Tonight I'm bringing in a guest speaker: Ryszard Legutko, author of The Demon In Democracy, which I've just read and which I think is a very important book. Off and on for a few years now I've published the occasional post categorized as "What Is Actually Happening." The tag refers to a remark by the late Kenneth Minogue (Australian political scholar) which was a sort of variant of Orwell's observation that "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." Minogue said
The basic question in life is "What is actually going on?" and it often requires a great deal of time to pass before one can find the answers.
I changed "going on" to "happening" just because I think it sounds better. Minogue seems to have been referring to events, to the course of history, not what I would call the basic question in life, which would be something along the lines of "What's it all about?" But it's a pretty important one, especially in a time of great change. You could consider it as part of the task recommended in Matthew 16:3: to read the signs of the times.
Legutko is a Pole, about my age, who grew up under communism, then experienced the end of communism and its replacement by...what? Well, that's what the book is about. Over the years he had noticed certain disquieting similarities between the communist and liberal-democratic ideologies. And after the fall of communism he noticed how easily and successfully its former functionaries assumed a role in running the government. In an overly-condensed and simplified nutshell, he asserts that the liberal-democratic system has been transformed from a theoretically neutral mechanism for implementing government by the people into a utopian ideology.
I'll let the quotations which follow explicate that observation.
In this view, today also consciously or unconsciously professed by millions, the political system should permeate every section of public and private life, analogously to the view of the erstwhile accoucheurs of the communist system. Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations. The people, structures, thoughts that exist outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdated, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end up in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve....
I should note right away that the "harshness" he describes is not in the form of violence, prisons, and concentration camps, but rather in exclusion, silencing, and social, economic, and legal pressures which limit or deny any public role or presence to the outdated, useless, and dangerous. The liberal-democratic ideologue sees himself as "a vigorous youngster transforming the world." He
...feels like a part of a powerful global machine of transformation. He not only understands the process of change better than others and knows how to organize the world, but also...can easily diagnose which phenomena, communities, and institutions will disappear and, when resisting, will have to be eliminated for the sake of the future. Therefore he reacts with indignant pity toward anyone who wants to stop the unstoppable. He indulges in a favorite occupation of the youngster: to criticize what is in the name of what will be, but what a large part of humanity, less perceptive and less intelligent than himself, fails to see.
Legutko pauses here to make it clear that he is not denying the achievements of liberal democracy, or the brutality of communism, then continues:
This youngster, however, fails to notice that at some point this system, or rather the arrangement of systems covering many variants, became haughty, dogmatic, and dedicated not so much to the resolution of political conflicts as to transforming society and human nature. It lost its prior restraint and caution, created powerful tools to influence every aspect of life, and set in motion institutions and laws, frequently yielding to the temptation to conduct ideological warfare against disobedient citizens and groups. Falling into a trap of increasing self-glorification, the system began to define itself more and more against its supposed opposition, i.e., all sorts of nonliberal and nondemocratic enemies whose elimination was considered a necessary condition to achieve the next level of ideological purity. The multiparty system was gradually losing its pluralistic character, parliamentarianism was becoming a vehicle of tyranny in the hands of the ideologically constituted majority, and the rule of law was changing into judicial arbitrariness.
The "youngster" is transforming the system into something it was not and was never intended to be. He
...infuses the old political institutions with new energy and injects them with new ideological content while remaining notoriously unaware that under new circumstances, these new institutions are no longer what they once were and that they serve a new purpose.
When I read those passages, the "youngster" immediately acquired a face: that of Barack Obama. His many idolizers will never see it, but to those who did not fall under his spell (I once likened him to Saruman), Obama exuded exactly the sort of arrogance Legutko describes. He was not malicious, or not very; he didn't want to exterminate or imprison those who resisted his wisdom. He was only serenely certain that he was right, and that anyone who disagreed with him either was malicious or just didn't understand. He would have preferred that they understand and obey. But if they didn't, he would roll right over them if he possibly could. And his followers, already of like mind, and infatuated with his rhetoric and his racial cachet, agreed: no one could decently oppose Obama, or the measures he proposed for "fundamentally transforming" the United States. Those who did so were indecent, not just mistaken: either out-and-out racial bigots, or bigots-at-large, generally reprehensible people, and of course quite stupid. At very best, they were fools who didn't know what was good for them ("cling[ing] to guns or religion," as Obama so famously put it, in words that clearly showed his disdain for at least half the people he wanted to govern).
The contraception mandate included in the mountain of regulations implementing Obamacare was a perfect case study in the process described by Legutko. He (not him directly, but his administration) needn't have done it; he could have left things as they were for the small number of employers who were affected by it, and made other arrangements for the very small number of employees who might have been inconvenienced. But the administration chose to force the issue. The Catholic Church and other Christian communions are, in the eyes of committed progressives, precisely the "institutions [which] will disappear." The "arc of history" will inevitably see to that; in the meantime, a shove may be needed here and there. The mandate seemed to be a situation where the administration wished to exact obedience, to establish the principle that such decisions were for it and it alone to make. As James Capretta says, it was "an unnecessary fight that backfired," and it probably had some influence in giving us President Trump.
