistication and technology, I’m not blaming the French or anybody, but we were found wanting and we didn’t protect this icon. And we don’t build them anymore.
There’s great churches and cathedrals that go up all over the world, but, Laura, they are in Poland. They are in Cairo. They are in the Ivory Coast, they’re in Brazil, they’re in India. It’s almost as if the places that are less affluent without the technology of western Europe and the United States are like we used to be. They still believe in transcendence. They still believe in something other than this world.
And so it’s going to be very hard in our society to ever build a cathedral again, much less to repair them, because we don’t believe in what they represented. And it’s ironic, because we don’t like the past. We are at war with the past. We tear down monuments. We don’t build cathedrals. We erase names. We say to Father Serra or Christopher Columbus, you don’t live up to our standards of race, class, and gender, moral superiority. Shame on you…
…Because they (the 21st century citizens) feel something. They feel there is a spiritual loss, there’s a cultural loss. But they are too timid or cowardly to articulate it, because to articulate it would not be politically correct. But it’s such beauty that transcends things. They can feel it. They just don’t want to admit they feel it.
He has a point. It is not just a building. It never has been.
It may be an acquired taste, but Zack Snyder’s innovative epic, 300, concerning the Persian attempt to invade and subsume Greece back in 480BC, strikes me as masterpiece of film making. A Room With a View it is not, but it is surprisingly accurate to sources (ask the undoubted expert – Victor Davis Hanson), as it portrays the principled fight of a small group of Spartans, against the multinational might of the Persian Empire, led by its bullying power-crazed unelected leader, Xerxes.
The Spartans are fighting for the future of their nation and its citizens, not for themselves. They expect to die, to literally go down fighting. Indeed, they do lose the battle, Thermopylae. But it was the start of the fall of the Persian Empire. A couple of months later the Persian fleet got trashed at Salamis (thanks to the brilliance and leadership of Themistocles). The next year they got humped again at Plataea and Mycale. The empire started to fall apart, however slowly.
By 331 BC, Alexander the Great had reversed the whole scenario, and was the ruler of Persia. (Greeks are tough, what happened to Grexit?)
You can see where this is leading.
A huge factor in the defeat of the Spartans at Thermopylae, lead by Leonidas, was the treachery of Ephialtes, who as a deformed, physically limited citizen was not allowed to fight (that’s the movie version of his background). His pride stung, he turned to Xerxes, and betrayed his fellow citizens by revealing the mountain path by which the Persians were able to sneak up on the tiny Spartan contingent, negating the advantage of defending the narrow pass between mountain and sea.
A very inspiring story, genuinely. Read Tom Holland’s classic Persian Fire if you’d like to know more.
So, who’s who?
The godking Xerxes, bizarrely, is Jean-Claude Juncker.
The Spartans are those Brexiteers who are not interested in Theresa May’s utterly crap deal. Plenty of other Greeks (to continue the metaphor) are, even Guido.
Leonidas is the plum role. To add more cognitive dissonance it has to be either Boris or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Given Leonidas’ uxoriousness in the movie, it probably has to go to the latter. The supporting Spartan warrior cast includes John Redwood, Kate Hoey, and others. Possibly not more than 300 though.
Themistocles has yet to be cast.
Ephialtes is easy. Take a bow Tony Blair. We thought that we’d got rid of you, but here you are again, betraying your country, actively loathing the electorate. Like Ephialtes, it appears to be making you miserable, but you’ve been able to persuade yourself that wrong is right for so long, it’s probably just a little nagging pinprick lurking at the back of your thoughts.
I am grateful to blogger Charles Chu for highlighting this one, though it crops up from time to time anyway (Jeffrey Archer, here, for example). Who was the last non-Nazi commander in chief of the German army, the reichswehr, before Hitler? The answer is Hitler-hater Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord. Quite a name.
