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The New Nihilists at Work

The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West
By Michael Walsh
(Encounter Books, 222 pages, $23.99)

The culture of America and that of the rest of what is less frequently referred to as the Western world, let alone the free world, is in a parlous state. We’ve been nearly overwhelmed by nihilistic ideas that have increasingly replaced the traditional ones that for centuries have sustained the freest and most prosperous civilization the world has ever produced.

The unrelenting assault on Western values got underway in the sixties, and has been sustained since mainly by universities, the mainstream news media, the education industry, various precincts of the entertainment industry, and, all too often now, big business and the clergy. But the groundwork for this assault was laid well before the flower children appeared on the scene and Timothy Leary urged us all to turn on, tune in, and drop out.

In Pleasure Palace, journalist, novelist, music critic, and screenwriter Michael Walsh, a frequent contributor to PJ Media and National Review, gives a short but condensed and intense primer on how we got from there to here. He details for us how a series of really bad ideas, started in the 18th century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, got carried along and elaborated by Marx, Freud, Wagner, various other romantics, and a host of 20th century lefties, until we have the full-blown cultural Marxism that the West seems powerless before today.   

Walsh gives special attention – perhaps even a little too much – to a group of German cranks who made up something called the Frankfort School, and who fetched up in America after World War II, insinuated themselves in some of our top universities, from which tenured perches they retailed a destructive philosophy called Critical Theory. A toxic mix of attacks on Christianity, traditional sexual morality (even the traditional male-female sexual dichotomy), nationalism, patriotism, and any deference to any authority that gets in the way of “liberation.” Liberation defined, of course, by the critical theorists.

The prime suspects among these villains include Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Georg Lukacs, et al. These are hardly household names. But Americans who wouldn’t know Herbert Marcuse from Rocky Marciano have been infected by his authoritarian ideas, including, from his A Critique of Pure Tolerance, the mind-twister that true tolerance requires intolerance when the ideas of the Left are resisted in any way. Joe Stalin or Humpty Dumpty couldn’t have said it better.    

From the critical theorists, and their leftist soulmates, we get the radical impulses that have taken an America, which at the end of World War II was the world’s premier military and economic power, and which was spiritually sustained by what Walsh calls a confident and muscular Christianity, to the distinctly unconfident and anchorless spiritual mess that it is today. Boy, that didn’t take long. If we had gone up this fast rather than down, we would have gotten the bends.

Now the land of the free and home of the brave has speech codes and “political correctness,” an odious euphemism that simply means tyranny directed at anyone who does not follow proper left-wing indoctrination in thought and speech. How, in a supposedly free society, did we get to a place where certain political views, even certain pronouns, are “correct” and others aren’t?

Walsh instructs us on how we got there, in chapters on how the Left has disfigured a great tradition by replacing transcendence with relativity, tolerance with intolerance, high art with schlock, education with indoctrination. And all of this policed with a rigidity that would have shocked the authors of the First Amendment. He deconstructs those who have sought to deconstruct, and to an alarming extent have succeeded in deconstructing, the Western tradition.

Walsh analyzes how these ideas have gestated and prevailed through our political and cultural systems, and how they have played out in the arts as well. The sections on the arts will be clearer to those familiar with Wagner’s operas and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The book’s title, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, is from the name of Franz Schubert’s first opera.

The delusions of the contemporary left, which have gotten far more traction than they should have, are little different from the siren songs of the past. They promise a heaven on earth to the True Believer. No need to wait for the next world, we can make this one perfect through indoctrination, politics, and the iron fist of government power (though this last is rarely mentioned). Walsh puts it:

What the West has experienced since the end of the Second World War has been the erection of a modern Devil’s Pleasure Palace, a Potemkin village built on promises of “social justice” and equality for all, on visions of a world at least divorced from toil and sweat, where every man and woman is guaranteed a living, a world without hunger or want or cold or fear of racism or sexism, or any of the many other “isms” the Left is forever inventing. 

The current battle is over nothing less than how the truth is to be found. The Left claims to have a new and better way. Walsh again:

The roots of the intractable political conflict that currently plagues Western societies lie almost entirely in our rejection of myth, legend, and religion as “unscientific” and in our embrace of barren “process” to deliver solutions to the world’s ills. Whether it goes by the name of “global warming” or “climate change” or “social science,” this worldview claims to be all-encompassing, eternal, grounded in “settled science.”… This ideology brooks no rivals to its monopoly of knowledge; it dogmatically excommunicates all competing truth claims…        

Of course in the 20th century, utopian schemes that have promised the good life on this earth have led to poverty, war, and corpses by the millions. Two secular delusions alone, German National Socialism and Soviet Marxism, led in the last century to more deaths by war, starvation, and disease than had occurred in all of human history before them. The jury is still out on what the yet-to-be-named secular, non-racist, not sexist, non-judgmental (unless you’re judging conservatives to within an inch of their lives), meat-free, non-smoking, fluidly gendered, gluten-free mess we’re in now will lead to. Most will agree with Walsh there is little reason to be optimistic that the Good Ship Culture will be turned around any too soon.

But there is reason to read Walsh’s closely reasoned book. Even those who have kept up with, or even been involved in, the front lines of the culture wars. And especially if you have a family member heading off this fall to Indoctrination U., you might want to slip a copy of Pleasure Palace in his/her backpack. It can serve as an antidote to the nonsense sure to be served up there.

Larry Thornberry
Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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