I have been thinking a good deal recently about Arnold Toynbee’s much-quoted observation that “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” As an historical proposition, I’d say that it was like the story of the curate’s breakfast egg. “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!” “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you!” the curate replied. “Parts of it are excellent!”
And yet we all see the pertinence of Toynbee’s point. While there are, as a matter of historical fact, plenty of civilizations that succumb to invasion, occupation, and subjugation, there are also many that wither from within from a failure of self-confidence, of (for the Bergsonians out there) élan vital, of what your philosophy graduate student likes to call thumos: spirit, gumption, “heart,” manliness.
The fact that no one can even speak of “manliness” today without looking over his shoulder these days is an index that thumos is on the endangered species list (along, as it happens, with sperm counts in the Western world). Why this should be is a fraught question—something whose answer is “overdetermined” as our Freudian friends like to say.
One major reason, I submit, is that the dominant ideology of the modern West is an ideology of suicide, what the philosopher James Burnham identified as “liberalism.”
It goes without saying that when it comes to terms being “overdetermined,” “liberalism” is right up at the top. The word has its root in līber, free, which is why it used to be said that tolerance was a defining characteristic of liberalism. Edmund Burke was a liberal in this sense, as was Matthew Arnold, David Hume, James Madison, and other founding fathers.
But that was a long time ago. Nowadays, “liberalism” is distinguished above all by its illiberalism and intolerance. Thus the ideology of “wokeness” and the prevalence therein of the rhetoric of “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces.” If being offended is grounds for interdicting speech then the goal is not tolerance, comrade, but conformity. And it is a short step from that realization to a bureaucracy whose primary aim is the enforcement of that conformity.
I suspect that certain wrinkles in our current political dispensation would have surprised Burnham. I don’t believe that he foresaw the humid, hothouse dimension of “the way we live now.” The more exotic precincts of sexual enfranchisement, for example, would have prompted a raised eyebrow, as would such phenomena as the military provision of “maternity flight suits,” “gender reassignment” surgery, and spurious charges of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” But in essentials, he correctly identified the pathology.
The issue, Burnham saw, is that modern allotropes of liberalism have equipped us with an ethic that is far too abstract and too empty to inspire existential allegiance. Modern liberalism, Burnham wrote in Suicide of the West,
does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death. There is no tragic dimension in its picture of the good life. Men become willing to endure, sacrifice, and die for God, for family, king, honor, country, from a sense of absolute duty or an exalted vision of the meaning of history. . . . And it is precisely these ideas and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked, and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary, and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions—pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering. Except for mercenaries, saints, and neurotics, no one is willing to sacrifice and die for progressive education, medicare, humanity in the abstract, the United Nations, and a ten percent rise in Social Security payments.
Thus it is that Burnham could conclude that the primary function of liberalism was to “permit Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution,” to view weakness, failure, even collapse as not as a defeat but “as the transition to a new and higher-order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions, and discriminations of the past.”
Sound familiar? Of course, it does. It’s the hit tune that is playing on every college campus, and that echoes throughout the bulletins emitted by HR departments of major corporations, and the bleatings of Hollywood stars, media “celebrities,” and woke personalties whose affluence is matched only by their ignorance and unconscious commitment to mouthing the sanctioned progressive clichés of the moment.
A Two-Pronged Attack
I bring up James Burnham’s contention that the ideology of liberalism is a prescription for civilizational suicide not because I want to argue his case but as a prolegomenon, what Kierkegaard called a “preliminary expectoration,” regarding the curious pincer movement we see at work in America today.
One of the strangest things about the current administration (I hesitate to call it the “Biden Administration” because Joe Biden is clearly just a puppet in the hands of the factions and personalities that engineered his “election”)—one of the strangest features of the administration, I say, is the breathless velocity with which they are proceeding the bring about that “fundamental transformation of the United States of America” that Biden’s predecessor and (possibly) puppet master Barack Obama promised.
