‘Revolt of the Public’ comes out today

December 4, 2018

Today is publication day for the new edition of my book, The Revolt of the Public.  In a gorgeous design by Stripe Press (see above), with upgraded images and graphics, this new edition includes a foreword from Arnold Kling and a long section updating the thesis of the book into the age of Trump and Brexit.  If you’ve read the e-book, this edition is more than worth it.  If you haven’t read the e-book, then you must read this…

The Revolt of the Public is about politics, in the US and around the world, but at a deeper level it connects with the themes familiar to readers of this blog.  The alarms raised about the public’s nihilism and the self-satisfied decadence of the elites turn fundamentally on moral questions, even if the field on which they will play out is political.  As I explicitly make clear, a possible path out of our current chaos goes through personal behavior – our choices as citizens – rather than government programs or grand ideologies.

You can get the hardcover or Kindle versions of the book on Amazon (hardcover link below) – an Audiobook is available as well.

Please pass the word.



Democracy and its contradictions: Revolt

September 5, 2018

[The following is the third of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.  Here are links to part one and part two.]

The destruction and dismemberment of the Soviet Union at the hands of Russian nationalists was a prophetic event, though few grasped this at the time.  Nations bundled together under the abstract principles fashionable after World War I were coming undone:  Yugoslavia in 1992, Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Levant in 2011.  This, too, passed unperceived within any unified field of vision.  A tidal wave of particularism, of political fragmentation, was about to sweep over the globe, leaving little untouched.  None saw it coming, and only a handful, even after the fact, understood what had transpired.

The overwhelming reality at the end of the Cold War was the triumph of the last universal doctrine:  liberal democracy.  American elites interpreted the conflict, retroactively, as an ideological equation working toward a single inescapable solution.  Democratic nations would show the way.  Undemocratic nations, with a little help from the marketplace, would become democratic.  No alternatives existed.  The world had arrived at the fulfillment of history:  “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Francis Fukuyama’s thesis has been the object of much criticism and derision, yet it was and remains, in its essence, correct.  No universal system challenged liberal democracy in 1989, when Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?”  None can be found today.  In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, some argued that religion had provided a challenger:  specifically, that Islam was at war with democracy.  But the Taliban, in Afghanistan, is a tribal entity.  The Islamist groups the US has engaged militarily, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are sectarian and particularistic, closer in spirit to Hitler’s worship of the mystical volk than to any universal principle.  Whatever bonds of faith and behavior are meant by “Islam,” the fact remains that there is no political unit with that name.  Islamist grievance derives exactly from this fact.

If humanity is foreordained to reach universal governance, then the future must necessarily be democratic and transnational.  That was Fukuyama’s insight.  In the placid afterglow of the Cold War, many intelligent people imagined that the hour of destiny had arrived.  V. S. Naipaul, nobody’s idea of a dreamer, could write in the 1990s of “our universal civilization.”  But universalism is a choice, not a historical necessity of any sort:  and democracy holds within itself the possibility of striking off in another direction.  Even at the height of its prestige, having knocked out the last totalitarian champion, democracy remained caught in contradiction.   It promotes individual freedom and tolerates an immense amount of contingency.  An individual may seek meaning or identity in difference:  qualities that separate a person, group, or nation from the human herd.  The democratic system that seemed, in 1989, like the “final form of human government,” allowed plenty of room for the particular.  Fukuyama’s Hegelian argument failed to take this dialectic into account.

The Cold War had locked two opposed universal doctrines into postures of rigid confrontation.  With the withering away of Marxism-Leninism, contingency rushed back into history – and was immediately cashed in.

So we enter the present moment with the forces of particularism and fragmentation utterly dominant.  Democracy contained this choice, and great numbers of the public, in many parts of the world, have so chosen.  For the first time since the defeat of fascism and National Socialism, nationalism has been re-sanctified.  Though accused of being a “populist” stance, it is popular enough to help win elections in the US, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere.  Certain features of twenty-first century nationalism recall the fascist past.  The nation, locus of meaning and identity, is said to be in precipitous decline:  it must be saved from its tormentors.  Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” while Vladimir Putin’s calling has been to rescue Russia from the mutilated corpse of the USSR.  History, carrier of the universalist plague, has become the enemy.  Transnational aggregations of power, far from being ethically superior, have assumed the part played by the Jew under Hitler:  that of self-serving manipulators of national decadence.  Thus the European Union has been charged by Viktor Orbán of Hungary with “stealthily devouring ever more slices of our national sovereignty.” In a similar temper, the British public has voted to break loose from the EU – first overt shock dealt to the old order by the particularist revolt.

The contrasts with historic fascism, however, are much more striking and fundamental.  The nation, in politics, is always a lever:  a pivot-point.  For Hitler and Mussolini, nationalism was the pretext for conscripting the public into a mass movement controlled by the totalitarian state.  Only through the dictatorship of the avatar could particularism come to life:  this was the leadership principle.  Today the political polarities have been reversed.  Power erupts from the bottom upwards.  Modern government, perceived as a putrid “swamp,” elicits repudiations no less ferocious than those aimed at transnational organizations.  Both are in the hands of an elite class intent on foisting alien abstractions – multiculturalism, political correctness, “swinish capitalism,” economic globalization – on unsettled societies.  This governing class has become the target of the public’s rage.  Contemporary nationalism, in brief, is at war with national government – at war, it may be, against every form of authority.  The leadership principle dissolves into rant and ridicule in the age of social media.  Unlike the elaborate justifications for fascism and National Socialism, the anti-authority impulse lacks a coherent ideology.  It gives no thought to a mythical past or a revolutionary future:  therefore, its negations often resemble an escape to nihilism.

The nation, today, is a pivot to fractured identities.  Even as Britain demanded a break with the EU, the Scottish government has demanded a break with Britain.  The democratically elected officers of Catalonia were thrown in prison by the democratically elected government of Spain, to forestall secession.  In the US, state and local Lilliputians have learned to lash down the Gulliver of federal authority.  Republican governors fought a relatively successful guerrilla war in the courts against Obama administration policies.  Local jurisdictions “resisting” Trump have openly proclaimed their refusal to enforce federal laws.  At the top of the pyramid, where fascism posited the greatest concentration of political strength, one now finds weakness and failure.  David Cameron tried to keep Britain in the EU and failed.  His successor, Theresa May, tried to negotiate a divorce from the EU and has so far failed at that.  Angela Merkel wished to insert a transformed, tolerant Germany at the center of a multicultural empire.  Her policies have broken her power at home and boosted the electoral fortunes of anti-EU forces in Europe.

Absent the dictator to signify the center, the mass migration from the universal to the particular has gotten lost among a tangle of narrow and contradictory pathways.  The exercise of personal freedom has sometimes wandered beyond politics to private islands of identity, inaccessible to the rest of humanity.  “I am,” a young person assures us (by way of illustration), “queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able bodied.”  Each label here denotes a boundary in the space open to debate.  To speak “as a woman” or “as a gay person” is to reject the possibility that outsiders can penetrate the group’s perspective on truth.  Those who try can be silenced by the charge of “cultural appropriation”:  that is, theft of sectarian property.  But the accumulation of labels leaves the bearer entombed in a private and subjective reality.  Communication with the world, including one’s fellow citizens, is scarcely possible.  Participation in liberal democracy, as currently practiced, is scarcely possible.  The individual can only make claims and demands on the whole.

At this point, the flight to the particular has left nationalism and even sectarianism far behind, to plunge into a featureless landscape darkened by loneliness and grievance.  The nihilist temptation – the wish to re-enter the world by smashing at it – is always present, close at hand.


The triumphant doctrines of the last 100 years have held history to be the handmaiden of universal abstractions.

Under this scheme, government’s task is to realize abstractions in a scientific manner.  The objective of politics is predetermined:  the end of history in a rational, humanitarian society.  Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the methods of politics are expected to be democratic and peaceful.  The dictatorship of the proletariat has gone out of business.  Revolution has fallen out of favor.  This engenders much uncertainty about when and how the golden age will arrive – but the line of progress is clear enough.  Fukuyama wrote confidently about “a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines.”  Twenty years later, Barack Obama could still chide global actors he disapproved of with being “on the wrong side of history.”

The natural form of government for such an interpretation of history is heavily top down and obedient to expert opinion.  Political disputes occur over technical matters, within a narrow band of possibilities.  The big picture is given to those in the know.  They own the map to the future, and differences among them are tactical, almost sporting.  This is the ideology of the political and intellectual elites who have run the world since the end of World War I.  The democratic carnage of the twentieth century, they believe, has been justified by its teleology.  It was the price of admission to the next stage of human evolution.  Without the vision of ordained human progress, the elite class can imagine only moral horror or political chaos:  that is, fascism or anarchy.

Nonetheless, a substantial portion of the public is now defecting from this austere, abstract system.  The movement represents a reinsertion of the particular into democratic politics, and the return of contradiction, and hence of contingency, into history.  The rise of a strangely personalized nationalism is only part of the story.  An exaltation of freedom contradicts, without ever grappling with, a culture of endless grievance.  The lack of a unifying ideology is willful:  doctrine means oppression, an unacceptable reduction in the range of possibilities.  In truth, all politics are now willful.  There is no priestly caste to interpret the future, no predestined utopia, no religion of progress or science.  There is only the human will – what Ronald Reagan called “the energy and individual genius of man” – pitted against the gathered forces of history.  By a process of association, the elite class has been condemned to play the part of history in the present drama.

The public is less interested in governing or justifying the past than in disturbing the peace in the present.

In the middle of the scuffle one finds, inevitably, the question of equality.  That too has returned with a vengeance, though also with the lack of clarity typical of our age.  The established order, ideological to the core, seems unable to consider the concept without becoming entangled in archaic, almost meaningless formulas.  Thomas Piketty’s attack on capitalism thus recapitulates Marx and the forgotten world of the nineteenth century, with one crucial difference:  in the place of revolution, Piketty inserts a tax on the rich.  Instead of a new dawn in human relations, the wretched of the earth will get a slightly larger Leviathan.  The disproportion of ends and means is immediately apparent, and probably self-refuting.

The public in all its iterations, on the right and the left, populist and sectarian, has chased after equality in a manner similarly riddled with political nostalgia and contradiction.  Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator from his Fifth Avenue penthouse to speak on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.”  Trump’s economic policies betray his generational origins:  tax cuts and import tariffs would look at home in the twentieth century.  On the other side of the spectrum, the politics of identity begin with a desperate cry for equality and tolerance but end with demands for special privilege and the silencing of hostile opinion.  “Antifascist” street fighters seek to reprise Berlin of the 1930s in contemporary Berkeley, California.  Digital culture, “a world that is both everywhere and nowhere,” source of so much of the political turmoil in the real world, preached in its origins a flower-child version of egalitarianism.  Today a handful of giant corporations decide, opaquely, most of what can be said and done online.

The universal ideologies that rivaled religion in the past century appear exhausted at last.  The public has sickened of a diet of abstractions:  it has deeper needs, and is moving to supply them in the particular, that is, in the nation, the sect, and the self.  In the flight from the universal, the public has scattered all over the landscape – and a question for democracy is how citizens can communicate intelligibly at such immense distances from one another.  Particularism, by definition, means fragmentation.  Pure assertion of political will, absent a program, ends with a babble of angry voices.  The lack of a conceptual framework, now confused with liberation, is in fact an unsurmountable obstacle to finding common ground.

