Two Readers Reply to Borges, Blixen, and Voegelin
From the desk of Thomas F. Bertonneau on Wed, 2009-06-24 22:54
It pleases me a good deal that the citations from the work of Eric Voegelin – particularly from his New Science of Politics – in my recent Brussels Journal essay on Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen appealed to the acuity of two Journal readers, the parties who identify themselves as “Wynne” and “Ribera.”
I first read Voegelin nearly thirty years ago at the moment when I began graduate studies at UCLA in Comparative Literature. The time was the mid-1980s, the watershed moment for postmodern thinking in North America due to the publication in English of books by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and a host of lesser Parisian radicals. In the proverbial blink of eye, the literature faculties and the cohorts of graduate students fixated on the weird syntax and abstract, rather threatening vocabulary of De la gammatologie and Les mots et les choses, which constituted, from that epoch, almost the sole object of interest in the reading-courses and seminars. Together, Voegelin and René Girard gave me the intellectual tools for understanding what I was seeing. Girard, a Frenchman but not a Parisian, would have called it a mimetic crisis, with literature and all normative views as the sacrificial victim under the pejorative of “Logocentrism.” Voegelin, who was more central to my understanding at the time than Girard, would have seen it as another manifestation of metastatic faith, or rather of a metastatic – or contagious – pseudo-faith pitting itself in contest with received tradition.
In the time since my graduate studies, I have seen that pseudo-faith metastasize beyond the universities, which provided its germ with a perfect Petrie dish, into the public forum, along with its evasive vocabulary. “Wynne” sees the same thing. The passage from Voegelin that especially impressed him was the following: “A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time – but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves.” Voegelin adds that a society reaches this “limit” when “an activist sect that represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule.”
“Wynne” suspects that the recent American presidential election has precipitated just this process:
That activist sect, I fear, is making its move… The administration and its surrogates have seemingly grown so confident of their power that they have abandoned customary prudential considerations. I cite for example the unashamed bias of liberal media, who appear to have recklessly… placed their bets on the triumph of the left’s political agenda… This abandonment of caution leads me to infer that the left believes it has accrued enough power to carry the day.
“Wynne” accurately characterizes the contemporary American Left, of which the Obama administration is an organ, as an “activist sect.” I would further emphasize the religiosity of this sect, which has its roots partly in Obama’s twenty-year front-pew membership in Jeremiah Wright’s Afrocentric church in Chicago, but also in the utopian, heaven-on-earth ambitions of the executive agenda, for which Obama, himself, has become the living fetish. Indeed, the excitement surrounding these unrealizable schemes has come to have something Bacchanalian about it, which “Wynne” recognizes when he refers to the abandonment of “prudential considerations.”
“Wynne” worries, with good reason, that, “the post-modern momentum cannot be halted in traditional, incremental ways… by political discourse or short-term election outcomes.” What “Wynne” implies although he does not say it directly is that the Left has not come to power by the traditional means, but through bypassing debate and appealing, not to reason, but to emotion. Much of the “progressive” achievement since the 1960s has come about through the mandates of activist jurists, who impose radical reconstructive programs on entire segments of the population and whole communities, essentially unopposed by Congress, which has the right – some would say the obligation – to limit the courts. When the Republicans held Congress after 1994, the majority could have legislated, for example, to prevent the Courts of Appeals from adjudicating, hence also from overturning, voter-endorsed propositions like those passed by majorities in Colorado and California concerning “gay marriage” and affirmative action in hiring and college admissions, but they did not.
So-called conservatives in Congress have behaved like cowards for as long as I have been aware of politics and they bear as much blame for the current calamity as their liberal opposition.
“Wynne” asks rhetorically: “How, then, to stop it,” especially considering that “postmodern thinking and behavior are firmly established in the West and beyond?” Europe, he believes, is a lost cause, but America strikes him as not yet absolutely abject in its posture. “Wynne” writes, “In America… fear is not yet existential,” pointing out that, “polls in the U.S. indicate that as many as [eighty per cent] of Americans describe themselves as conservative.” Of course, “given the K12 legacy it’s impossible to know what they mean, [but] I think there is reason to believe that persons outside of government and between the coasts are at least less liberal than the party in power.” I share this assessment.
I would only add that precisely because conservatives tend to be people who are conspicuously not besotted by politics as the be-all and end-all of existence, they always suffer from a disadvantage when it comes to their policy arguments with liberals. Liberals are expert at taking to the streets, inserting mobs into public meetings, and libeling their opponents – behaviors that ordinary people, ethical people are loath to undertake.
This could change, and might change, if the self-aggrandizing federal government were to continue on its present course, which bids fair to wipe out remaining wealth and shackle people with increasing taxes and regulations. In that case, what “Wynne” calls “the native distrust that Americans traditionally have had for government” might be activated at last. Leadership could then come at the state level. There is already some business stirring, in states like Texas, to reassert Tenth Amendment states-rights against federal encroachment, and the word “secession,” which has long been taboo, is now occasionally heard and by no means in a capricious or unserious way.
