By Charlie Johnston
I have been struggling for months on what to do going forward. Every instinct in me cries out to adopt a “defend and repair” stance towards our culture. When you reach a tipping point, though, where the majority of the people of a culture – or a preponderance of the leadership thereof – has decisively rejected the animating principles that built and sustained that culture, a “defend and repair” stance is an exercise in futility. When it is clear that the battle is lost, the most effective and responsible stance to take is an “endure, give witness, and prepare to rebuild” stance. While I still forlornly hope for the former, I will largely act from the latter perspective henceforth.
The deeper I dive into analysis of the midterm elections, the more I think our culture – and our country – is lost. While suburban women dramatically moved towards leftism, perhaps more telling is that for the first time in memory, suburban men voted Democrat by a small margin. Look at a map of the 2014 midterms and you will see cities that are blue, but the suburbs surrounding them are usually pink or red. This time, the cities and the suburbs were uniformly blue. As it turns out, the “walkaway” movement is statistically insignificant. Both blacks and Hispanics voted in their normal overwhelming numbers for Democrats (though there was statistically significant movement among blacks under 30 towards Republicans). If Republicans have lost the suburbs – and it appears they have – they have lost the country.
It is shocking to me that this should be so after Democrats engaged in large-scale systematic mob action, encouraging and excusing violence, intimidation, and threatening mobs against those who did not agree with them. The smearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh was just in the rear-view mirror on election day – and was one of the most shameful episodes of demagogic maliciousness by a major party in our country’s history. The whole Russian collusion business has turned out to be the only serious internal coup attempt in our country’s history – and was perpetrated entirely by Democrats and establishment Republicans. Social media sites routinely censored conservative voices for pedestrian comments while excusing inflammatory rhetoric by leftists. The establishment media has engaged in malfeasance and character assassination on a massive scale. I really thought ordinary people would figure out that, if they watch CNN or MSNBC regularly, it always turns out that the narrative those outlets are peddling four to six weeks earlier are false. You don’t even have to watch an alternative site to notice this – just pay attention. But our collective institutional memory has developed late-stage Alzheimer’s, it seems.
Sure, people could change their minds in two years, but we have established that mob violence, intimidation, harassment, character assassination (and attempts at the real thing), censorship, using state power to compel individual conscience, and activist journalistic malfeasance are now acceptable tools, provided they are wielded for the preferred ideology of the elite classes. Meanwhile, elite classes are more willfully and invincibly ignorant than I have seen at the border of any great historical crisis. Read, sometime, a transcript of any of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. These were a real phenomenon in their time. They lasted an average of three hours and attracted great crowds of people from many miles around every city they were held. The arguments were long, complex and deep. The audience was composed mainly of what modern elites would call “rustic frontiersmen.” Yet those rustics followed the arguments closely and shouted the occasional aside. Read any one of those debates and then ask yourself honestly what modern newsman or “statesman” could follow the logic in them for five minutes without getting hopelessly lost. Then ask yourself who the rustics really are.
Students come out of “universities” dumber than when they went in. It is all indoctrination now. Doing the actual questioning and examination that is key to critical thinking is not only discouraged in universities; it could get you tossed out for “hate speech”. So we have a herd of over-credentialed, deeply under-educated students making decisions based on what sounds or feels good…what posture will make them feel more virtuous without involving any significant sacrifice. The old Soviet Union and modern China must be terribly jealous: they forced people into re-education camps; in America, though, parents scrimp and save to pay for their children’s re-education camps. Late-night comedians are the worst. Not a one of them has much in the way of knowledge or wisdom, yet they prattle on with their fractured sophistry while the audience claps like a bunch of trained seals seeking their next fish – all because it is seen as cool – not because any of it would stand up to two minutes of actual critical thinking.
Identity politics has done terrible damage to the country. Having rejected the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream of a day when all men would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, the left has decided that identity is the ONLY thing people are to be judged on, thus condemning society to never-ending struggles between roving bands of rival identity warlords. Even worse than that, the theory behind such a destructive philosophy has percolated down into the larger foundation of the culture. America’s founding generation committed itself to the idea that, with freedom (including due process and free speech), even a country of rustic backwoodsmen could make a go of it if its people dedicated themselves to hard work, enterprise, rigorous examination and prudent judgment. It was a brilliant success, as that country not only made a go of it but thrived and became great. But identity politics ideologues scorn such notions, believing that life is one big lottery – and those who pick a winning ticket must share it with those who don’t. They think our prosperity and liberty are just characteristic of being American; that no consequences attach to abandoning fair play, intellectual rigor, hard work and prudent judgment. As we draw down on the intellectual and moral capital our ancestors bequeathed us (regarding them with contempt as we do so) the decay grows ever more virulent.