Yet to be persuasive, even feasible, any such framework must first wrestle with the contradictions inherent to the idea of equality.  This isn’t a search for Platonic definitions.  The concept must be adjusted and made accessible to the digital age.  The fundamental question is whether equality is seen to entail the expansion of freedom or a decrease in difference.  All else follows from this choice, and each direction carries a long train of secondary questions.  How much actual inequality, for example, can be absorbed as the price of freedom?  What means of promoting equality can be considered legitimate in an open, democratic society?  Should speech be controlled to protect marginal groups or persons?  How wide is the circle of acceptable political dispute?  What lies beyond the pale?

Much intellectual work needs to be done.  It might be argued that, in a fractured environment, this effort might amount to nothing more than talking to oneself:  but that is an exaggeration.  Half the human race speaks English and is connected through Facebook.  One can dine on kimshi in Fairfax County, Virginia, and on Kentucky Fried Chicken in Seoul, South Korea.  In strictly descriptive terms, Naipaul (as usual) got it right.  The outlines of a universal civilization are visible from every corner of the earth.  The task is precisely to endow this civilization with democratic content.  This is a tall order, to be sure, but not an impossibility, and certainly not a reason for self-fulfilling pessimism.

Democracy and its contradictions: Revolution

September 1, 2018

[The following is the second of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.  Here is a link to part one.]

The end of World War II found the universalist principle everywhere triumphant.

The two superpowers that inherited the world represented the two poles of democratic universalism at its most stringent and abstract.  The United States, Lincoln had insisted at Gettysburg, stood apart from other nations in being dedicated to a “proposition”:  that all were created equal.  The history of the country could be interpreted as an immense odyssey, full of mishaps and struggle, toward the conclusions made necessary by this premise.  Given the persistence of Jim Crow and political bossism, much distance remained on the journey – yet progress along this virtuous trajectory, by itself, allowed Americans to reject the contradiction between equality and freedom.  To the American mind, both were God-given.  Lincoln’s proposition unlocked an extensive domain of contingency in which everything became possible, including the reconciliation of the universal to the particular.  The work of government, therefore, was to protect the rights of the individual in his pilgrimage to that vast frontier, no less than to enforce equality.

Despite the inevitable contradictions of American society, the US government assumed leadership of the free world as a universal mandate, unencumbered by hypocrisy or irony.

The Soviet Union, for its part, espoused universal doctrines at their most extreme – but with a difference.  Stalin ruled a one-party dictatorship in the name of democracy, and he institutionalized state terror to impose equality.  The moral inversions of revolution were for him extended indefinitely in time.  The USSR was governed as if by a small band of conspirators, with constant denunciations of “deviationists” and “saboteurs,” opaquely sectarian trials, and deportations, assassinations, and massacres on an unprecedented scale.  The bloodshed was sanctified in the birth of a “new man”:  Marxism-Leninism always claimed ownership of the perfect future.  That was its seductive charm.  The classless society, final solution to all human contradictions, hovered just beneath the horizon.  Stalin invented the totalitarian state and terrorized his own people to end, by brute force, the oppressive cycles of history.  After two world wars, many thoughtful observers were willing to embrace this Faustian bargain.

The 45-year collision between the US and the USSR – that is, between unequal freedom and undemocratic equality – has been called the Cold War, but the label scarcely does justice to the realities of the age.  Tens of millions were put to death in the Marxist nations alone, an ideology-driven crime spree that has yet to receive full accounting.  The battleground nations – Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola – suffered almost as severely.

The conflict was perceived to be a “war of ideas,” and was hedged with abstractions to a degree unmatched even by the Wars of Religion of the seventeenth century.  Universal principles were inflated to the full dimensions of reality, squeezing out the exceptional and the particular.  Nationalism was masked in revolutionary jargon.  Dictatorships became “democratic republics.”  The hot wars of the period were fought for universal reasons in inconsequential places like Korea and Nicaragua.  The United Nations, a conflicted, inept bureaucracy, nonetheless retained a sort of science-fictional legitimacy as global arbiter.  Other transnational institutions proliferated with abandon, for purposes of war and peace:  NATO, SEATO, the Warsaw Pact, the World Trade Organization, COMECON, the Common Market, the various tariff-reduction “rounds.”

Given the terms of the struggle, advantage lay with whichever side could claim the most complete and sincere surrender to democratic universalism.  By a curious paradox, this largely favored the totalitarian state.  It had crushed individual freedom, ostentatiously, on behalf of “real” democracy and economic justice.  The revolutionary faith tolerated judgment only from the skewed perspective of the future:  all present horrors would be applauded retrospectively.  In the decades after World War II, Marxism-Leninism spread far beyond the European homeland, penetrating nations, Furet writes, with little previous exposure to democracy or Christianity.  American failure to hold on to South Vietnam gave this tendency the feel of inevitability.  Hordes of Western artists and intellectuals jumped on the Soviet bandwagon, afraid to be left behind by history.

In contrast, the US faced the charge that it was a merely bourgeois democracy:  an empire of selfishness and alienation festering under the cover of individual rights.  Marxist analysis, which many intellectuals endorsed, denied the universal reach of the American adventure.  To be bourgeois was to be ruled by money – the most repulsive kind of particularism.  Events, from Vietnam and race riots to campus revolts and the baffling Watergate scandal, appeared to confirm that the nation was indeed a house divided.  By 1979, a sitting president could warn of “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives” and “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Yet Jimmy Carter was an anomaly.  US governments and elites responded to the Cold War with a sustained effort to align national life with the universal abstractions it was expected to embody.  The particularism of the South with regards to race was finally obliterated.  Local political machines were reformed out of existence.  The welfare state grew enormously to compensate for the inequalities of freedom.  Intermediate entities, like the states and the parties, were drained of much of their authority.  The presidency towered over politics, and the political process was made more inclusive and democratic, hence more unpredictable.  From 1945 to 1980, the pull of the universal transformed American society.  The election of Ronald Reagan completed the process by raising to office the most visionary American leader since Woodrow Wilson – and the most militant defender of personal freedom, it may be, since Thomas Jefferson.


There is no doubt that material causes featured prominently in the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The Soviet economy couldn’t compete with the US.  Reagan’s weapons build-up pushed the old men in the Kremlin to desperate measures.  In this context, the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev appear as a forlorn attempt to lash the egalitarianism of the one-party dictatorship to the productive superiority of liberalism.  The gamble proved fatal:  Gorbachev, putative savior of the USSR, made history as its undertaker.  The contradiction he sought to bridge was too immense and fundamental.

Other contradictions, arising from the “war of ideas,” contributed to the downfall of the Soviet system.

The Soviet Union was a nation and an engine of revolution.  It had particular interests and a universal mission.  Tension was inevitable and could not be papered over by phrases like “national Bolshevism” or “socialism in one country.”  Stalin openly stoked Russian patriotism in response to the German invasion of 1941.  The Third International was dissolved in 1943.  After the war, Soviet troops occupied East Europe and set up puppet regimes by brute force rather than revolution.  Revolts were suppressed in blood and iron.  The 1968 “Prague Spring,” which held out hope for “socialism with a human face,” was crushed under the tread of Soviet tanks – alienating, at long last, much of the European intellectual class.  At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began a long march to particularism that would end only with its own dismemberment.  The schism with Mao Zedong’s China was a decisive juncture along this path.  If the two great Marxist-Leninist nations were now divorced, who retained ownership of the future?

The idea of revolution stood at the heart of the riddle.  Revolution was the reason for the Soviet Union’s existence, yet by the 1960s the heirs to October 1917 ruled over a nuclear superpower and a restive empire.  Radical political change was a threat, not a friend.  Neither Marx nor his philosophy of history, in any case, had much to say about the atomic age. The fires of Leninism had failed to forge a new Soviet humanity:  the classless society, like the Christian end-times, retreated to the realm of myth and hope.  At the same time, the savagery of the Soviet past, long buried under a mass of propaganda, began to seep into the light.  Khrushchev repudiated Stalin’s “cult of personality,” before being shunted off to make way for a succession of cautious Party apparatchiks.  The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 showed the totalitarian state to be (in the words of Bernard-Henri Lévy) “barbarism with a human face.”  Intellectuals in need of revolutionary heroes began to look outside the USSR, among exotic avatars like Mao and Castro.  Yet these men were nationalists rather than world redeemers – and Mao’s regime displayed, to the edge of madness, every pathological excess associated with the dream of revolution.

It took a genuine proletarian revolution in Gdansk, Poland, in 1981, to confront the Marxist-Leninist system with the sum of its paralyzing contradictions.  The Polish proletariat demanded freedom from the dictatorship of the proletariat.  It chose indeterminacy over equality.  In the national elections of June 1989 it got just that, setting in motion the process that would lead, five months later, to the fall of the Berlin wall and the cracking apart of the Soviet empire in East Europe.

Democracy and its contradictions: Reaction

August 31, 2018

[The following is the first of three posts inspired by a reading of François Furet’s magnificent history of the “idea of Communism,” The Passing of an Illusion.]

Democracy is caught in a contradiction:  between universal claims of equality and particularist claims about individual freedom.

Equality makes no exceptions.  This principle planed away the categorical differences in status inherited from aristocratic society – noble/bourgeois /peasant, man/woman, etc.  Henceforth all were “citizens.”  All were, in some transcendent way, equal members of the democratic nation in the first instance, but also equal and undifferentiated members of the great movement toward a democratic international order that would impose justice without borders.

Equality, in short, is the necessary foundation for the many-mansioned house of democracy.

Freedom of the individual is more closely associated with liberalism.  In the liberal vision, the individual, shielded by rights and protections against the tyranny of others, must be free to find his way, express his thoughts, and accumulate wealth as he sees fit, within the law.  For Furet, the accumulation of wealth is the chief attribute of bourgeois society.  Even if one finds this characterization too simple (and too French), there can be no question that competition for wealth is one attribute of liberal society.  This activity can never be described in universal terms.  It’s private and particular.  The end result is an enormous disparity in wealth and influence between supposedly equal citizens.  Freedom, in other words, entails indeterminacy and inequality, while democracy demands an unchanging and universal ideal of equality.

The nation stands at the pivot-point of contradiction.  Nationhood can be conceived in universal terms, as it was in the French Revolution and the revolts of 1848.  In those cases, the democratic nation was seen as a beach-head in the overthrow of the Old Regime and the establishment of a rational new international system.  Conceived in particularist terms, however, the nation is a mere aggregate of private ambition and interests, played out in a territorial theater that must be defended, or even expanded, at other nations’ expense.  This was the mindset of manifest destiny and of the men who led Europe into World War I.  The assertion of nationality uber alles is willful and therefore indeterminate:  liberalism can elide into ethnic or racialist thinking, in which the nation stands opposed to the state, or it can fracture even more microscopically along group or personal “identity” lines.

In neither instance is the nation a stable end in itself.  As a source of meaning and an object of loyalty unto death, the nation is always a stage on the way to something greater or something more intimate than itself.


