The Zionist social critic Max Nordau began his 1916 treatise Die Biologie der Ethik with a vivid recapitulation of a pioneering animal psychology experiment conducted by the zoologist Karl Möbius, wherein a carnivorous pike and a terrified tench were placed on opposite sides of an aquarium that had been divided by means of a transparent plate. Upon catching sight of its prey, the pike instinctively launched itself in the minnow’s direction, only to collide violently with the invisible obstacle in its way. Time and again the predatory fish slammed into the pane, its shovel-like snout increasingly bloodied, until “at last a dim idea dawned upon his dull mind that some unknown and invisible power was protecting the tench, and that any attempt to devour it would be in vain; consequently from that moment he ceased from all further endeavours to molest his prey. Thereupon the pane of glass was removed from the tank, and pike and tench swam around together; the former took no notice whatever of his defenceless neighbour, who had become sacred to him.”
For Nordau, the parable of the pike and the tench helped to explain the “phenomenon of Morality,” whereby an unseen force can prompt a man to do “that which he passionately desires to leave undone” while refraining “from doing that which all his instincts urge him to do.” The pike, equipped with a rudimentary brain amounting to something like 1/1305 of its overall body weight, does not question the origin of that force and consequently “gives up any further attempt upon his mysteriously protected prey.” But the encephalization quotient of our own species is, for better or worse, a great deal higher, and we therefore have “not ceased to reflect upon this barrier, to investigate it with a timid yet irresistible desire for knowledge, and to try and discover its nature” — and to test its limits. Our study of this individual and collective moral barrier is of profound importance, given that, as Nordau posited, “conscience is the invisible link which unites the individual with a social group, just as speech, custom, tradition, and political institutions are the visible links.”
As an essay in Tablet Magazine notes, the late Latvian-born scholar Judith Shklar warned of how “liberalism can degenerate into a cult of victimhood that permits our sadistic desires to be passed off as unimpeachable virtue.”
I would only add that customs and traditions are, pace Nordau, themselves not always visible, largely being taken for granted as they are — recall the anthropologist Ralph Linton’s famous observation that “the last thing a fish would ever notice would be water.” Such is the basis of Chesterton’s principle of the fence, advanced on the grounds that there are innumerable cultural practices and strictures whose origins and meaning may have been lost or obscured over the years but nonetheless play a vital role in our collective social and political life. As those customs and traditions are actively effaced, or simply allowed to fade into irrelevance, we find ourselves in the position of Möbius’ pike, influenced by force of habit even while the old framework has disappeared. That said, we are also capable of intuiting what pikes and pickerels evidently cannot, namely that if the all-important glass plate is gone, then the rules of the game have changed and the tench is no longer sacred.
Nordau somewhat optimistically assumed that “only the decadent man is uncannily lonely in spirit, alien, indifferent or definitely hostile to his human surroundings; he is, according to the violence and polarization of his instincts, the passionate anarchist or the born criminal.” What happens, though, when decadence becomes all-pervasive? The brilliant Russian pre-revolutionary philosopher Vasily Rozanov sounded the alarm about the “decadence of philosophy and finally the decadence of morality, politics, and forms of communal life” that produces a world without restraint, dominated by the “cult of the ‘I,’ ” which in turn fuels a “new type of nisus formativus of human culture, so to speak, [from which] we should expect to see great oddities, great hideousness, and perhaps great calamities and dangers.” In such an environment we would expect to see “passionate anarchists” given free rein, with the sanctity of a defenseless neighbor counting for nothing. Deprived of Möbius’ barrier, we would find ourselves right back at the beginning, uncomfortably ensconced in that state of nature in which “Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe,” or a peckish pike, as the case may be. For some this would be a catastrophe; for others, an opportunity.
The Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko, in his remarkable book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, first published in Poland in 2012 and in English translation four years later, detailed the many similarities between communist and liberal-democratic regimes, foremost among them the unshakeable belief in technê, modernization, and social engineering. “In one system,” Legutko writes, “this meant reversing the current of Siberia’s rivers, in the other, a formation of alternative family models.“ What the two systems share above all, however, is a desire to have the past “eradicated altogether or at least made powerless as an object of relativizing or derision…. It goes without saying that everything — in both communism and liberal democracy — should be modern: thinking, family, school, literature, and philosophy. If a thing, a quality, an attitude, an idea is not modern, it should be modernized or will end up in the dustbin of history (an unforgettable expression having as much relevance for the communist ideology as for the liberal-democratic.)” In recent weeks we have seen Susan Rice and Charleston Councilman Karl Brady Jr. using that particular Trotsky-coined phrase in reference to the president’s supporters and a statue of John C. Calhoun, respectively, suggesting the extent to which it has entered into common parlance.
For Legutko, this inclination can largely be understood in terms of der Wille zur Macht: “By becoming a member of a communist and liberal-democratic society, man rejects a vast share of loyalties and commitments that until not long ago shackled him, in particular those that were imposed on him through the tutelage of religion, social morality, and tradition. He feels renewed and strong and therefore has nothing but pity toward those miserable ones who continue to be attached to long-outdated rules and who succumb to the bondage of unreasonable restraints.” In truth it does not seem to be “pity” that characterizes the attitude of the communist or liberal towards the conservative or the traditionalist. The toppling of statues, the “decolonizing” of curricula and bookshelves, alongside other revisionist facets of the nascent successor ideology-driven revolution, instead come across as entirely pitiless, part of what is perceived as an existential struggle.
Highly pertinent, then, was Blake Smith’s June 17, 2020, Tablet essay “Moral Cruelty and the Left,” an exploration of the political philosophy of the late Latvian-born scholar Judith Shklar, who warned of how “liberalism can degenerate into a cult of victimhood that permits our sadistic desires to be passed off as unimpeachable virtue.” For Shklar, “humanitarianism unshaken by skepticism and unmindful of its limitations” poses a serious risk to civil society, for, in Smith’s summation, “liberal democracies are not good places to find good people.… Their citizens are habituated into ‘self-assertive vices’ of acquisitiveness, selfishness, and cowardice,” and their “pious cruelties” and “massive dishonesty” are designed to inflict upon the regime’s enemies “deliberate and persistent humiliation, so that the victim can eventually trust neither himself nor anyone else.” The goal is the removal of society’s Möbius plate and the subsequent reversion to the tabula rasa of Year Zero.
It is basically a truism at this point that both the communist and liberal-democratic societies are fueled by quasi-religious impulses, even if they all too often represent an inversion of age-old religious principles. Dostoyevsky understood that
The modern negationist declares himself openly in favour of the devil’s advice and maintains that it is more likely to result in man’s happiness than the teachings of Christ. To our foolish but terrible Russian socialism (for our youth is mixed up in it) it is a directive and, it seems, a very powerful one: the loaves of bread, the Tower of Babel (that is, the future reign of socialism) and the complete enslavement of the freedom of conscience — that is what the desperate negationist is striving to achieve. The difference is, that our socialists (and they are not only the hole-and-corner nihilists) are conscious Jesuits and liars who do not admit that their ideal is the ideal of the coercion of the human conscience and the reduction of mankind to the level of cattle.
Yuri Slezkine, in his gargantuan study of Soviet ideology House of Government (2017), convincingly asserted that Marx and Engels were at heart millenarian prophets who “focused on the elimination of private property and the family as the most powerful and mutually reinforcing sources of inequality.” In doing so they sought to establish a “perfect system of social order” based (theoretically, at least) on “unforced and undivided labor,” which, in Marx’s words, would allow people to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic” — quite the earthly paradise, achieved with the wave of a hand. As Slezkine further noted, the Marxists millenarians “had a lot less to say about future perfection than how it would arrive — and how soon. And, of course, it would arrive very soon and very violently, and it would be followed by the rule of the saints over the nations with an iron scepter, and then those who had overcome would inherit all, and the old order of things would pass away, and there would be a new earth, and the glory and honor of the nations would be brought into it, and nothing impure would ever enter it, nor would anyone who did what was shameful or deceitful.”