John Adams famously said, after the ratification of the Constitution that the system they had devised “…was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In presentations on his master work, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville often said, “America is not good because she is great; she is great because she is good. When she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” True as those sentiments are, they are now classified as “hate speech.” A sort of demonic madness has been unleashed on the culture. It is eating away at the vitals of the country and the world. Historically, great societies on the verge of catastrophic collapse blithely maintain it can never happen to them because they are so rich and powerful. Doom usually comes in a rush, after years or even decades of visible decline (probably because the stabilizing elements of the society have been hollowed out by the termites of collectivism – and little remains to prop up the remaining shell). When it comes, many of the nattering elite remain in chirpy denial for days or even weeks after the decisive blow has fallen.
In the 1700 years since Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire with the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., that faith fueled the growth of Western Civilization, which eventually bequeathed the west with the most astonishing harvest of liberty and prosperity in the history of humanity, all firmly anchored in the faith. While western societies routinely failed to live the tenets of the faith well, for those 1700 years it was accepted that this was the ideal to aspire to. Even the malefactors in society gave lip service to the faith – and often sought to reform themselves, for this was the default setting of a society that worked, that cared for others, and that was generous. We were a functionally Christian culture. But the world has shifted on its axis in the last decade. The reality is that we Christians are now a minority movement (and an increasingly persecuted one, at that) in a functionally pagan culture. Even there, the new “enlightened” elite class cannot live any consistency: neo-paganism is a stew pot of paganism, pantheism, and genuinely primitive rank superstitions. If the ascendant “social justice warriors” had any clue of what such cultures were really like, they would flee in terror from what they are conjuring. But they can’t even remember that Venezuela, just a decade ago, was still a rare wealthy Latin American country, even as it was drawing down on the capital bequeathed to it by its forbears in its mad rush to socialism. It was brought low, just in the last decade, by the very ideology American socialists pursue with such enthusiasm and that the majority of the millennial generation favors. Like I said, our institutional memory is shot.
I have been re-reading, very slowly, William Shirer’s masterful “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” The last time I read it I was around 20. It has been a horrifying experience. The parallels between what happened then and what has been happening in our culture the last decade are astounding and abundant – and they are not the parallels that the ignorant left think are there. In fact, the only legitimate similarity between Hitler and Trump is that both stabilized and sparked renewed growth in moribund economies early on. Trump criticizes the press; Hitler jailed and executed press critics of his regime. Trump de-regulates the economy and transfers power back to the states. Hitler put everything under federal government control and abolished the independent power of the states within a year. Trump fights adverse court rulings through appeals and legal arguments. Hitler fired judges – and jailed and executed some. Trump expands religious liberty and conscience protections. Hitler made all churches submit to state direction or see pastors jailed and executed. Only the invincibly ignorant could see any significant parallels between Trump and Hitler – or conservatism and the fanatic progressivism of the Nazis.
Here, though, are a few interesting genuine parallels. Do you know who the most enthusiastic fans of Hitler were in the year before he took power? College students. The universities then were hotbeds of violent brownshirts as our universities now are hotbeds of violent blackshirts. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in early 1933. Late in the year, his adoring college students staged the first mass book burning, declaring that Hitler’s ideology was so obviously right and morally superior that the only reason anyone could possibly disagree with it was because they hated Germans – and the student Nazis were not going to tolerate that sort of hatred. When England and France mounted feeble resistance to German expansion and militarization, Hitler actually said they were engaged in a “hate-inspired” ideology. It was not just Jews who were fired from their jobs and had their possessions confiscated; ordinary businessmen who had done business with Jews or received financing through Jewish banks were destroyed and often jailed. The great Peter Kreeft said five years ago that the new authoritarians were as likely to call themselves “anti-fascists” as “fascists,” but the program and tactics for taking and exercising power would be the same. Amazing that a majority has gotten so stupid it thinks fascist tactics and aims are actually anti-fascist.
Normally during trying times, our churches are the pillars of stability. This time, concurrently with the collapse of civic culture, all the churches are in crisis. The most visible is the crisis of abuse, cover-ups and doctrinal degeneration in the Catholic Church. It is not the only place suffering from malignance in high places, though. A favorite new theologian of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America speaks glowingly of “ethically-sourced porn” while sprinkling her presentations with the most scatological vulgarity. The old mainline Protestant Churches have largely become left-wing activist hives, preaching the virtues of LGBT, transgenderism, abortion – and whatever anti-Christian nonsense of the moment rules the popular culture. In consequence, those denominations are dying and have become largely irrelevant. Even Evangelicals have started going wobbly in some quarters. I cite this not in examination of the issues, but just to note that the pillars ordinary people normally turn to in crisis have become as fragile as a tower made of spun sugar. In 2 Timothy 3:5. St. Paul speaks of a time when men will have a form of godliness while denying the power thereof – and he warns us to turn away from such men. That time is surely here. If you want a fuller description of our times, read the four verses that precede that which I have cited.