According to Furet, World War I, the first fully democratic war, ripped open the contradiction at the heart of democracy.  Whole societies threw all they had at one another.  The original war aims were particularistic – Alsace-Lorraine, overseas colonies – and entire populations went to battle in a spirit of exalted patriotism.  But four years of fruitless slaughter demanded a reinterpretation commensurate with the sacrifice.  Woodrow Wilson waged war for the “liberation of peoples,” by which he meant some impossible mix of democracy and “national sovereignty.”  Lenin blamed the war on bourgeois greed, even as he reclaimed the mantle of democratic egalitarianism and the glory of revolution.  The historic nations of Europe, which had grown organically around a monarchy and were governed by a muddle of principles and classes, were destroyed in the conflict.  They were replaced by abstractions.  Four great empires were butchered on the altar of national sovereignty.  The smaller inheritor states, Furet comments, were just as mutually hostile and ethnically incoherent:  but they were blessed by a universalist grace.

Whatever the role of the bourgeoisie, the war was in essence a failure of the nation-state system.  The narrow claims of nationality had loosened the red-rimmed tide that nearly drowned European civilization.  By 1918, appeals to particularism had lost all purchase on the political and intellectual classes.  Two universal principles of legitimacy for governments and nations confronted each other over the wreckage of war:  representative democracy, internationalized through the League of Nations, and revolutionary equality, propagated by the Third International.

Almost at once, a powerful reaction set it.  In the context of specific histories and societies, both democracy and revolution could assume the aspect of alien and destructive forces.  In Germany and Italy, the nation was amputated from history and the state, and made to stand for an abstraction:  the volk, the chosen people, with eternally frustrated claims to greatness.  German-ness and Italian-ness had nothing to do with one’s passport.  It was a mystical extract of blood and memory (that is, fictitious history), articulated by the two avatars, Hitler and Mussolini.  The fulfillment of the nation, like the classless society, lay in the far future.  The method of getting there, borrowed from the Bolsheviks, was to be revolution and dictatorship.  It was never clear that the mass of people shared the pacifism and anti-nationalism of the intellectuals.  Then as now, the people craved identity and meaning.  The new particularist movements sought to oblige with cinematic spectacles and a radical conception of the nation as an instrument of war.

The future between the wars was crowded with anti-democratic stakeholders.  The question, for a person of good faith, was whether history belonged to the particular or the universal, embodied in “totalitarian” regimes of the right and the left.  Only armed conflict could settle the matter.  If, as Furet remarks, World War I seemed inexplicable in terms of what preceded it, World War II was inevitable.  Hitler’s program demanded a conflagration, just as it demanded a holocaust of “non-Aryan” peoples under his control.  National Socialism had placed a transcendental burden on the particular.  That burden could be eased only through the conquest and extermination of lesser races.  The Nazis, it should be clear, stood far removed from the simple nationalism of 1914.

The catastrophic defeat and dissolution of these regimes in the cauldron of World War II negated their chief claim to legitimacy:  that of national strength.  With the ignoble deaths of the avatars, the “leadership principle,” last word in particularism, stood refuted.  German chancellors of the postwar period would seek to expiate rather than dominate.  Italian prime ministers would head national governments almost denuded of effective power.  Yet even defeat was not as damning as the visual evidence, broadcast by the victors, showing Hitlerism to have been a death cult that sacrificed millions to the ravenous gods of ideology.  Totalizing the particular had always meant, in principle, the end of any space for social or ethnic difference:  but films of the extermination camps exposed, irrefutably, the moral horror of that principle in action.

The appeal of revolutionary particularism to public opinion and intellectual tastes was in this way extinguished, if not forever (there’s no forever in history) then certainly to the present hour.  Today fascism and Hitler live on strictly as empty labels and boogeymen – the worst kind of political insults.

Christ, Christianity, and Christmas

December 24, 2017

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of the man the Greek gospels call Jesus Christ:  that is, “Joshua the Savior.”  He is worshipped by Christians the world over as the son of God, but all acknowledge his humanity, and it is the human aspect of Jesus that I would like to consider.  No man has had a larger impact on how we understand right and wrong, or on how, in consequence, we wish to behave.

It is remarkable how little we know about Jesus, and how well we know him.  We don’t know when he was born.  December 25 is just a convention, probably borrowed from the Roman carnival of Saturnalia.  We don’t know what he looked like or what he sounded like, though in an age of face-to-face persuasion his physical presence must have been charismatic in a literal sense, and his voice (Life of Brian notwithstanding) must have carried over the multitudes.

He was a middle-class boy, a carpenter’s son from the hilltop town of Nazareth – a place with a view of the far distance.  Those who watched him grow up there apparently considered him a perfectly normal person, and couldn’t imagine he would amount to much.

He was a wonder worker.  While he lived, that was the quality that set him apart from other men, and gave weight to his words.  There was a hidden power in the carpenter’s son, a force that could be felt even in the hem of his cloak, and it allowed him to bring the dead back to life, and give sight to the blind.  In our rational age, this claim has been a source of embarrassment to some.  Thomas Jefferson famously tried to write a gospel without miracles, which is like rewriting Moby Dick without the whale.  Others, less well disposed (see Life of Brian, above), have ridiculed without mercy the miraculous side of Jesus.

From the perspective of morality, the wisest take on the subject comes from the 1953 movie, The Robe.  In it, crazed Emperor Caligula takes the skeptic’s position, screeching, “Do you expect us to believe these stories that this Jesus could heal by the touch of his hand… make the crippled walk and the blind see again?”  To which Richard Burton, playing the tribune who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus, replies:  “It makes no difference whether you believe them or not, Sire.  All that matters is that there’s no story that he made anyone blind.  There’s no story that he made anyone a cripple or ever raised this hand except to heal.”

Jesus was a teacher, a rebbe.  He interpreted Scripture and Law in the synagogues of Galilean towns – including Capernaum, where a very fine synagogue of that time has been discovered.  Often, he went beyond the letter of the law, to what he maintained was its true intent.  He thought, along with many in his day, that a great upheaval was coming, and he preached a moral transformation to make Israel worthy of God’s judgment.

The wealthy and the powerful, the lawyers and intellectuals earned his scorn:  they were “whitewashed sepulchers,” brilliant outside but full of corruption inside.  Like his miracles, the anti-establishment side of Jesus has been a problem for comfortably established Christians.  His condemnation of the rich surely inspired modern-day socialists and Marxists:  there is a sense in which Marxism can be understood as a Christian heresy.  But one shouldn’t make too much of this.  Jesus saw in poverty a glorification of the spirit, whereas Marx, a materialist, wanted to abolish poverty.

Jesus was probably the first pacifist.  He taught, “Resist not evil.”  This too was an exaltation of the spirit over physical power, and it is, I confess, the Christian doctrine I find most troublesome – though one, luckily, that has yet to be implemented in any Christian country.

I said that most people think they know Jesus well.  If we were asked to wrap up Jesus in a single word, that word, let me suggest, would be “forgiveness.”  He offended the orthodox because he forgave law-breakers, and affirmed that God forgave them too.

Today we live in harsh times, with videos of beheadings and sexual predations just one click away from one’s monitor.  But we can form no idea of true harshness:  of the unforgiving nature of the ancient world.  Even the best and noblest of the ancients, like the Athenians, showed scant acquaintance with compassion.  Everyone believed in winning.  Everyone equated greatness with goodness.  To be poor was not only a misfortune but a disgrace.

That this world is beyond our comprehension is due entirely to Jesus.  He introduced into human morality a nobility far loftier than any imagined by the Greeks (though glimpsed, it may be, by Socrates, who reasoned that it was better to suffer wrong than to inflict it).  The strong, we now believe, exist to protect the weak.  The rich, we make certain, are taxed to support the poor.

The human spirit isn’t always, or even usually, enriched by winning:  those who retain their dignity in great adversity, those who suffer well, are the spiritual equivalent of conquistadors.  First among these was Jesus himself, who cried from the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  I don’t know a more moving question in religion, or a more frightening insight into the loneliness of the human heart.

In imitation of Jesus, we seek to forgive.  Being human, we often fail:  we bear grudges and look to even scores.  But unlike the Athenians of old, we feel this behavior is petty, ignoble, unworthy of a moral adult.  We know too well how much forgiving we each require, and we hope our community – which is, ultimately, the human race – finds the generosity of spirit to wave away our transgressions.  In the physics of morality, we move upward only when others are raised above us.

Happy birthday, Joshua of Nazareth.

In praise of inferior

November 21, 2017

I write in praise of inferior.  I want to defend inferior and protect it from all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Honestly, I want a lot more than that.  I want to deepen and expand the thing.  I want to proliferate it until the word rings sweetly in every mouth, on every occasion, everywhere:  “Inferior to this.”  “Inferior to that.”

And yes:  “Inferior to them.”

I nail my theses to the church door in despite of the popes and cardinals of contemporary culture.  They, who should embody this distinction, now groan under the weight of it, and pretend that it has no meaning, and incite the multitudes against those who dare to bring up the subject in public.

Inferior is awkward to the democrat.  If you believe in equality, the word sticks in your throat.  More importantly, if you are a member of the elites, the word gives away who you are.  Inferior entails superior, and superior smacks of privilege and entitlement.  Nobody cares to go there – least of all the privileged and entitled.  Better to clench a fist, strike a radical egalitarian pose.  You evade invidious comparisons and troublesome questions about human worth.

And didn’t Jesus say, in two Gospels, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”?

Yet we can’t avoid judging or being judged.  Even to say that we shouldn’t is a judgment.  My praise of inferior, therefore, begins with this trivial observation:  it’s inescapable.


At every turn, we encounter choices.  Some are mundane:  should I buy the black shirt or the white?  Some are moral and life-deciding:  should I cheat on my wife with this hot female?  Others are political, commercial, geographical, health-driven, career-oriented, cosmic.  Possibilities are limited only by the scope of the imagination.  But the sum of such choices amount to what we mean by “a human life.”  Far more than any ethnic or sexual givens, they determine identity:  who and what we are.

Now suppose that no standards existed for choosing.  Every moment is wide open:  pick this or that, doesn’t matter, anything goes.  How can I hope to become me, under such conditions?  In that unbounded existential space, identity must be pulled apart.  Behavior must turn indecisive and random.  I might take a year to decide which shirt to buy.  That would resemble a certain kind of brain-damaged behavior.  More likely, I might follow any impulse to destructive or even suicidal action, in the manner associated with borderline personality disorder.

The lack of standards I have supposed opens a trap door into the void.  We will grasp at any distinction, cling to any boundary-post, to escape that great fall.

So I apply the principle of inferior.  On some scale of values that I find persuasive, I rank an object (say, the white shirt) below another (the black shirt).  That’s all inferior means:  “below” or “under.”  It’s a locational term, always relative to some other point on the map.  I choose the black shirt over the white.

But choosing isn’t an automatic process:  an algorithm.  Inferior arises out of feelings and reasons.  I know inferior because I hate it.  I loathe being below.  Conversely, I love what is higher and better.  Those feelings guide my behavior and marry my identity to the social and natural worlds.  And I am compelled to explain them, if only to myself.  I offer reasons for choosing.  Even if I say, “It’s a matter of taste,” that’s a reason – a piece of rhetoric open to public debate and contradiction.