He was very far from even sympathising with the Nazis (“I am ashamed to have belonged in an army, that witnessed and tolerated all the crimes”), although he died of cancer well before Hitler (in 1943), and never saw what happened next. These old Germans with patriotic military histories are interesting. The maverick Ernst Junger, for example, despised Hitler partly because he thought he was riff raff,
A member of an old military family, a brilliant staff officer, and the last commander of the German army before Hitler seized power, Hammerstein, who died in 1943 before Hitler’s defeat, was nevertheless an idiosyncratic character. Too old to be a resister, he retained an independence of mind that was shared by his children: three of his daughters joined the Communist Party, and two of his sons risked their lives in the July 1944 Plot against Hitler and were subsequently on the run till the end of the war. Hammerstein never criticized his children for their activities, and he maintained contacts with the Communists himself and foresaw the disastrous end of Hitler’s dictatorship.
Anyway, here is his famous quote:
“I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”
I suppose any organisation’s hierarchy could be split this way, but speaking from experience, I can confirm that the NHS has all this in spades. The single most worrying group, given its prevalence is the last one. There are many, many examples.
In a long and remarkably constructed piece of erudition in The American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute, Professor Angelo Codevilla, a true scholar of international relations and historical precedent, considered what he refers to as a “cold civil war“, the product of a new American revolution.
In so doing, he also inadvertently describes the current state of play with Brexit.
Consider these excerpts. It’s not difficult to spot the Remainers, and the unelected Euro elite of Selmayr et al
…“men too often take upon themselves in the prosecution of their revenge to set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity, instead of allowing them to subsist against the day of danger when their aid may be required.” (quoting Thucydides)…
.…This is our revolution: Because a majority of Americans now no longer share basic sympathies and trust, because they no longer regard each other as worthy of equal consideration, the public and private practices that once had made our Republic are now beyond reasonable hope of restoration. Strife can only mount until some new equilibrium among us arises….
…The logic that drives each turn of our revolutionary spiral is Progressive Americans’ inherently insatiable desire to exercise their superiority over those they deem inferior. With Newtonian necessity, each such exercise causes a corresponding and opposite reaction. The logic’s force comes not from the substance of the Progressives’ demands. If that were the case, acquiescing to or compromising with them could cut it short. Rather, it comes from that which moves, changes, and multiplies their demands without end. That is the Progressives’ affirmation of superior worth, to be pursued by exercising dominance: superior identity affirmed via the inferior’s humiliation. It is an inherently endless pursuit. The logic is rooted in disdain, but not so much of any of the supposed inferiors’ features or habits. If it were, the deplored could change their status by improving. But the Progressives deplore the “deplorables” not to improve them, but to feel good about themselves. Hating people for what they are and because it feels good to hate them, is hate in its unalloyed form…..
…As Thucydides pointed out, once people cease adhering to “those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity,” partisan solidarity offers the only immediate hope of safety. And that, in turn, is because “those general laws” are by, of, and for the good of all. Once people no longer see any good common to all, justice for each becomes identical with advantage. The only good or justice that prevails is the good or justice of the stronger. As Plato points out in Book I of The Republic, far from being a rare phenomenon, this is mankind’s default state. Hence, among us as well, subjection by force is replacing conviction by argument. Here too, as contrasting reactions to events fan antagonisms into consuming flames like a bellows’ blows, victory’s triumphs and defeat’s agonies’ become the only alternatives…
…..This forced the recognition that there exists a remarkably uniform, bipartisan, Progressive ruling class; that it includes, most of the bureaucracies of federal and state governments, the judiciary, the educational establishment, the media, as well as major corporate officials; that it had separated itself socially, morally, and politically from the rest of society, whose commanding heights it monopolized; above all that it has contempt for the rest of America, and that ordinary Americans have no means of persuading this class of anything, because they don’t count. As the majority of Americans have become conscious of the differences between this class and themselves they have sought ever more passionately to shake it off. That is the ground of our revolution….
…The rulers are militantly irreligious and contemptuous of those who are not. Progressives since Herbert Croly’s and Woodrow Wilson’s generation have nursed a superiority complex. They distrust elections because they think that power should be in expert hands—their own. They believe that the U.S Constitution gave too much freedom to ordinary Americans and not enough power to themselves, and that America’s history is one of wrongs. The books they read pretend to argue scientifically that the rest of Americans are racist, sexist, maybe fascists, but above all stupid. For them, Americans are harmful to themselves and to the world, and have no right to self-rule….