We focus with dread on the doom, the oppression and suffering that the anti-God left intentionally seeks to bring down upon us. It is reasonable that we should. The constant attacks and dehumanization, along with assurances by the aggressors to themselves that they are doing it only for the highest moral reasons, are ever the cultural prelude to mass violence and atrocities against a targeted population. It seems that even the most degraded people must work themselves up to the proper frenzy before they can fully commit the hideously unthinkable on those they disagree with. The process is wearily similar in its progression in all ages. What is easy to miss is the doom, the suffering such as these unwittingly bring upon themselves. The most enthusiastic supporters of Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao suffered as much (sometimes even more) than the opponents of these tyrants very quickly after they took power. For most, the eager anticipation of taking power and the certainty of their own moral supremacy gave way within a year to a baffled agony – at least for those who were not imprisoned or executed themselves. Their dreams quickly became an unending nightmare. It is not just us; all will be broken on the anti-God left’s aberrant drive for power.
When I was a much younger man, I often complained that my life was like being forced to watch a developing train wreck in slow motion without being able to stop it. Both those who drove and those who merely rode would be broken. It was agonizing torture. I would ask bitterly why I was shown anything at all if I could not stop it. My angel finally, after years of frustration and tears, told me there was something I could do: I could prepare the ambulances.
While I fight their depredations, I feel a deep sense of pity and sorrow for the anti-God left. They have already lost their capacity for simple joy. Incapable of simple happiness any more, they search restlessly for something to be offended by and to condemn. Whatever brief frisson of pleasure it brings them, it sure doesn’t make them happy. Can you imagine spending your day being offended by the “racism” of a Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? With every discovery of “offense,” they dig themselves down a little deeper and lose a little more of the capacity for wonder, joy and fellowship. I grieve for young people. They are taught a scabrous hook-up culture, conducted in the minefields of a me-too culture combining the worst elements of both libertine and puritanical ugliness. Young people are forestalled from savoring the mystery, the ambiguity of actual romance…the sorrow of rejection, the joy of acceptance, the delight of flirtation. Not so long ago, flirting was a common form of pleasant social discourse, even when it was not serious. A woman who wasn’t interested was flattered, rather than offended (and vice versa) by it. Now if a young man ever so politely asks a woman out who is not interested, he risks a visit from the police. How all this has impoverished interactions between all people! It makes it all into a power relationship instead of the mystery and delight of romance. When relationships are all about power, they tear down rather than build up – and all are about power. Even the sweet song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” is being denounced as a “date rape” song. Seriously?! Moderns cannot conceive of how propriety was valued just a few decades ago…or that a young couple could delight in each other’s company (risking offending some sense of propriety for the joy of it) without sex actually being at issue. But moderns can’t imagine any relations between men and women that are not an overt or hidden struggle over sex. How pathetic and miserable! And they can’t extricate themselves from this self-imposed misery.
Just a few years before he became president, Abraham Lincoln observed (in his ‘House Divided’ speech) that for nearly a decade the country had been trying to tamp down the controversy and strife that beset it, but had only seen that strife grow. Noting that sections of the country were focused on different ends, rather than just different means to similar ends, Lincoln said that the controversy would not cease “…until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.” The ends different factions in this country now seek are more divided than they were in the prelude to the Civil War. The left intends misery and oppression for any who will not give up their devotion to faith and liberty. Whether the left treads lightly or harshly, I think they have won the culture and will ultimately have their way, only to be surprised when they find the misery they only intended for us holds sway over all.
We have chosen this course with all the evidence of where it leads before us, whether we chose to take it seriously or not. So we are held responsible to God now for what we choose. Having completed the year in which all things were revealed, we now enter a terrible year of judgment over what we chose in light of those revelations.
At the fourth decade of every Mystery of the Rosary I pray, I ask an intention for all the faithful throughout the world, asking that God “…make us a sign of Our Lord’s presence in the world.” As judgment mounts, misery will swell throughout the world, driven by the frustration of those thick with lust for power and dominance. As bad as it will be, it makes for fertile fields for evangelization. Those disappointed to find they are even more miserable after attaining their ends than they were before will finally be ready to consider a different way.
The way forward will be for each of us to steadily resolve to be a sign of Our Lord’s presence in the world, neither enabling the disorder that has come upon us nor simply destroying those who have conjured it. In doing that, we will bring forth the Springtime of the Gospel St. John Paul spoke of and facilitate the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart. Going forward, speaking practically of how to become signs of Our Lord’s presence in the world will be my emphasis.
I still pray that we may turn from the madness and preserve a once-great culture. But it is time to prepare the ambulances.