Where does the scale of values come from?  More about this in a minute, but the short answer is:  it varies with the situation.  In poor or desperate places, most choices are driven by necessity.  The scale of values measures life and death.  In affluent and safe environments, choices will turn on some interpretation of the ruling culture, including the fashions and tastes of the moment.  The scale then measures social standing.  Despite our romantic notions of selfhood, we never invent or create our values.  We discover them – and ourselves – out of a pre-existing menu, in the act of choosing.


My praise of inferior collides head-on with one of the ruling orthodoxies of the day:  the cult of difference or diversity.

At the aggressive extreme, this faith renders harsh judgments against “white privilege” and particularly white males.  Grand inquisitors hurl anathemas that can be accepted or disputed on merit.  It is the passive interpretation of diversity, however, that has become canonical in activities as varied as Federal hiring practices and Hollywood movie plots.  It forbids judging as a mortal sin and proclaims inclusiveness to be the cardinal virtue in human affairs.  All origins and beliefs and conditions are said to be created equal.  All cultures are of identical worth.  All body shapes are indistinguishable.  Differences aren’t to choose among but to embrace.  Nothing human, on principle, can be below or above.

In a few short steps, we are removed from the valley of the shadow of choice to a flat featureless plain, on the very rim of the void.

There, the beatific vision is of a world in which all individuals “feel valued for their unique qualities.”  Prayer takes the form of lengthy litanies of stereotyped human difference:  “We embrace and encourage… differences in age, color, disability, ethnicity, family or marital status, gender identity or expression, language, national origin, physical and mental ability, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, veteran status, and other characteristics…”  One can almost hear in this recitation the monophonic tones of the Gregorian chant.

Because diversity partakes of the sacred, arguments hinge on who you are, not what you say.  For the same reason, however, personal identity is reduced to the display, at critical moments, of a multitude of differences, in the manner of a peacock fanning out its tail:  “I am queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able-bodied.”

The social function of this strange assault on choice and identity can be debated.  What began with a humanitarian impulse long ago became a mechanism of institutional stereotyping and control.  “I am queer, trans, Chinese American” is a quick-draw argument-killer.  My own guess is that the abolition of inferior leaves elites comfortably justified in their dealings with inferiors.  They needn’t bother to do much about any, since all, in the end, can be dismissed as “unique.”


The dogma of neutral or passive diversity rests on a fallacy.  It starts with a grand judgment – that all human differences are equal and equally good – but then proceeds to block all further judgments.  How can we know that all differences are good?  The original judgment feels a priori and is plainly contradicted by empirical reality.  In the Levant today, large numbers are dying because of small differences.  But to say “The persecution of difference is wrong” is to condemn a certain kind of difference.  It’s a judgment that must be based on something.  The a priori argument collapses under the weight of contradiction.  To defend diversity we must enter the realm of feelings and reasons:  that is, of choice, and true identity, and the recurrence of inferior.

In all this I follow the wise Charles Taylor, who affirms:  “Mere difference can’t itself be the ground of equal value.”  A sound defense of equality, Taylor writes, must in fact “override” differences and look to “some properties, common or complementary, which are of value.”  Similarly, the affirmation of diversity demands more than a belief in diversity:  “we have to share also some standards of value on which the identities concerned check out as equal.”  By any standard, some identities will be judged inferior to others.  So we will have to choose.

But many, I’m guessing, are fearful:  and this widespread fear of choosing goes far to explain our present predicament.  Today we disagree about everything except the moral depravity of society.  On basic questions of respect for life, the sexual bond, and truth-telling, we seem to have lost our bearings.  We judge not but somehow rant a lot.  Inside our comfortable skins, we feel constantly offended and irritated.  We crave answers, direction:  a reformation of manners and morals.

I praise inferior because it alone can get us there.  And the first and most important step is to apply the principle, not to others, but to ourselves.


The reformation of the world begins when I judge myself.  I must wrestle my identity free of cant and stereotype, and ground it in what Martin Luther King would call the content of my character.

It isn’t enough to say “I am queer, trans, Chinese-American.”  Those are descriptors, not moral qualities.  Nor does it add much to assert, as the same author does, “I stand with others against white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy.”  Those are mere opinions.  Parading one’s virtues is a low trait, in any case – the mark of the hypocrite and the Pharisee.

In judging myself, I am aware of hating what is inferior in me.  Yet none of us can measure our true worth:  I’m aware of that too.  I can only conduct my life in the hope that those around me will think, “He’s an honest person,” or “He’s kind to the helpless,” or “When the powerful struck, he had the courage to stand his ground.”

Such statements speak to generally discoverable moral truths.  We have always possessed Taylor’s shared “standards of value” – always loved the highest and hated the lowest – even when we pretended otherwise.

From the reformation of character the next logical step is the public affirmation of those conditions to which a good character should aspire.  I would do this in all humility and guided by truth as I perceive it.  In truth, fat is inferior to fit, for obvious reasons.  Alone is inferior to together – together is inferior to together for life.  Barren is inferior to fruitful.  Weak is inferior to strong.  Let me shun the one and seek the other, knowing that, in truth, we are flawed vessels, and hostages to fortune, and will often fail to attain our highest selves.  But all can inch toward perfection.

Wielding the force of inferior, we can, together, reform public and social life around the standards and conditions we have affirmed.  In the process, we will come to accept that all societies are not created equal.  The Aztecs of Montezuma, say, were inferior to the Athenians of Pericles.  From the latter we got democracy, science, and the theater – from the former, Chihuahuas and chili peppers.  Beyond history, I can say that life in many countries right now is inferior to life in the United States.  I know that because 95 languages were represented at my daughter’s graduating class.


In the last phase of my reformation of morals, I would weigh our elites in the balance.  The function of the class is to embody our aspirations:  to be the best of us.  Against that standard, the Boomers are inferior to the “Greatest Generation,” but the present crowd has fallen a vast distance beneath the worst in living memory.  From the president and his Republican friends to the Democratic opposition and its allies, from business leaders to academic scholars, from thinkers and writers to athletes and artists – who among them can we point to as a model for our children, in either life or work?  How can those who have risen highest sink so sickeningly low, and expect to retain our trust?

They will be swept away.  Or I should say in honesty:  we can sweep them away, and all their works and pomp.  The moral collapse of the old guard is already apparent even in those image-obsessed cities, Washington and Hollywood.  Whether these people are ushered out of history at last, and who or what will take their place – that will depend largely on our choices.

Inferior, I say, is the lever that can move the world.  But it will be up to us to give the necessary push…


Revolt against the world (5): Authenticity

April 11, 2017

This is the last of five posts which inquire into the metaphysical roots of our contemporary sickness:  nihilism.  My objective has been to unearth and map out, in outline at least, the hidden world assumed by words such as “identity,” “validation,” “happiness,” “terrorist,” “scientific,” “humanitarianism.”  Whether I have succeeded even in part, I leave it for the reader to decide.

Together, the posts should be considered a running meditation on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.  While the work is cited once – in the context of the scientific, “geometric point” perspective – it has leavened virtually every word in these reflections.  I also owe a debt to George Weigel’s short piece, “Reality and Public Policy,” which drew my attention to the new Gnosticism and its implications.


“Modern freedom and autonomy,” Charles Taylor has noted, “centers us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity.”  In the generation since those words were written, the quest for identity has taken on a pathological urgency and a baroque preciousness.  All our will and subjectivity was poured into the effort, until identity became both the source and the content of being, effectively cutting us off from ourselves and from the world.

This strange episode will dribble to an end, out of necessity.  Hard reality will crack open the shell of our Gnostic fantasy, and we will crawl out, newly hatched.  Danger will put us on our guard.  Terrible events will confront us, and dreadful decisions, but identity was never, to our minds, a suicide pact, and like members of any healthy species we will be driven to survive.  We will forge new bonds to the social order and select new elites, if only to survive.

That “ideal of authenticity” will remain, as we settle on the terms of our survival.

Authenticity, for us, more than an ideal or a principle of action, is an almost physical hunger for spiritual truth.  We are abstracted from the world and from ourselves.  We expect to live “scientifically,” that is, without enchantment or illusion, as if we were an animal laid open for dissection or a chunk of rubble flying through empty space.  All that matters is force and machinery:  life is reduced to a set of technical problems.  That is true of morality, government, and our daily diet.

An inevitable consequence is the denial of the inner life.  Abstracted from ourselves, it becomes impossible even to say where such inwardness might be located.  There is no soul in the machine, no person to prise apart from impersonal forces.  Our feelings and aspirations are responses to stimuli, to be researched in the laboratory.  The internal is subjective, and in the public sphere we seem unable to speak about ourselves, and others, and the world, except as objects.  A technical language has evolved to throw a discreet veil over our existential appetites.  A whole pharmacopeia of mood-altering substances now exists to stabilize our miseries.

We live by the numbers – and the numbers, however scientific, feel false.

The feeling of the falsity of life is pervasive.  Generations of poets, novelists, film-makers, and artists, from the Romantics to our own postmodern day, have despaired over it, possibly sincerely:  “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”  A long genealogy of thinkers – say Rousseau to the “deconstructionists” – declared war on the world-as-it-is and offered alternatives that were meant to nourish the human spirit:  the cult of nature, the primacy of feeling, the demand for originality, the sublime Übermensch, world revolution, existential commitment, and, of course, the construction of personal identity.

Here is our ancestral lineage.  Here are the brilliant talents that presaged and embodied our Gnostic turn.  We have been taught by these elders that, even if the world is a lie, there is truth within ourselves.  We can get in touch with reality through our deepest feelings – our inner Übermensch.  Authentic existence is possible:  but we must first reject the world.

We came to identity through authenticity, driven by a hunger for spiritual truth.  We begin the ascent to common ground knowing that the way ahead still feels flat and false.


No threat to our survival will compel us to forsake the instrumental stance.  Nor is there much chance that we will give it up entirely, and, like the Amish, turn our backs on technology as the necessary precondition to a spiritual quest.  Too much material knowledge and mastery depends on this mode of dealing with the world – too many of our expectations and institutions have been built on this foundation.  Even theocratic dictatorships today accept polio vaccines and television programs as given.

Science and technology have their place.  The choice we will face concerns the ideal of science as an existential principle:  whether we can, or should, as we select a new elite class, make the “scientific life” our model of human greatness.

Science deals in mystery but not in meaning.  It restricts its field of research to material conditions and the forces that work on them, in an endless cycle of cause and effect.  Pure knowledge, to the scientist, is just such a chain of causation.  He will not search for a higher reality or the music of the spheres:  “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.”  When Richard Dawkins wrote those words, he was projecting his occupational habits onto the world.

Insofar as science extends beyond pure knowledge and penetrates social life, it is as a producer of desirable effects.  It is practical and instrumental.  What counts as desirable, however, falls outside the reach of scientific study.  The community at large decides what is desirable – in democratic nations, we decide, and for good reason.  Every practical choice is oriented toward some implicit moral condition, which in turn is sustained by a broader metaphysical framework.  Life gets deep fast, and science can only assist with the practicalities.  A surgeon will respond affirmatively to the question, “Can we abort a fetus?” but has no answer for “Should we do so?”