…..The ruling class’s “resistance” to the 2016 election’s outcome was the second turn. Its vehemence, unanimity, coordination, endurance,and non-consideration of fallback options—the rapidity with which our revolution’s logic has unfolded—have surprised and dismayed even those of us who realized that America had abandoned its republican past. The “resistance” subsequent to the election surprises, in part, because only as it has unfolded have we learned of its scope prior to the election. All too simply: the U.S government’s upper echelons merged politically with the campaign of the Democratic Party’s establishment wing, and with the media. They aimed to secure the establishment candidates’ victory and then to nullify the lost election’s results by resisting the winners’ exercise of legitimate powers, treating them as if they were illegitimate….
…Partisan “dirty tricks” are unremarkable. But when networks within government and those who occupy society’s commanding heights play them against persons trying to unseat them, they constitute cold civil war against the voters, even coups d’etat. What can possibly answer such acts? And then what? These people, including longstanding officials of the FBI and CIA, are related to one another intellectually, morally, professionally, socially, financially, politically, maritally, and extramaritally. Their activities to stop the anti-establishment candidate, and president—in this case, Trump…
…The revolutionary import of the ruling class’ abandonment of moral and legal restraint in its effort to reverse election results cannot be exaggerated. Sensing themselves entitled to power, imagining themselves identical with legitimacy, “those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity“—here the US Constitution and ordinary civility—are small stuff to them….
…In 1919, a member of the Russian Duma had asked: “Comrade, is this just?” Lenin famously answered: “Just? For what class?” Forty years later, in similar circumstances, Fidel Castro delivered the dime store version: “Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” In 2018 our ruling class, in unison, set out to destroy all but the biological life of a political adversary. It substituted vehement assertion for truth, cast aside argument, foreclosed questions, celebrated its own deed and vowed to persist in it. Asked whether what they were doing was right, Senators Booker and Hirono answered directly—the others did so indirectly—that this was the right way to proceed with a person whose jurisprudence was so objectionable. Whether they know whose footsteps they are following matters little. What matters a lot is that our ruling class does not deal and will never again deal with their opponents as fellow citizens. Theirs was a quintessentially revolutionary act, after which there is no stepping back. The “resistance” worked. You may have won the last election, said the ruling class. But we’re still in charge. Indeed, they are. And they might stay that way. But human nature ensures that people reply, and repay….
….By dropping all pretense of ruling for the common good; by presuming that they embody the law (Laws-R-Us); by instituting various kinds of boycotts (Institutions-R-Us); by using the strongest, most motivating language toward opponents; by inciting all manner of violence; by death-gripping their privileges; by using their positions’ powers in government and social institutions at or beyond their extreme edge; the people who occupy the government’s and society’s institutions continue to remove whatever deference the institutions (by the authority of which they rule) had inspired. They increasingly stand before their opponents, naked. By daring their opponents to capture these positions in any way possible, and to use them in the same way, they threw down a gantlet that is now being picked up….
…Unattainable, and gone forever, is the whole American Republic that had existed for some 200 years after 1776. The people and the habits of heart and mind that had made it possible are no longer a majority. Progressives made America a different nation by rejecting those habits and those traditions. As of today, they would use all their powers to prevent others from living in the manner of the Republic…
So much of it is specifically American, and refers to that republic’s unique and thus far extraordinarily durable Constitution. Not unlike Britain’s own unwritten but hitherto adhered to rulebook. Yet the pathological behaviour exhibited by the losers since Trump’s election reflects exactly the hate driven refusal of the snubbed Remainers.
William Roper: So now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s. And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law – for my own safety’s sake.