The curious thing about the Bolsheviks, however, was that whereas “most millenarian sects died as sects,” they actually “found themselves in charge of Babylon while still expecting the millennium in their lifetimes.” In order to maintain momentum, they had to keep up the apocalyptic struggle against both the “defenders of the old world” and the “false prophets of the new,” which in turn required the systematic liquidation of Whites, pseudo-Marxists, Don Cossacks, kulaks, Kazakhs, Chechens, anyone who stood in the way of what Lenin called the “resolute and ruthlessly determined annihilation of the exploiters and enemies of the working people.” Beautiful icons and statues, meanwhile, were reviled as filth; the commissar Aleksandr Arosev ordered “all the old trash” to be “shaken out,” while the Society of Militant Atheists proclaimed that “not a single house of prayer shall remain in the USSR and the very concept of God must be banished from the Soviet Union as a survival of the Middle Ages.”
In all this Bolsheviks hardly differed from their Jacobin forebears, who, despite their apparent secularism, were greater zealots than any religious fundamentalist. Tocqueville was one of the earliest commentators to realize that the French Revolution “was a political revolution that proceeded along the lines of a religious revolution,” but this was an obvious enough conclusion to draw given the French revolutionaries’ marked predilection for referring to their actions and institutions in patently theological terms. After searching through the Archives Parlementaires, the historian Ronald Schechter found some 1,925 invocations of holiness (saint, saints, sainte, saintes) in the official records during the 10 months of the Terror, including the “holy mountain” from which high laws were handed down, “holy liberty,” the “holy ark” of the Convention, the “holy land” of France, “holy reason,” and naturally “holy indignation,” “holy fury,” and the “holy guillotine.” The Jacobins even devised their own orisons, with the Republican Society of Dirgoin-sur-Loire praying “Oh, you, holy Mountain! Continue to cast from the heights of your unshakeable rock that lively light which penetrates the soul with all the republican virtues,” while the commune of St. Maixent intoned in the most bizarrely perfervid fashion that “public spirit grows sensibly; everyone yearns more and more to burn his incense at the foot of the holy Mountain: all respect the sacred volcano that dried up with its fire the miry swamp whose stinking vapors corrupted everything that your wisdom wanted to undertake.”
We are accustomed to thinking of the “religion of humanity” as essentially benign, something along the lines of Jean-Baptiste de Cloots’ idealistic Embassy of Human Race, made up of an assortment of public-spirited freethinkers and opera house extras, which arrived in Paris on June 19, 1790, to urge the revolutionaries to abolish tyranny and establish a beneficent and altruistic universal family of nations. Lovely sentiments, but such an agenda never seems to turn out well, for, as Christopher Lasch among many others argued, “the capacity for loyalty is stretched too thin when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race. It needs to attach itself to specific people in specific places, not to an abstract ideal of universal human rights. We love particular men and women, not humanity in general.” Jean-Baptiste de Cloots no doubt came to this realization himself, for after the Insurrection of August 10, 1792, he became increasingly militant, declared himself the “personal enemy of Jesus Christ,” and voted for the execution of poor King Louis XVI, only, appropriately enough, to follow Louis up the steps to the guillotine the following year. It was the Embassy of the Human Race that, in Roberto Calasso’s words, was “dispatched from the Realm of Operetta to announce the imminent infiltration of its subjects into Europe, [and] gave the final impetus to the decapitation of those noble titles with whose aroma operetta would be spiced.” It was all an absurd pasquinade, a preposterous farce, but a farce that led inexorably to the Terror, the guillotine, the mass drowning of priests (the infamous noyades), the Vendéen genocide, and untold acts of iconoclasm and cultural devastation. And all this thanks to the temporary but very real imposition of Year Zero, which the Khmer Rouge, devoted students of the Jacobins, would go on to call chhnam saun, a concept recognizable to any would-be cultural revolutionary.