The scientist, in his capacity as scientist, must reject any transcendental, moral, or political imperatives that impinge on his craft.  That is what “disenchantment” consists of:  there is no evil or good intrinsic to the world, no higher or lower, but only knowledge that can be applied to radically different purposes.  Scientists designed the MRI machine but also the ovens at Buchenwald.  They have served democracy and despotism with equal distinction.  These cases are not perversions of the ideal but a function of its instrumentality.

Our intuitions on this score turn out to be correct.  The “scientific life” feels false because it is false.  It is scarcely life at all, but only a ritual language – a liturgy that, if performed in the dark, creates the illusion of detachment and control.  Once the magic of the words is defeated, and the light is switched on, we find ourselves in the same condition with all that came before, driven by the same hunger and despair, the same claims and the same struggles, only shaped by cultural valuations that we, uniquely, seem unable to articulate.

Consider the case of Richard Dawkins, who has spent a lifetime studying, and writing about, a “universe” that he maintains has no purpose and no value.  That is perplexing behavior.  Either the story of Dawkins’ life is willfully devoid of purpose and value, or something else entirely is going on.  Some source, some power, unacknowledged by him, is sneaking in purpose and value.  It may be argued that Dawkins, the scientific thinker, has abstracted himself from such mundane concerns as to a geometric point, the better to discover and spread knowledge on behalf of society.  But that is science fiction.

We are not – we can never be – disengaged minds.  We are not algorithms or machinery in action.  We are embodied animals, evolved in the world and mixed in it as dust to dust, enmeshed in a social order that is the only vehicle to our highest aspirations, but first reared by the natural order, our forgotten mother, whose lessons of life and death still reach us across the great silence, if we just pause to hear.


The abandonment of instrumentality means that we must reinsert ourselves in the world, in the following sense:  our shared existential stance will turn toward truth rather than abstraction and control.  The road ahead will be twisted and full of pitfalls.  Truth will make claims on us that will always be difficult, and often impossible, to satisfy.  We will never possess it, except from some partial perspective.  We will never enter the promised land.  Authentic life, we will learn, is an orientation, not a state of grace.

This undertaking is a matter of choice, not necessity.  It concerns our spiritual hunger, not our physical survival.  We must find our own reasons, rooted in our moment, our present predicament, to wipe clean the confusion of centuries and rediscover ourselves in the world and the world in ourselves.  We must reconcile truth and spirit with the dead hand of modern culture.  That will be a long, torturous journey.  Along the way, the world, our old enemy, will re-emerge before our eyes, and we will see it clearly for what it is and what it is not.  It is not an idea.  It is not formed by will or desire.  It is not a poison pill of conformism and bad faith.  The world is the ground of being and the mother of truth:  and it far transcends the possibility of human revolt or manipulation.

What does that mean?

If truth is found only in the world, not against or outside it, then authenticity in life must consist of a turning to the things of the world:  the “objects” we keep at an infinite remove as not-us.   If we exist solely in the world, then in some mysterious way that turning must be toward ourselves, as beings indissolubly embedded in things.  After the strange amnesia of instrumentalism, we will recover a lived understanding of our place in the natural order and the grand scheme of being.  We will wake up, as if from a prolonged binge, among useless statistics and lifeless abstractions, and we will move in the direction of the concrete.  With luck and with time, we will come to see that this outward push is identical to the spiritual life:  and at that juncture we will find ourselves in a moral landscape of colossal proportions, in which the measure of human greatness is held to the highest scale imaginable, against a cosmic backdrop.

What are the practical consequences?

At first, we will stammer.  Every culture has words for the connection of the human with the highest, however that is conceived – God, or demiurge, or some transcendent state.  Aboriginal Australians speak of a “dreamtime,” Spanish mystics of a “dark night of the soul.”  We have lost all conception of this.  In our impersonation of a mock-scientific life, we have managed to treat even the spirit instrumentally.  For us, Christianity is politics, Buddhism is psychotherapy, and yoga is exercise.

We have forgotten the words.  We have lost the language of connection.  Confronted by a vast new moral landscape, we will begin by babbling – not, in truth, as infants do, but in the manner of the brain-damaged, of persons who once knew how to speak.  We will engage in metaphysical exercises, laboring to find the proper sounds.  Our trainers will be poets and writers.  They, too, must awaken from their self-indulgent binge.  They must reject the Gnostic temptation to howl at the world as at a wasteland, and utilize their talents to deliver the gift of logos – the word made flesh – to our stammering mouths.  The recovery of truth, in its initial stages, will be led by fantasists and story-tellers.

Our encounter with the world must be mediated by history.  The lesson so painfully learned in our shipwrecked escape to identity is that we cannot reinvent ourselves out of whole cloth.  We are, in large measure, what we were.  We are rooted in time.  Even as our circumstances undergo a radical transformation, we must glance back if we wish to move forward without accident.

The facts of the past will be contested:  that is all to the good.  What matters is perspective and intent.  The revolt against the world made history into an argument for nihilism, ultimately for forgetfulness.  Reentry into the world must therefore entail a sustained effort to recover our memory.  The perspective will be one of truth-seeking, which in this case must mean a posture of sympathy for the human predicaments we share with the past.  Even with regard to monstrous events – Nazi Germany, the Islamic Caliphate – understanding will be considered the highest form of criticism.  A scholarship of hard realism will serve as traffic controller to our advance on the world.  The intent will be to interpose a few shreds of shared human experience between our present ignorance and the altered environment ahead.

In tandem with the recovery of history, we will rehabilitate convention, understood as the standards, models, and habits of life inherited directly from the past.  This will ignite a fierce reaction.  To the modern intellectual, convention has always appeared to be the enemy of authenticity.  But if history is a legitimate source of knowledge, convention becomes the principal mode of turning that knowledge – our collective memory – into collective action.  In time, conventions will adapt to our changed circumstances.  If, by and large, we will not treat one another like Victorian ladies and gentlemen, neither will we wallow in hyper-sensitivity and panic fear of giving offense, when speaking truth as we perceive it.  Mutual respect will be conventionally understood to be hard-headed and thick-skinned:  only weasel words will feel offensive.

The practical consequences of our recovery of the world will ultimately depend on our ability to identify models of “the good life” in the world:  that is, honest and admirable forms of transacting with the new moral landscape.  Such models must be embodied in actual human beings.  Reorientation must be given flesh and blood.  That is how social change happens.  That is how spiritual awakening happens:  how truth is made manifest.  By knowing who the best are, and aspiring to follow them, we inch our way to as-yet-undiscovered patterns of perfection.

The abandonment of instrumentality here connects with the long march away from identity.  Both put us in the uncomfortable business of inferior and superior.  Both make the same demand:  that we replace our failed and decadent elites.  Our transformed sense of the world will provide the standard and the compass.  The common ground we seek will turn out to be a shared direction rather than a location.

By the sheer force of our spiritual hunger, we will engender a “select minority” (in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase) that incites our aspiration and emulation instead of our disgust.  Its members will be models of lived truth and spirit, whose gravitational pull extends beyond the online network and the sociopolitical tribe.  Among them, if we choose adequately, will be found extraordinary characters, saints and scholars whose qualities will bind together much of what has been torn apart by two feckless generations.  They will embody modesty, integrity, clarity of speech and mind, and courage in action, and they will give little thought to self-expression or control, being oriented differently, toward the world.

In a literal sense, through the example of their lives, they will make this stance irresistibly attractive to us.


There remains the problem of humanitarianism.  That ideal is said to be a consequence of the disenchantment of the world by science.  A defender of the instrumentalist stance might therefore argue that, whatever is meant by a “recovery of the world,” it offers no guarantees against superstition, fanaticism, or systemic violence.  An intended spiritual awakening could in reality mean the slumber of reason and a nightmare of obscurantist oppression.

Taken as a warning, this argument has some validity.  Every transitional age is a moment of terrible peril.  The loss of familiar signposts and milestones can induce a profound moral disorientation.  False prophets and antichrists will walk among us, preaching the joys of nihilism.  There will be choices but no guarantees.  Our attempt to advance on truth and spirit, shared collectively, as common ground, could degenerate into totalitarian dogmatism, inquisitions, and pogroms.

But these dangers are already here.  The warning applies to the present moment.  We are currently sick with anger and doubt.  We have been seduced, and more than once, by the preachers of nihilism.  Identity and instrumentalism, monstrously mated, have produced a revolt against the world that is, at heart, a war against ourselves.  In certain places, the pogroms have already begun.  Elsewhere we have been protected only by our fractured and isolated state, which has prevented any one doctrine from attaining to hegemony.  That will not last forever.

The problem of humanitarianism is that it has always lacked a necessary connection to any justifying principle, science included.  Humanitarianism is strictly a matter of taste.  We become humanitarians as we might become fans of a particular television series – say, Downton Abbey.  However, we can become anti-humanitarians by the same process, given different tastes – we prefer Breaking Bad.  There are no logical or empirical reasons to compel us one way or the other.

Because the benevolent impulse is unanchored in principle, it suffers from more than the usual tangle of inconsistencies and contradictions.  Those who fiercely oppose the death penalty just as zealously support the right to abort human fetuses, for example.  Similarly, those who advocate gun control laws adamantly oppose the harsh policing, particularly in the inner cities, necessary to enforce them.  In recent years, the legalization of assisted suicide has been defended on humanitarian grounds:  “quality of life” is said to trump the absolute value of life.  That is a tricky proposition.  In a time of disorientation, among raging partisan struggles, it isn’t hard to imagine the definition of “quality” expanded to cover moral conformity and political correctness.  Mandatory euthanasia of the “unfit,” let us recall, was once a progressive and “scientific” project.


The humanitarian’s confusion is a brief comic scene within a much larger drama:  that of the crisis of the liberal order that has placed instrumental benevolence at the center of politics and government.

The wonder of liberalism is that it continues to fail by succeeding.  It has, during the last century, brought about vast improvements in every aspect of life.  It achieved, peacefully enough, the liberation of oppressed classes and minorities, and erected a “social safety net” for the downtrodden.  Liberals societies became the destination for tens of millions fleeing their illiberal homelands.  The human race has voted with its feet.

Yet something is missing.  We feel at war with ourselves and disgusted with our lives.  Our revolt against the world is, in the first instance, an assault on liberal institutions.  That has happened before.  Totalitarian alternatives strove to subvert and destroy liberal democracy.  They were defeated at a horrible cost.  Today we have run out of alternatives – but we are seduced by nihilism, by a dream of purity that makes a virtue of destruction and a Heaven of nothingness.  Liberalism, it seems, has won every battle, and now teeters on the verge of losing the war.

Something is missing.  A great deal of truth is missing.  The potent subjective forces that bind the human spirit to the world – that, too, is missing.  Liberalism began as a neutral arbiter between mutually hostile religions and world-views.  The objective was wholly instrumental:  a social order that allowed many paths to salvation.  The churchman and the anti-clericalist could share the same space in relative peace.  Their frameworks of meaning, however, towered far above mere politics.  By definition, liberal instrumentalism could never be an end in itself – yet with the decline of religion and ideology, that is all that is left to us.  In the spot formerly reserved for God and spirit, we find political machinery.  Instead of saints and visionaries, we have bureaucrats.