I’m lifting this brief post from the very smart and witty Steven Hayward at the peerless Powerline, which apart from anything else, has five regular writers who are absolute role models for concise and pithy blog posting. Here is the essence of Steve’s piece, referring to the work of Michael Uhlmann, about whom I know very little. He is though, a master of the unwritten law:
Like Uhlmann’s law of legislative analysis:
If an Act of Congress has a long title—lock up the children and run for cover.
Or Uhlmann’s Razor:
When stupidity seems a sufficient explanation, there is no need for recourse to any more elaborate analysis.
Uhlmann’s Razor also has a corollary known as Uhlmann’s First Law of Historical Causation:
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
And my personal favorite:
When evaluating the soundness of any moral proposition, law, rule, or regulation, however popular, to ascertain its true meaning, read it aloud slowly in a German accent.
You don’t have to be a dyed in the wool Republican, or generally lean towards the conservative end of politics, to be shocked by the events of this last week, in Washington. I have no doubt that the legions of Hillary fans and Trump haters will have said to themselves “thank God it’s not happening to me or my family“, as they contemplated the attempted evisceration of Brett Kavanaugh, on the incredible grounds that he is a rapist manqué.
And I mean incredible in the sense of not being credible. What the hell is going on?
Well, aside from sheer politics, there is an undercurrent of plain old evil here. Lots of people have commented on it. I have no idea if others mean evil in a religious sense, or just bad behaviour. I specifically mean the former, and I know that would get me laughed at in what passes for polite society. In following UK politics you will encounter all sorts of badness, solipsistic idiocy, bullying, arrogance and many many other vices. And that’s just Alastair Campbell. But evil? Not so much.
Accusing a man of rape, knowing there to be no evidence is undoubtedly evil. Attempting to wreck the lives of his wife and children is evil. Abandoning the presumption of innocence is evil (and foolish*****).
Surely we can all agree on this, in theory at least***. So why would you do that?
I get the “all’s fair in love and war” cliche. I know that politics is a rough game, although part of the problem is that the judiciary should stand apart from politics, and doesn’t. I know that the Supreme Court stakes are very high for all parties. But this latest assault on Kavanaugh is something else, something much darker.
Again, this is not a left/right thing. Any reasonable person should be appalled. The fact that it’s still being pursued is a mark of how strong, the evil impulse is. It is not politics as normal. It is nothing to do with investigating sexual assault. The latter is being cynically used as a vehicle by people who have in fact routinely supported sexual abusers.
Back to religion. Give up reading now, if you are groaning inwardly, but the truth is that Charles Baudelaire – no stranger to evil, by his own admission – was right when he stated: la plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas. Most people will be able to work that one out: the devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.
He has a point.
When ISIS, or Mexican drug cartels do their now almost banal torturing people to death, we can all agree, that’s evil. It’s also mostly in a land far away, removed from our comfortable existences. And we do use the word evil in describing them, we also use the words devilish, demonic, and hellish, and rightly so. But this week in Washington it has been in our own backyard, metaphorically. You don’t have to saw heads off to merit the use of these terms.
I trust that it will still end well, with the manifestly innocent Kavanaugh being eventually confirmed, although badly battered, and that the very real problem of sexual abuse will return to being a crime worthy of investigation and punishment – not a handy weapon for evil people to attack their opponents with.
To quote the eloquent Effie Deans, a voice of reason on this side of the pond: The madness that has taken over the United States is such that people’s lives are being ruined because of unsubstantiated allegations that go back decades. If we allow this to become the norm then our politics will simply become impossible.
That’s the practical problem**. The moral problem goes much, much deeper. Until recently this theme of evil, and dealing with the Devil in order to get ahead, would have been widely understood . The whole Faust legend, embedded in Western culture in numerous forms is a perfect example of that (see the top picture). Dante, Milton, Goethe, Bosch, Berlioz, Pasolini, Bresson, Dostoevsky, Chesterton and innumerable others all created masterpieces from this, the temptation that resonates with every person. As recently as 2011, a movie on Faust won the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion prize. This timeless dealmaking didn’t come out of nowhere, nor did it come out of superstition. It was probably easier to understand the ways of the world 400 years ago than it is now.