But how would a convinced Left-Liberal government react to a declaration of secession? The United States have already endured one Civil War. As “Wynne” says, “Our choices may be stark – eventual widespread civil unrest, anarchy, and bloodshed… or the uncontested loss of liberty under the rule of a collectivist authoritarian state.”
“Ribera” takes seriously Voegelin’s characterization of modern Left-Liberalism as “Gnostic.” He offers some analysis supplementary to my own, noting that:
Gnostics, basically, do not accept a [supernatural] God: in their opinion only Humanity can pretend to be that. But in fact they know that God actually exists, and then the trouble begins: instead of changing their views, they have decided to negate and if possibly destroy, everything in reality which reminds God's acts, including human deeds (as we are created by God too).
“Ribera” identifies one of the difficulties that most people have in identifying “progressive” politics as religious or as a pseudo-religion. The difficulty stems from the fact that “progressives” insistently identify themselves as purely secular and, frequently, as aggressively non-religious or even anti-religious. The coincidence of “progressive” convictions with militant agnosticism or with professed atheism is large. But atheism has a history and the history is revealing. The codification of atheism occurred in the work of the post-Hegelian German Idealist philosophers, particularly in the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, who exercised powerful influence on Karl Marx. Feuerbach believed that, in religion, especially in the concept or image of God, people had projected (“alienated”) their own potential capacities. When once people, disabusing themselves of myth and superstition, re-absorbed what they had projected, then Reason would be perfected and there would be nothing standing in the way of the this-worldly utopia.
As “Ribera” remarks, this position grants effectiveness, if not existence, to God, and suggests that the atheist and his cousin the “progressive” are articulating a complicated type of resentment; and that they, rather than the believer, are the ones who are guilty of massive, self-deluding projection. This projection would be what accounts for the tendency of “progressives” to espouse their convictions vehemently and to be reactive rather than creative. Liberals, which is what “progressives” now call themselves, employ a vocabulary of “campaigns,” “wars” (on poverty, on prejudice), and (deceptively) “change,” which hint at a purely destructive impulse. The phrase “cutting edge” has unavoidable sacrificial connotations. This barely concealed aggression, by the way, was exactly what I saw in all that excitement over Derrida and Foucault in graduate school, which I mentioned at the outset, directed at the bogeyman “Dead White Male.”
“Ribera” gets it absolutely right when he reasons that the “progressive” or Gnostic agenda always begins with mayhem. As Saul Alinksy, Obama’s mentor, put it, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Crises provide handy opportunities to destroy things. “Ribera” understands this. The true believer, he writes, must abolish “philosophical order… reason, [a sense of] logic and causality.” He must also abolish “political order [and] morality and religion” because he “must be freed of any determinism from outside his own will and impulses, so anything the civilization brings to him is somehow suspicious.” The Gnostic “pretends to build a new world,” but what he really aims at doing is “destroying the old one… that is, any organized and superior civilization (especially the Western and Christian one).”
As “Ribera” puts it so succinctly, “Gnosticism is an entropic mind,” whose convictions being entirely reactive are also, for the Gnostic, humiliatingly dependent on what they denounce, just as atheism can never be anything more than a secondary denial of a primary position. (It matters little whether belief is “true” – it is the firstness of belief, any belief, which outrages the Gnostic non-believer.)
“Ribera” adds that the Gnostic schedule of destruction necessarily includes “any ethnic or sexual differentiation.” Yes – because such differentiation is a structure in reality that the Gnostic experiences as an intolerable because limiting imposition. “Ribera” sees in this nihilistic propensity the roots of the promotion of “immigration in western countries” and of the similar promotion of “homosexuality” and other powerfully non-normative behaviors. He points out that “androgyny is one the most basic Gnostic myths, where male and female are merged in a single being.” Interested readers will find abundant confirmation of this point in any of the standard works on Gnosticism – in Hans Jonas’ Gnostic Religion, for example, and in Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis. Some apologists for Gnosticism, like Elaine Pagels, have praised the Gnostics for their promotion of the Androgyne, evaluating Gnosticism as superior to Gospel Christianity on the basis of the concept.
I wish to thank “Wynne” and “Ribera” publicly for taking the time and exercising the care to comment so usefully on my essay. One can tell by their prose that these are two civilized people, whose education must have occurred before or despite the corruption of the public schools. I would guess, judging by the pseudonym, that “Ribera” is a Spaniard or someone from one of the Spanish-speaking countries, in which case I would also guess that he is a reader of José Ortega-y-Gasset. Like Oswald Spengler and Voegelin – and like René Girard – Ortega is one of those colossal writers whose work helps us to understand what we are seeing when we look out on the tumult of our condition.
Speaking of Girard, I would like to draw the attention of both my “interlocutors” – and of all other interested parties – to the work of Eric Gans, the inventor of “Generative Anthropology,” whose theoretical meditation on humanity picks up, as it were, where Girard’s leaves off. They might start with Gans’ latest book, The Scenic Imagination, or with his earlier Originary Thinking. I just had the pleasure of participating in the Third Conference on Generative Anthropology, held this year in Ottawa, about which I hope to report in The Brussels Journal in future.