Liberalism was not built to withstand the burden of being an end rather than a means.  The elites who manage the system have falsified its specifications, and we have played along, entirely complicit in the fraud.  From representative democracy to the free market, the overarching structures of the liberal order are buckling under the weight of the falsehoods we have heaped on them.  A collapse could mean a catastrophe on the scale of the 1930s and 1940s.

Will a turning to the world save liberalism?  That is the wrong question to ask.  Our orientation must be toward truth, which immediately entails the abandonment of instrumentalism.  Other polite fictions of contemporary liberalism will melt away under the glare of a radical honesty.  The objective will not be to engage in an ideological rescue mission, but to infuse with authenticity, and thus with life, the stories and structures that frame modern existence.  How far that moves in anti-humanitarian and illiberal directions will depend largely on the choices we make.

The question we should ponder, however, is this:  will any part of the liberal tradition survive, undefiled, our present moral trajectory – this nihilist moment – the inevitable consequences of our spiritual starvation and Gnostic loathing of the world?

The answer to that question will mark the first step in our pursuit of truth.


Revolt against the world (4): Equality

April 4, 2017

This is the fourth of five posts which inquire into the metaphysical roots of our contemporary sickness:  nihilism.  My objective has been to unearth and map out, in outline at least, the hidden world assumed by words such as “identity,” “validation,” “happiness,” “terrorist,” “scientific,” “humanitarianism.”  Whether I have succeeded even in part, I leave it for the reader to decide.

Together, the posts should be considered a running meditation on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.  While the work is cited once – in the context of the scientific, “geometric point” perspective – it has leavened virtually every word in these reflections.  I also owe a debt to George Weigel’s short piece, “Reality and Public Policy,” which drew my attention to the new Gnosticism and its implications.


In our stance toward identity, we are headed for a reckoning.  The metaphysical assumptions behind this ideal of life are self-refuting.  We cannot exist entombed within ourselves and achieve happiness.  We cannot demolish the social order and expect to retain present levels of freedom, security, and affluence.  Reality is indocile to will.  All along, history has kept us in the grip of causation.  Our war with the world has been mostly fantasy, a shadow-boxing in which we have stumbled ever closer to the edge.  In the manner of Humpty Dumpty, we are about to experience a great fall.

The relevant question, now, is what new principles and aspirations will put us together again.

After the fall, we will reexamine the reasons and motives that brought us to the brink.  Our willed rupture with the world and with ourselves will appear, in the shock of its consequences, as bordering on suicidal.  Since we have never consciously embraced extinction, we will turn in a different direction.  We will reorient.  We will emerge into a new moral and political landscape, an order of things that will be unlike because we will be unlike, and we will seek somehow to reconstitute our relations with the social order.  That will require making distinctions and judgments among us.  That will require the justification, on some shared principle, of an elite class.

In brief, we will confront the dilemma of inferior and superior, having spent a generation averting our eyes from such contrasts as from a disgusting object.

Our hierarchy of being has been a Gnostic dream.  There has been, for us, only will and flesh, and every person and every group, by a sort of moral gravitation, fell into one category or the other.  Judgments pertained strictly to objects of negation.  We struck at the people of the flesh – government officials, the rich, the “one-percenters” – who possessed the world, and controlled the social order.  Ourselves we treated as a gaseous mass of virtue.  In the flight to identity, we were entangled in questions of relative value and degrees of success, but we admitted no such distinctions, we allowed ourselves no comparisons, we averted our eyes and stumbled on.

The entire subject still elicits an uneasy silence.  That should serve as warning:  we have wandered into a forbidden zone.


The revolt against the world has been fueled, in part, by a rigid and radical interpretation of human equality.  Violations of the principle of equality, we perceive, are constant and systemic.  The need to respond absorbs our attention.  The wolves are among us, and before they devour us they first make us different.  They impose demeaning labels and gradations upon us, then chase us, piecemeal, to the slaughter.

For the children of negation, in our season of discontent, equality must be experienced as grievance.  We rage without end over inequality.  We find it in every lost corner of the social order.  We blame it for our personal limits, our failed expectations, our exile from meaning, our unhappiness.  That we may be caught in a metaphysical vise never enters our minds.  That our schemes for ourselves and for the world tear at one another we feel keenly, like a stab to the heart, but we mistake the cause.  The world is a desolation of inequality:  all the world’s misery can be explained this way.  It follows that all our spiritual energy must be mustered against this front.

To the positive value, the state of equality itself, theoretical or actual, we have given scarcely a thought.

Equality under liberal democracy is a matter of specified rights, based on human dignity and fraternity.  That is not our way.  We have no conception of dignity, and are too scattered and skittish for fraternity.  Our faith is in identity, and that has led us to repudiate the impersonal benevolence of liberalism.  It has also placed us in an awkward posture with respect to equal rights.  Identity, as we conceive of it, partakes of the aristocratic principle.  We fondly imagine ourselves soaring above the lowing herd.  We expect special treatment from the social order simply because of our status.  We are thin-skinned, easily offended, ready to duel if we find ourselves measured by the standards of others.  Equality on this basis is a prickly, protocol-driven affair, like that of the old Polish parliament, in which a single noble could veto the opinions of all the rest.

However, identity also contains, for us, a powerful dose of sectarianism.  “The sectarian view,” Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky observed some time ago, “does not tolerate inequality in any form:  its big promise is to introduce equality all around.”  Hence our rage against hierarchies of power and pyramids of wealth.  These things are corruption, the nightmare of Moloch.  We pass a single judgment, casting out the wolves.  Among the flock, we allow no gradations, no distinctions, no degrees of wisdom or moral progress.  We are, to ourselves, a mass of undifferentiated virtue.

Sectarianism takes the Gnostic impulse to a logical extreme.  Existence is made out to be a cosmic battle between truth and falsehood.  The world is a lie, and those who serve the world will destroy us.  We who are the incarnation of pure spirit – or, in the present case, pure will – cannot afford vanity or rivalry in our ranks.  Division is treason:  equality, to the sectarian mind, is a perfect state, because there are no alternatives to perfection.

Equality is normally considered the first step to democratic community.  Under the distorting shadow of identity, it becomes a self-insulating proposition.  The aristocratic principle has proclaimed that comparisons of any sort are intolerable.  The sectarian spirit asserts that comparisons are immoral.  We are, therefore, quite literally beyond compare.  We feel invulnerable to moral judgment, to shared standards of behavior, to third-person valuations.  All that counts is will and identity.

Beyond the negation of the world, and a relentless nihilism toward those who possess it, we have lost the ability to make distinctions of value in human life.  Like small children, we dwell in a universe of one.  We feel comfortably blind:  as with certain pathological cases, the gift of sight, and the hard reality to which it would expose us, would crush our finer spirits.


If, for the Epicurean, happiness is the absence of pain, equality for us means the negation of inequality.  We advance by destruction, and idealize the wreckage left behind.  In truth, we are smashing at ourselves, making a nothingness of ourselves.  The world has seduced us.  We are sickened by our own cravenness – by how cheaply we have been bought.  The natural order is a carnivorous mayhem.  The social order is unyielding hierarchy.  We either partake or destroy.

There is no way forward.  Our model of equality in action is the web, where every dispute over principles concludes with death threats.  Our highest ideal is something we call “science,” but science as actually practiced is a tradition-bound hierarchy of talent, accreditation, and bureaucratic power.  Identity has lured us into a golden sarcophagus:  we are immobilized, suffocated, entombed within ourselves.  We crave to receive some external epiphany of validation, but our ears are tuned only to the sound of our own voices.

We have stumbled to a desperate place.  In dread and doubt, we sense that we are treading on the burned-out cinders of an age.

We will come to a reckoning and a turning, then.  The precipitating event may be an external threat or a self-inflicted disaster.  The impossibility of surviving while at war with the world – that is, with reality – will be starkly revealed, and we will begin a long march away from identity, toward common ground.

The elites who guard the commanding heights to the present social order will be judged by new rules, and perceived from a new vantage point.  They will be gone in a blink.  They are toppling even now.  The question is what and who will take their place.  Destructive personalities abound at present, but the pivot away from identity will be driven by survival instinct:  we will leave the nihilists in their wilderness, far behind.

We will re-weave the links that bind us to the social order.  Of necessity, we will reconsider the problem of elites in democracies.  We will be forced to ask:  Who is admirable?  Who is capable?  Who is superior – and under what terms?  As our self-invented coffins break open, we will reenter the swirl of history and ponder urgent questions of relative value.

Failed elites will be swept away because they have failed, not because they are elites.  This and much more will become apparent in our migration toward each other.  Today’s elites represent claims of knowledge and power that have been falsified a thousand times.  They have read books, and mastered a certain mathematical rhetoric – the social order as a set of “problems” in search of “solutions” – and they have devised ingenious statistical conventions to measure their achievements.  That is not enough.  Personal reality escapes the numbers:  and the need will be for human valuation.

A “revaluation of values” will have unpredictable consequences, but this much is certain:  we will not occupy the place of the old elites.  We will yield up the sectarian demand for perfect equality as we yield the fantasy of identity and the appeal to nihilism.  Reality, we will concede, is indocile to will.  In every family and community, in every mode of art, politics, or life, there is a better and a worse, there is admirable and contemptible, and there are those who embody each.  This is not a pathological condition.  It is cooked into the nature of things.

New people with new claims will take up the leadership.  But it is our relation to them – our valuation of them – that will decide whether an authentically humane and democratic social order can long endure.


The “reciprocal action between the masses and select minorities,” José Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1922, is “the fundamental fact of every society and the agent of its evolution for good or evil.”  That neatly sums up our current predicament, even if the terms are opaque.

Ortega’s “masses” we now call the public.  Both are us, though at different stages of social evolution.  “Select minorities” are the elites who lavish their creative energies on the effort to sustain and nourish the fabric of contemporary life.  They are the truly superior artists and technologists, preachers and politicians.  Their inevitability seems to stem from an iron law.  Humanity, in any numbers, has always meant hierarchy.

The problem Ortega pondered was that of the right relation between us and them.

A select minority of individuals and groups, he held, were “exemplars” to the larger population.  They serve as models of right behavior and capability.  A healthy society is one in which such exemplary types draw us toward them purely by the force of their example.  With no trace of compulsion, we wish to resemble them.  We aspire to be like them, to re-form ourselves and reorient our destinies to their higher plane.  This is not a matter of fashion or passing trends, or of assuming “a mask” to perform an impersonation.  A great thaw occurs in the depths of being.  “The good” is no longer perceived as an abstraction, but appears embodied in human types.  It is, therefore, attainable – at any rate, we can inch our way there.  The good society, Ortega concluded, was an “engine of perfection.”

In a sickly society, conversely, the elites fear the public and seek to flatter and deceive it – they will display popular tastes and attitudes, showing them to be just like us, then barricade themselves behind a wall of bodyguards and metal-detecting machines.

The inescapable presence of select minorities – true one-percenters – does not necessarily threaten democracy.  It can conform to Jefferson’s notion of a “natural aristocracy” based on “virtue and talent.”  Among this group, Jefferson believed, were found the guides and teachers of a free citizenry.  Relations between select minorities and the public are reciprocal, just as Ortega noted.  Minorities, in fact, are selected in a constant process of valuation by the public.  If we are in sound spiritual health, and deal without embarrassment in inferior and superior, we will engender outstanding elites.  Otherwise those who are in fact superior will be towering but misshapen creatures:  lonely monsters, stripped of influence, clamoring in the wilderness.