The ongoing bout of civil unrest must be viewed through this wide revolutionary lens. Michael Tracey has remarked on how “many so-called protests took on features highly reminiscent of religion: collective worship, public confession and requests for salvation, devotional poses and gestures, group prayer, the creation of a new pantheon of martyr figures to revere, and the adoption of liturgical rites and rituals.” A shift towards iconoclasm was inevitable under such conditions. That the destruction and defacement of statues and memorials associated with the Confederacy has seamlessly transitioned to similar treatment of monuments associated with prominent abolitionists, or even Progressivism itself (viz. Jean Pond Miner’s toppled Forward in Madison, Wisconsin), is not as surprising as it might seem at first. The indiscriminate fire of revolutionary faith has always been used to dry up the “miry swamp” of tradition, while the paroxysmal convulsions of a cultural revolution are explicitly meant to shake out the “old trash” of history.
Chateaubriand rightly held that a tyrant only “dominates the present, the past defies him, and I retain my liberty in all that has preceded his glory.” This is the Achilles’ heel of both communism and liberal democracy, those two systems defined by an all-encompassing desire to place, in Legutko’s words, “man himself, in the full bloom of his humanity,” as “the proper object of worship.” The past is more than inconvenient; it is a serious obstacle, and it becomes the object of a raging libido dominandi. These days, when a monument is targeted for destruction, it hardly seems to matter what the historical figure represented even stood for, just that the monument itself still stands to this day. As one Madison “protester” was reported to have queried during the tearing down of a memorial to the Norwegian-American abolitionist Col. Hans Christian Heg, “Who even is this guy?” It hardly matters. This is negationism, pure and simple, but it must be done if we are to institute yet another chhnam saun (and we know how well those always end).
As the demolition proceeds apace, it has been distressing to say the least to find that foreign governments have in many ways taken the matter more seriously than local and state governments and other civic and religious institutions. While Catholic clerics in California scramble to hide statues of Saint Junípero Serra — to take but one instance of capitulation — we see the Embassy of Spain in the United States decrying the damage done to statues of Serra and Miguel de Cervantes, while expressing “deep concern regarding these attacks to federal, state, and local authorities, asking that the memory of our rich shared history be protected, always with the utmost respect for the debates currently taking place.” Polish President Andrzej Duda, meanwhile, began his recent visit to Washington, D.C., with a solemn trip over to Lafayette Park, where he placed a wreath on the inexplicably and unconscionably vandalized monument to Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko. And Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s national conservative prime minister, could not help alluding to recent events with a bit of well-deserved self-satisfaction: “Statues are being toppled, conditions are deplorable and there are gang wars on the beautiful streets of small towns in civilized Western European countries. I look at the countries advising us how to conduct our lives properly and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
All the more eye-opening has been the May 9, 2020, completion and June 22, 2020, dedication of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Moscow Oblast’s Patriot Park, consecrated as part of the 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War. Designed in a monumental, archaeo-futurist style, bedecked with stunning mosaics of martial saints and martyrs alongside murals of cherished war heroes, and engirded by a museum filled with priceless military artifacts, the cathedral has been described by Unherd’s Aris Roussinos as “a temple to martial glory that goes far beyond Christianity, the architectural equivalent of a steppe khan drinking wine from the skull of a conquered foe” — not a bad thing if you ask me. It is difficult to gaze upon a sublime and supremely confident new structure like this and not compare it to the pitiful state of, say, the statue of Col. Heg, unthinkingly desecrated, decapitated, and tossed in Lake Monona.