Legutko, I should note, is to a great extent talking about the European Union, and he notes somewhere that the United States is a little different. What he describes as the liberal-democratic ideology is generally called just "liberalism" here, or "progressivism," or "the left." But it's very similar. The biggest difference in our situation seems to be that there is more, and more intense, opposition to the program here, as the contraception fight indicates--not necessarily coherent or wise opposition, of course and unfortunately.
The passages I've quoted are from the opening pages of the book. Now I'll jump ahead to the end, in which Legutko considers the situation of Christianity:
If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been. All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong anti-religious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the Church or a disgusting villain.
The triumph of anti-Christianity seems to favor [a] conciliatory approach.... The only option left for Christians to maintain some respectability in a new world was to join the great progressive camp so that occasionally they would have an opportunity to smuggle in something that could pass for a religious message.
But this conciliatory attitude on the part of Christians is certainly wrong if it is motivated by the conviction that the current hostility to religion is a result of misunderstanding, social contingencies, unfortunate errors committed by the Christians, or some minor ailments of modern society. The truth is that all these phenomena, as well as other anti-Christian developments, are the genuine consequences of the spirit of modernity on which the liberal democracy was founded. Modernity and anti-Christianity cannot be separated because they stem from the same root and since the beginning have been intertwined. There is nothing and has never been anything in this branch of the European tradition that would make it favorably disposed to Christianity.....
Therefore, whoever advocates the conciliatory strategy today fails or refuses to see the conditions in which Christians have been living. It is utterly mistaken to take the position that many do: namely that the Church should take over some liberal-democratic ingredients, open up to modern ideas and preferences, and then, after having modernized herself, manage to overcome hostility and reach people with Christian teachings. One can see why this plan has gained considerable popularity, but whatever its merits, it cannot succeed.
There follows a brief discussion of the conciliatory path followed by Vatican II and since. But
All these changes, however, did not blunt the anti-Christian prejudices that the liberal democratic spirit had been feeding on. nor did they entice more people to enter the Church to strengthen the already-decimated army of the faithful. The good things that were expected to happen did not happen. They did not--let me say it again--because they could not. An aversion to Christianity runs so deep in the culture of modernity that no blandishment or fawning on the part of the Church can change it.
I'll leave you with this amusing picture of those who attempt the conciliatory path, the "open Catholics":
Cardinal Wyszynski, being under an enormous pressure, was yielding to communists, but finally said Non possumus ["We cannot," according to Google Translate]. Looking at the open Catholics, it is hard to imagine that they would ever be able to utter such words, let alone think about them, no matter how far liberal democracy pushes its anti-Christian campaign. One should rather think of the open Catholics as a group of cheerleaders with funny pom-poms, similar to those that one can see at games in American, encouraging their favorites to fight for progress.
Actually I don't think it's quite that bad; I think a lot of bishops would in fact say "Non possumus," at least right now.
I don't intend this post as any sort of call to arms, except in the spiritual realm. These trends are not going to be stopped or reversed by political work. Nor, it shouldn't really need to be said, will denouncing and defaming the opposition, who are, in general and in my experience, very decent people sincerely "working for a better world" (a phrase which provokes so much cynicism in me that I have to remind myself that it is in fact a desirable thing, and that it's only disagreement about the definition of "better" that makes me cynical.) And I certainly don't mean to encourage the paranoia and excessive alarm which is all too present in Christian circles these days. I just think it's important to understand the situation, to see things as they really are. It's part of being wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
I won't go quite as far as to say that everyone should read this book. I'll narrow it down a little: if you have enough interest in the general topic to read an entire book about it, you really should read this one. It's not that long, by the way, a little under 200 pages. And it's full of sharply illuminating observations. I must have marked fifty passages in it.
Rod Dreher has discussed Legutko often, and solicited some email comments from him soon after Trump's election. His remarks are very perceptive, I think. You can read them here, starting at the paragraph which opens "After the U.S. election."
There's one thing I would add to Legutko's appraisal: the religious nature of what he calls the liberal-democratic ideology; he suggests this only in passing, but I think it's very important. As people who read this blog regularly have heard me say many times, contemporary progressivism is for practical purposes a religion. What we are and have been witnessing is a struggle between two religions, the replacement of one predominant way of looking at the world and at man by another. Mankind will always form a culture, and a culture necessarily has a unifying vision, and by definition it can only have one. (The supposedly "multicultural" model requires a single master culture which encompasses and governs all the sub-cultures, and which happens to be the liberal-democratic culture.) If things continue to move in their current direction, what is actually happening now will eventually be recognized as a transition like that in which Christianity became the religion of the Middle East and of Europe. This is hardly a new observation, having been made by many thinkers for well over a hundred years now.