Friday, March 3, 2017

A Crisis Decades in the Making

Former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who now lives in the United States, was recently quoted in The New Yorker as fearing that for the first time "it seems we have the same kind of people on both sides - in the Kremlin and in the White House. ... It's probably why they like each other. ... They care less for democracy and values, and more for personal success,however that is defined."

Kozyrev is quoted in an article by Evan Osnos, David Remnick, and Joshua Yaffa, "Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War: What lay behind Russia's interference in the 2016 election - and what lies ahead?" (March 6, 2017 Issue). The authors quote Kozyrev, but then add this caution: "Although the evidence for Russia's interference appears convincing, it is too easy to allow such an account to become the master narrative of Trump's ascent - a way to explain the presence of a man who is so alien and discomforting to so much of the population by rendering him in some way foreign. In truth, he is a phenomenon of America's own making."

(Reading that, I couldn't help but recall how for years Trump and his Republican pals scored success upon success by rendering President Obama "in some way foreign" to those who eventually propelled Trump to where he is now!)

The lesson, in any case, is not to suggest that Kozyrev might not be on to something, but more basically to beware of any seemingly single analysis of phenomena which are so multi-dimensional.

I thought of this today as I read Jason Blakely's America article, "Why Bannon's pessimism won't protect the Judeo-Chrisdtian tradition" -

Blakely regards presidential adviser Stephen Bannon as providing the Trump White House with "a coherent political theory," which, quite unlike traditionally optimistic American conservatism (William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush), is a European-style "vision of pessimistic decline." Bannon believe, Blakely argues, "that the United States has lost confidence in its values, turning to secularism and self-absorbed materialism." He puts Bannon in the tradition of Nietzsche, Spengler, and the contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq (whose novel Submission I would recommend even more now than when I first read it last year).

But Blakely doesn't buy Bannon's narrative of decline because he reasonably recognizes elements of contemporary progress, and because he rejects (from the moral high ground of contemporary values) Bannon's idealized image of mid-20th-century America as the "Golden Age" from which have fallen.

My problem with Blakely's analysis is that his single focus on the narrowness of Bannon's alleged analysis of recent history gets in the way of the larger historical picture Bannon (and others) have depicted and are, to a considerable extent, reacting against.

In defense of contemporary democracies, Blakely notes how "Americans for at least the past half-century have sought and found great joy in their families, friends, pets, food, nature, travel and small acts of charity. Perhaps no period in history has been as marked by the identification of ordinary people and ordinary pursuits as sources of profound value and dignity." He seems not to notice or care that all those nice "ordinary pursuits" characterize individuals as consumers more than as citizens. They are primarily private, largely unconnected with any concept of a community beyond the preferred "ordinary pursuits" of individuals - no common social bond, no common good, no shared common purpose. It is thanks to that lack that all those detached private individuals with all their nice "ordinary pursuits" have come to constitute a perfect breeding ground for our disordered world, with its secularized, greedy, global elite utterly detached from would-be fellow citizens.

Moreover, the fact that mid-20th-century America was not a "golden Age" (even by the moral standards of that time) does not negate the claim that America - or the West or Christianity - lost confidence in itself and inits values in the 1960s and after. One can acknowledge all sorts of progress in all sorts of areas even while recognizing that that progress has been accompanied by a radical turn toward an amoral global secularism. That amoral global secularism is not only at the root of so much of our post-modern malaise, but also accounts for political progressivism's electoral decline, thanks to the damage done to so much of what ought in theory to be political progressivism's popular constituency. Trumpist populism as an alternative to the best in our American progressive tradition has emerged from the social breakdown induced in large measure by amoral global secularism which has been the dark side of contemporary progressivism.

Blakely is surely correct in that Bannon's dark vision is a dead end. His solutions have nothing positive to offer, let aloe anything consonant with either our values or our long-term security and well-being. But that should not blind us to the calamitous consequences of our decades-long American loss of confidence in American values, more generally Western civilization's loss of confidence in Western values, and most disastrously Christianity's loss of confidence in Christian values.

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