The current administration is behaving as if it had a huge popular mandate. In fact, it won, if it won, by the narrowest of margins. (I’ll repeat parenthetically here what I have said elsewhere: I believe Donald Trump actually won but that the concerted efforts of his opponents overturned the election.) And stepping down from the top spot, the election of 2020 was a disaster for the Democrats, though not, I predict, as much of a disaster as the 2022 election will be. And yet here they are behaving as if Karl Marx, if not Mao Zedong himself, had been elected instead of a senile factotum who was supposed to bring back “normalcy,” national unity, and political “bipartisanship.”
How’s that working out? I am going to ignore the disaster at our Southern border, the fiscal nightmare that Biden’s spending and tax programs are causing, and even the brewing international emergency that his supine posture regarding China and Iran (combined with his belligerence towards Russia) are fomenting. I’d just like to mention two prongs of that pincer movement I mentioned above. They might seem like minor, unrelated initiatives. I think they speak to a deep and spiritually unified rot in the American soul. about:blank
The first claw of the pincer was the announcement a few days ago that the state of Virginia was seeking to eliminate special courses in advanced mathematics for high school students before the 11th grade. Why in heaven’s name would they do this? Why, in order to foster “equity,” of course—which is to say, in order to foster the malign spirit of egalitarianism and prevent any students from excelling.
Quoth a Virginia educrat named Jennifer Allard,
Many of our students do not have access to the mathematics that they will need either in their personal or professional adult lives. The issue of inequity in mathematics education makes it essential for us to initiate serious discussions among a variety of stakeholders to achieve the critical mass necessary to catalyze change in school mathematics.
“Stakeholders.” Do you have to read any further? The truth is that some people (not I, alas) are clever at math, others are not. It is a matter of national security that we encourage those who are clever at math to excel. Allard and her colleagues are pursuing the lowest common denominator, a course of action that our opponents in China, Iran, and Russia will only applaud.
Cancerous Critical Race Theory
The attack on excellence and achievement is one side of the pincer movement. The other side is the injection of Marxist ideology, dressed up in a new rhetorical garb, into not only our school but also the workplace and throughout the federal government.
As commentator Stanley Kurtz noted in the New York Post on Friday, “Joe Biden’s Department of Education has signaled its intent to impose the most radical forms of critical race theory on America’s schools, very much including the “1619 Project” and the so-called anti-racism of Ibram X. Kendi (which advocates a massive and indefinite expansion of reverse discrimination).”
What is “critical race theory”? Many readers of American Greatness will know, But I think the documentary filmmaker and writer Christopher Rufo, who has done as much as anyone to expose the toxic nature of the movement, is right: “most Americans have never heard of it—and of those who have, many don’t understand it.”
Although it was born in the fetid corridors of academia, CRT (as it is often abbreviated) has escaped from the laboratory and is infecting the population at large. “[I]t has,” Rufo writes, “increasingly become the default ideology in our public institutions over the past decade. It has been injected into government agencies, public school systems, teacher training programs, and corporate human-resources departments, in the form of diversity-training programs, human-resources modules, public-policy frameworks, and school curricula.” But what is it, exactly?
It is radical Marxism, dusted off and given lessons in the new vocabulary of anti-America “resistance”: climate change, “heteronormativity,” and racism, racism, racism. As Rufo observes,
Its supporters deploy a series of euphemisms to describe critical race theory, including ‘equity,’ ‘social justice,’ ‘diversity and inclusion,’ and ‘culturally responsive teaching.’ Critical race theorists, masters of language construction, realize that ‘neo-Marxism’ would be a hard sell. Equity, on the other hand, sounds non-threatening and is easily confused with the American principle of equality. But the distinction is vast and important. Indeed, critical race theorists explicitly reject equality—the principle proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, defended in the Civil War, and codified into law with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. To them, equality represents ‘mere nondiscrimination’ and provides ‘camouflage’ for white supremacy, patriarchy, and oppression.
So here we are. There were some people who thought that James Burnham’s identification of liberalism with civilization suicide was hyperbolic. They also tended to scoff at the idea that the primary function of liberalism was to “permit Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution.” I wonder what they would say now?
About Roger Kimball
Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).