It seems fitting here to conclude roughly where we began, with Max Nordau, a writer less known for the aforementioned Die Biologie der Ethik than for his earlier two-volume polemic Entartung, or Degeneration (1892–93). In that masterpiece, Nordau chronicled the “spectacle presented by the doings of men in the reddened light of the Dusk of the Nations,” in which
There is a sound of rending in every tradition, and it is as though the morrow would not link itself with today. Things as they are totter and plunge, and they are suffered to reel and foil, because man is weary, and there is no faith that it is worth an effort to uphold them. Views that have hitherto governed minds are dead or driven hence like disenthroned kings, and for their inheritance they that hold the titles and they that would usurp are locked in struggle. Meanwhile interregnum in all its terrors prevails; there is confusion among the powers that be; the million, robbed of its leaders, knows not where to turn; the strong work their will; false prophets arise, and dominion is divided amongst those whose rod is the heavier because their time is short. Men look with longing for whatever new things are at hand, without presage whence they will come or what they will be.
Still, it’s not all bad news. Nordau was careful to add that “here is the place to forestall a possible misunderstanding,” for in fact “the great majority of the middle and lower classes is naturally not fin-de-siècle. It is true that the spirit of the times is stirring the nations down to their lowest depths, and awaking even in the most inchoate and rudimentary human being a wondrous feeling of stir and upheaval,” yet “this more or less slight touch of moral sea-sickness does not excite in him the cravings of travailing women, nor express itself in new aesthetic needs”:
It is only a very small minority who honestly find pleasure in the new tendencies, and announce them with genuine conviction as that which alone is sound, a sure guide for the future, a pledge of pleasure and of moral benefit. But this minority has the gift of covering the whole visible surface of society, as a little oil extends over a large area of the surface of the sea. It consists chiefly of rich educated people, or of fanatics. The former give the ton to all the snobs, the fools, and the blockheads; the latter make an impression upon the weak and dependent, and intimidate the nervous. All snobs affect to have the same taste as the select and exclusive minority, who pass by everything that once was considered beautiful with an air of the greatest contempt. And thus it appears as if the whole of civilized humanity were converted to the aesthetics of the Dusk of the Nations.
Iconoclasm, in all its harsh, unpitying inhumanity, is rarely truly popular in and of itself. Just as the majority of Byzantine subjects ultimately rejected the “breakers of icons” — with the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite churches to this day celebrating the Feast of Orthodoxy in honor of the restoration of their precious images — so too do Americans seem to largely oppose the destruction of heritage on display today. Even when the issue is limited to the treatment of Confederate monuments, a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll has found that 58 percent of respondents want such statues to remain, while 71 percent want local governments to “block groups from physically destroying the statues,” notwithstanding an unrelenting full court press from corporations, the corporate media, social media organs, and much of the political establishment on the subject. It stands to reason that those numbers would be even greater for memorials unassociated with the Confederate States Army, i.e. those of Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and the like, which have nevertheless been targeted with dismantling, disfigurement, or erasure from the public square.
It is entirely possible that what Wesley Yang has called “the noise of our depraved information environment” has extended the decadent oil slick over a greater surface than ever could have been achieved in Nordau’s day, encompassing in the process ever greater numbers of elites, fanatics, snobs, fools, blockheads, as well as the weak, dependent, and nervous. We can still take hope that there remain a great many men and women of conscience and good faith who, for all that, would still wholeheartedly agree with Nordau’s stirring conclusion to Degeneration:
Society has for its first premise, neighbourly love and capacity for self- sacrifice; and progress is the effect of an ever more rigorous subjugation of the beast in man, of an ever tenser self-restraint, an ever keener sense of duty and responsibility. The emancipation for which we are striving is of the judgment, not of the appetites. In the profoundly penetrating words of Scripture (Matt. v. 17), “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”
Come to think of it, that does sound like an excellent place to start, and a welcome remedy indeed for the stomach-turning moral seasickness of our era.