After years of ceaseless negation, the possibility of an aspirational relationship with our elites may strike us as absurd, even shocking.  Those who possess the world, we reflexively think, can only be criticized and blamed.  To do anything else is to succumb to false consciousness.

Earlier generations of Americans knew better.

The archetype of a model life was that of George Washington.  Few exemplary persons, outside religion, have had a more pervasive effect on the public.  That was true even in Washington’s lifetime, when brilliant and commanding individuals, like Hamilton and Jefferson, acknowledged him as their superior.  Later, legends and fictions encrusted this exemplary life.  Washington never cut down the cherry tree, never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac.  Such fictions were the tribute posterity paid to the transcendent human reality that Washington had embodied.

In more recent times, we found our exemplars among inventive businessmen like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  We did not merely admire these men for their success and wealth:  their personal histories, habits, and pronouncements were parsed for life lessons.  Most Americans knew of Edison’s quest for the filament that would spark the lightbulb.  That was a story about the triumph of persistence.  Most of us also knew that the assembly line had democratized the automobile.  That was a story about the social benefits of personal ingenuity.

It may be argued that today we share a similar orientation toward the giants of technological innovation – Steve Jobs, for example, or Mark Zuckerberg.  But our own portrayals of these individuals show them to be unworthy of aspiration.  Whatever the actual merit of their lives, they are condemned by their elite status to be perceived as selfish and dishonest characters.  We need only compare Young Tom Edison with The Social Network to measure the vast moral chasm between true aspiration and our perverse itch to de-fame the famous.

The case can be made that criticism of power and wealth is a sacred duty in a democratic society.  But criticism has no truck with negation.  Criticism is not a call to protest or smash at every object along our path, but to understand that path, to calibrate and evaluate where we are heading.  At the moment, we are as hostile to criticism as we are to valuation.  It tells us that we are heading nowhere.

Identity as the highest good blocks all movement toward other-directed perfection.  It compels us to be, never to do, and we can only be what we already are:  a desiccated instance of ourselves.  We are stuck in solitary confinement, dreaming up worlds in which we are the object of our aspiration.  This cannot be sustained.  Reality will shake us awake.  The first move in our resumption of history will be a migration away from the Gnostic wastelands.  We will seek a higher place and common ground.  That can be undertaken under many principles and pretexts, but all must entail valuation, the recognition of inferior and superior, and should entail the aspiration to partake of models of human greatness.

We who are the public, in this way, will select an elite class that is worthy of us.

Revolt against the world (3): Nihilism

March 28, 2017

This is the third of five posts which inquire into the metaphysical roots of our contemporary sickness:  nihilism.  My objective has been to unearth and map out, in outline at least, the hidden world assumed by words such as “identity,” “validation,” “happiness,” “terrorist,” “scientific,” “humanitarianism.”  Whether I have succeeded even in part, I leave it for the reader to decide.

Together, the posts should be considered a running meditation on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.  While the work is cited once – in the context of the scientific, “geometric point” perspective – it has leavened virtually every word in these reflections.  I also owe a debt to George Weigel’s short piece, “Reality and Public Policy,” which drew my attention to the new Gnosticism and its implications.


From a detached perspective, our stance toward identity appears to be a march towards pure will.  Our demand for uniqueness looks like a repudiation of history and its present consequences.  Our call for separation and discontinuity from all who are not-us is a declaration of independence from reality, at least of the human kind.  In the condition of pure will, we imagine ourselves rising above cause and effect.  With the achievement of our star-like identities, we believe we have gained access to hidden knowledge – gnosis – that is more powerful than history or the natural world.

The Gnostics maintained that the world was false and corrupt, and the only truth was spirit.  Not only did men not live from bread alone, but the needs of the body, our gross materiality, could and should be wholly subservient to the soul.  For our part, we have come to think that the human world is false and corrupt, and the only possible reality lies within usWe are the good and the true, we are the kingdom and the power, and the tainted relations of the social order can and must dance to the tune of our will.  That is our heresy.  That is the background story to the revolt against the world.

When the demand for validation is met with silence, therefore, we never think to question our assumptions about the world.  When our cry for happiness goes unheard, the experience has no effect on our metaphysical stance or our behavior.  We do not doubt or question either the world or ourselves, because we already know.  We have access to gnosis:  and it tells us that the world is controlled by pure will.  That is the nature of reality.  If our willed identities, despite their unique refulgence, fail to produce happiness, it must be because other wills, not-us, corrupt and greedy and self-seeking, have taken possession of the social order and wield power to obscure truth and punish the good.

The world is a theater of degradation.  We, though good and true, are the players on that wretched stage.  Our eyes now open, we behold a system of human relations with which we can have no truck or compromise, if we wish to endure as vessels of subjective life.  The world we gaze on in fear and loathing stares back with Gorgon’s eyes, petrifying will and identity into dead objects.  Between such a world and us, we finally realize, there must be a state of total and remorseless war.

The humanitarian ideal only fuels the ferocity of our repudiation.  We consider ourselves, in all humility, the embodiment of the ideal:  the good and the true.  We subscribe to all the right doctrines, and are liberated from spurious prejudices.  Yet we have been thrust into a social order that degrades and objectifies when, in our expectation, it should applaud and personalize.  Despite our merit, which we estimate to be very great, we are denied validation and happiness.  The humanitarian impulse orbits around the identification of victims – and, by our reckoning, none have been more severely victimized than us.  Humanitarianism in this way gets swallowed by identity.  We feel powerful waves of pity and sympathy toward the most deserving of victims, ourselves, and commensurate spasms of rage aimed against the victimizer – the system, society, reality.

The political order responds with programmed benevolence and numerical notions of welfare.  That we dismiss, angrily though not unjustly, as an attempt to buy us off on the cheap.


The stance we have taken toward personal identity has collided – must collide – with the stance we have taken toward nature and society, and we are hurled down from the mountain-top, shattered in spirit.  The world around us is false and dead.  The social order bends to the will of faceless and heartless phantoms.  Everyday life is a process of absorption and participation in a repulsive lie.  Nothing is as we imagined.  Nothing remains of our great expectations.

What is to be done?

When being in the world is intolerable, the logical way out is not-being:  the destruction of ourselves or of the world.  A growing number have chosen self-destruction.  Few questions illustrate more starkly our inability to speak about the inner life than this dismal trend in suicides.  The experts, abstracted to a geometric point, use words that denote vague impersonal categories, like “depression,” “substance abuse,” “personality disorder,” “traumatic experience.”  Such verbiage leads nowhere.  The experts are unable to explain why ever more people are willing to abort their lives.

Suicide is the ultimate crisis of identity.  When we contemplate obliteration, we are not thinking in medical or sociological terms:  we are in the grip of an overmastering feeling.  We are experiencing a rupture, like a horrific wound, between our inner life and the demands of a false and alien world.  Placing blame is beside the point.  Self-loathing is just the flip side of the vast stores of admiration and pity we hold for the ruined glories of our inner selves.  “I think I simply love people too much,” wrote Kurt Cobain in his suicide note.  The horror is less that we have failed the world, but that the world has failed us.  We loved too much.  We aimed too high.  If, as is likely to happen, we have detached ourselves from history, convention, religion, and all who are not-us, then we will come to the moment of crisis in a darkened theater, in absolute silence, alone.

We have wandered too far into the wilderness for God or humanity to make sense of us – to redeem us.  We have only pure will.  The assertion of will against the world, conducted in silence and solitude, ourselves within ourselves, must end, irredeemably, with our ending.


Most of us choose to live on.  The great majority abides by the logic of our present predicament, externalizing the impulse to violence.  We hate the world.  We feel at war with the social order, and exult in the dream of its destruction.  That overturning we envision in the manner of an exorcism, a casting out of demons and phantoms.  We add nothing to the mix.  No new philosophy or organizing principle need be put in place of what is destroyed.  We share a simple faith that it would be the highest form of progress if history committed suicide.

Our personal orientation is still toward identity.  We scatter to our private islands of being, and there absorb the hidden knowledge of things, that the world is false, and reality is willed.  But we no longer expect validation or happiness.  Other wills, not-us, stand in the way.  Other wills compel our will, and if the world is degradation, it is also true that the world is us.  We long for purification:  for a blank slate, a nothingness.  Our moral orientation is toward nihilism.

In a certain sense, we are all nihilists now.  Among many the condition is latent.  We move uneasily through the world, in full remission, undiscovered, until some toxic corner of the environment eats away the mask and unleashes the hurt and the hate.  Then repudiation flows outward, from the core of our being, like a cleansing fire – against government tyranny, against the rich who control government, against Christian bigots, against anti-religious social warriors, against patriarchy and against political correctness, against racists and racial panderers, against the politicians, the media, the financial system, the universities, the know-nothings, the people and the institutions that have flung us down from the mountain-top, and objectified us, and diminished us.  Nothing standing is left untouched.

We are the children of negation.  Like the “anti-matter” of particle physics, we exist to nullify.  We are, in a partial list, anti-institution, anti-ideology, anti-history, anti-not-us.  We wish to wipe the world clean of these base things, and start again from nothing.  To do so would erase most of the elements that composed us, we are vaguely aware of that, but on the occasion we recall that the world has failed its promise, and that we have loved too much, and we remain captivated by the dream of destruction.  Negation takes the place of happiness.  It takes the place of righteousness – the compass by which we orient ourselves toward the good.

It is also the last unifying principle.  Some time ago we abandoned the old conventional meeting-places:  nation-state, government, market, church, even family.  Now we gather only to protest.  We find common ground only in the generalized impulse to smash at the standing structures of the world.  What we are for is uncertain.  Whatever we claim to advocate will be a source of mutual distrust and dispute.  But we are pulled together, tightly, fervently, against.  The enemy is always present:  the world that refuses to validate our existence, and a social order that has relegated us to nullity.

We have witnessed “opinion cascades” – virtual Niagaras of negation – that propelled hundreds of thousands, even millions, to revolt against the social and political order.  Tremendous energies are released by these in-gathering moments.  Each resembles a tsunami that sweeps over the human landscape, twisting and breaking everything in sight.  Whole nations have perished in the nihilistic frenzy of the Levant.  Humanitarianism is no longer even a platitude there, identity is the cause of wars of extermination, and the cascade, first an aggregation of will, is now a torrent of blood and death.

In the circle of democratic societies, the same forces have toppled elected governments, pulled political parties apart, and raised exotic, coarse-spirited figures to power.  The turmoil reflects a fundamental contradiction between our stance toward identity and the principle of representative democracy.  We imagine ourselves to be transcendentally unique creatures:  solitary stars in the firmament of being.  But uniqueness cannot be transferred or alienated.  We are, in our essence, unrepresentable.  The metaphysical premises of the electorate collide with the requirements of democracy as actually practiced in large nation-states.  This is not viable, even for the short term.  We stand, with regard to democracy, on the edge of a precipice, lured forward by Gnostic illusions.

Whatever the outcome, we will be dissatisfied.  We remain trapped in the claustrophobic spaces between us and not-us, for an obvious reason.  Negation is not, and can never be, liberation.  Destruction makes an emptiness rather than a way forward.  Once the spasm of repudiation is spent, we are still stuck in the muck.  We lack a shared project of life.  We lack direction:  a way of becoming.

In the depths of the frozen river of pure will, we dream of power and destruction, of gnosis and happiness – “till human voices wake us, and we drown.”


Some – a chosen few – leap into the void of true nihilism.  These exalted spirits perpetrate famous crimes in every corner of the globe.  Their bloody deeds are constantly before our eyes.  The Islamist who self-detonates in a pizza parlor, the shooter of children at an elementary school – such horrors appear equally impossible to explain and to escape.  To commit them demands the obliteration of every social bond and fellow-feeling that entangles us with not-us.  The true nihilist has no place in the world.  He stands outside humanity.  He lives for death.

What is he, then?

An earlier age would not have hesitated to call him barbarian.  We prefer political terms like “terrorist,” or psychological labels like “sociopath.”  But we should consider the nihilist a premonition.  A theorist of revolutions, a Lenin, would discern in his type the vanguard of a terrible future.

The nihilist is the logical conclusion of the process of negation.  He has reached the spot toward which so many of us are headed.  He, too, is in the grip of an overmastering feeling, like his self-destructive brethren, whom he typically joins.  The feeling that agitates him is a powerful sense of his superiority to the world and other people.  He dwells in a Gnostic universe, in which he is pure of spirit, and all things not-him are foul.

The rub of the world on his flesh therefore torments him.  The selfishness of humanity nauseates him.  The gathering darkness, inside and out, leave him no choice but to embark on a final solution – an act of personal deliverance and world-historical retribution.  He must kill, and he must die.

The certainty of being compelled – “triggered,” as one prolific killer phrased it – protects the nihilist from any sense of responsibility.  In the midst of death and carnage, he feels as innocent as a lamb.  Guilt for his crimes must fall on the social order:  he is merely the instrument of justice.  Osama bin Laden, a precursor of the type, chortled and giggled without restraint, as he told the story of how he had learned that the blood of thousands was on his hands.

The true nihilist today is more earnest.  He disgorges judgments by the ton.  These are mawkish and abstract, a rhetoric disconnected in tone, logic, and sense of proportion from the violence, yet bearing an uncanny resemblance to our own negations.  In the nihilist’s bloodstained vision of the world we discern a familiar landscape.  His clamors de profundis recall our everyday repudiations.  We, too, believe that the world has failed, and the social order must be smashed.  We, too, exist in an airless coffin of pure will, and with every shudder dream of destruction.  The nihilist, that twitching marionette, is a flawless image of us, in a more advanced stage of moral decomposition.

The blind impulse to destroy has already risen to power in certain places of the Middle East.  Men who “love death” have conquered a howling chaos, and translated the social contract into mass murder.  It seems impossible that such a catastrophe will overtake the enlightened nations where we live, because we love life too much, and are such devout humanitarians.  But we have exhausted our spiritual force on identity:  we can really only love ourselves.  Life that is not-us we treat instrumentally, indifferently, as props in the drama of personal happiness.

And the nihilist, with his cult of death, considers himself to be the greatest and most sincere of humanitarians.  All his crimes are perfect justice.  He looks on the world, abode of lies, and by some dark inversion is able to say, “It’s your fault I killed.”

Revolt against the world (2): Happiness

March 21, 2017

This is the second of five posts which inquire into the metaphysical roots of our contemporary sickness:  nihilism.   My objective has been to unearth and map out, in outline at least, the hidden world assumed by words such as “identity,” “validation,” “happiness,” “terrorist,” “scientific,” “humanitarianism.”  Whether I have succeeded even in part, I leave it for the reader to decide.

Together, the posts should be considered a running meditation on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.  While the work is cited once – in the context of the scientific, “geometric point” perspective – it has leavened virtually every word in these reflections.  I also owe a debt to George Weigel’s short piece, “Reality and Public Policy,” which drew my attention to the new Gnosticism and its implications.


Our concerns with nature are entirely instrumental.  We worry about running out of fossil fuels or the effects of global warming.  We protect animal species as an extension of humanitarian duty.  But every trace of reverence for our forgotten mother has been lost:  the redemptive power Rousseau and the Romantics experienced in the contemplation of nature is, for us, as quaint and unscientific as the worship of the sacred oak or the water nymph.

It is to the social order that we turn for affirmation and applause.  This is the only world we experience in any depth:  the jagged edge, therefore, of contradiction, of our rage and loss.  To a hypersensitive generation, every brush with society leaves behind a grievance like an open wound.

Our stance toward society mirrors our stance toward nature.  We choose to abstract ourselves as if to a geometric point, the better to objectivize human relations and institutions and so manipulate them to instrumental ends.  We believe in impersonal but transcendent concepts:  production, consumption, equality, welfare.  To translate these concepts into reality, we place immense faith in statistical conventions:  GDP, the unemployment or crime or productivity “rates.”  Such conventions, only marginally more meaningful than numerology, appear objective, scientific, and for this reason have gained great power over our thinking.

Most of our relations are instrumental.  They could be conducted with anyone else.  The barista at the coffee shop, so full of personality today, will be someone else tomorrow.  The same is true of every clerk at every store.  Our bosses and co-workers could be anyone else.  The bureaucrat issuing us a driver’s license or a Social Security check could be anyone else.  The products we consume could be manufactured and sold by anyone else.  Even we, in the majority of our encounters – we, too, for all our unique identities, could be anyone else, giving the reality of everyday life the feel of a walk on very thin ice.  At any moment, we could disappear.

If, in nearly every aspect of existence, we can be replaced by anyone, then we are no one in particular.  We have no identity.  We bow in the direction of society, expecting applause, and find ourselves in a dark and silent theater, unable to perceive, through the shadows, not just the audience but our own selves.

When, in that moment of supreme revelation, we pivot from private dream to shared reality – that is, from identity to society – we are not entirely clear, ourselves, about the nature of our claims.  We would certainly deny our need for validation.  We would dismiss out of hand the possibility that we have mistaken applause for meaning.  Our self-valuation is too high for that.

We call the object of our claims on the world happiness.


The demand for happiness dominates the moral life of modern persons.  We recognize no higher value, not even love or family.  Our journey into the world, we imagine, has but one aim:  to achieve personal happiness.  Everything else must be arranged accordingly.  Groups that give precedence to God or honor or duty inspire our condescension and, truth be told, our contempt.

The question would appear to be one of method:  of how.  But prescriptions vary so radically that it is clear we mean different things by the term.  For Thomas Jefferson, who inserted the concept into the DNA of the American character, “individual happiness” was “inseparable from the practice of virtue.”  If we wish to be happy, Jefferson held, we must first master our desires and match them to the reality of a pitiless world.  This is an old Stoic formula, almost incomprehensible to the modern mind.

We have assumed an abstracted and instrumental stance toward society.  We perceive the chaotic swirl of human activity, including our own desiring, from an external perspective, as a complex of objects and forces to be manipulated to some end.  If the end is happiness, it must follow a utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain.  Society, therefore, must be so constructed as to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Were this line of thought to stop here, it would lead us to the rankest hedonism.  Our social ideal would be endless orgy.  And, to be sure, we can see all around us the seductiveness of the orgiastic ideal for a certain kind of modern person.

But two considerations bar the way to a model of society as a garden of orgasmic delights.  The first is the humanitarian impulse.  Not only does our pleasure lose legitimacy when it involves another person’s pain:  we are also enjoined by pseudo-Christian scruples to assist all those who suffer, even at some cost to ourselves.

The second and more powerful objection to pure hedonism is derived from the illusion, fostered by our abstracted perspective, that only the objective and “scientific” is real.  So too with happiness:  to be real, it must be mathematically expressed.  We demand that our pleasure be measured.  So first the intellectuals, then the government, and at last all of us have placed our faith in statistics that capture some abstracted aggregate of affluence, or living conditions, or health, as shorthand for pleasure and thus for happiness.  Here at least is something measurable.

If the aim of human life is to be happy, and happiness is measured in income, consumption, and similar tokens of material wealth and physical well-being, then we are duty-bound to take time off from the orgy to become educated, pursue a profitable career, exercise for our health, and raise the next generation of producer-consumers whose taxes will support us in old age.  Until only yesterday, the mode of living that resulted from such considerations resembled the “bourgeois virtues” more than the Roman orgy.


Happiness, at the time Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, was something to be achieved within a community.  Virtues and vices were shared values, and, all things equal, those who practiced the one were validated, and those who fell into the other were condemned, by public opinion.  Because the human condition is tragic (a problem Jefferson tended to ignore) there could never be perfect identity between virtue and happiness.  Good people sometimes suffered.  But this social orientation at a minimum delivered peace of mind:  to the Stoic, that was enough.

We stand today in a different moral landscape, differently oriented.  We expect to find happiness as part of a personal search.  It is something we discover alone, in silence and secrecy, plumbed out of the depths of being, touching the world at points of only private significance.   The happiness of others is of objective, humanitarian interest to us.  Only our own happiness engages the potent subjective forces of the human heart.  Only the quest for personal happiness re-enchants that world from which we have abstracted ourselves.  It is the ideal of the good toward which our lives are oriented:  the magnetic pole of identity.

When we scatter to our exotic identities, we do so in the hope of securing, in that posture, our unique form of happiness.  We have largely repudiated conventional ideas – the happiness of the herd.  That is driven (so we think) by herd instinct, social anxiety posing as happiness.  We have avoided (or so we imagine) the well-trod paths, and thus grown alien to each other, in the belief that the value we seek must remain virginally pure for us and unsullied by the profane hands of not-us.  We reach for a place that transcends all previous human experience, beyond history, mother of superstition and suffering.  We climb to the pinnacle of subjectivity, where the world dances to the music of our most secret cravings, and on that perch assume the glory of our solitary star-like selves.

Then, because we are human after all, not Nietzschean supermen, we turn to the social order and ask for validation and applause.  We demand meaning from the human herd whose conventions we have so loudly rejected.  That, after all the sound and fury, is the only way we can see clear to happiness.

As we turn to the social and political order, we encounter the tender mercies of an impersonal benevolence.  We are allowed much freedom, which we cash in for the flight to identity.  Our human needs are treated with sensitivity, though of an instrumental kind.  Formulas determine the number of parking spaces for the disabled, for example.  The government mandates a day, or a month, or a parade, to celebrate what we are.  The law enforces a rough equality.  We are objects of official sympathy and tolerance.  That is not nearly enough for us.  That is not our demand.

Our insistence that happiness must reward personal identity has blocked the way to more basic forms of happiness.  We have transcended marriage.  We are not interested in procreation.  These conventional activities we have left far behind in our journey away from not-us.  In their place, we have mustered an army of professional validators:  from the therapist we pay to tell us how special we are in our depths, to the tattoo artist we patronize to make us unique on our surfaces.  We wage a hopeless daily struggle to personalize the impersonal, but the machinery of the social order, though objectively programmed for sympathy and benevolence, is unable to comprehend – much less satisfy – our all-too-human spiritual requirements.

At the culmination of our secret search for happiness, as we lean forward, subject to object, we plunge into the jaws of a monstrous impossibility.  We have chosen to live in a third-person universe:  and it is unable, under any conditions, to deliver first-person validation or happiness.