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America’s Dostoevskian Moment

Stavrogin (Maksim Matveev) and Verkhovensky (Anton Shagin), the nihilists in a 2014 Russian TV production of Dostoevsky's 'Demons' (Still from 'Demons')

Here’s a powerful piece by Daniel Mahoney, perhaps the nation’s pre-eminent Solzhenitsyn scholar, about what’s at stake for the United States this Independence Day 2020. Excerpts:

As we approach this Fourth of July, the United States is consumed by reckless violence, nihilistic silencing, and a systematic assault on the nation’s cultural and political patrimony. The voices of sanity are few, and civic courage is in short supply. The exemplars of such courage in the Anglo-American tradition — Washington, Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill — are under assault from angry extremists who topple statues with impunity and demand absolute conformity. Government at every level appears impotent as indignant fanatics rule the streets. We have arrived at the unthinkable: “America’s Jacobin moment,” as an editorial in the Wall Street Journal aptly put it. What has happened to our republic?

Our talking heads, the so-called “chattering classes,” pretend that this eruption of insanity has something to do with the quest for racial justice. That could not be further from the truth. Black Lives Matter — the movement, not the slogan — is in fact a racialist and ideological organization that denies common humanity and a morality applicable to all human beings. Professed enemies of decency and restraint, these Maoists and para-Marxists demonize all white people and anyone of any race or religion who challenges their bizarre and fanatical worldview, as well as the police (whose immediate abolition they demand). Of course, they do not believe that all black lives matter: Those black people, including children, cut down by urban violence in Chicago or Baltimore every weekend, or aborted at higher numbers than they are born in New York City, don’t pass ideological muster. Black lives matter, of course, because all lives matter, but that elementary truth is now verboten.  All races are equal, but in BLM’s universe, some are more equal than others. This is a recipe for hatred and perpetual social conflict.

About the mob:

 They are defined by ignorance, ingratitude, and envy. Their ignoble “passion for equality,” as Tocqueville called it, is a grotesque perversion of the noble moral and civic equality that underlies the American proposition. This desire to tear down, to destroy and repudiate the patrimony of our fathers, is incompatible with civilized existence.

It is time to reopen Dostoevsky’s “Demons,” the most penetrating exposé of modern nihilism ever written. Even in the early 1870s, Dostoevsky exposed the spirit of pure destruction that could only pull down and never build anything worthy of human beings. The revolutionaries portrayed in his pages promise to cut off Cicero’s tongue and poke out Shakespeare’s eyes, to the applause of an educated society that fawned before fashionable barbarism. Dostoevsky, in his most prescient and prophetic mode, predicted that 100 million people would perish if such nihilists and fanatics ever came to power. It was given to that great soul to see many things, as another great Russian writer once observed.

Read it all. 

I am thinking about something a Dutch historian once told me about the cultural revolution that swept over the Netherlands in the 1960s. It had been such a settled, orderly, bourgeois nation. The Second World War and the Nazi occupation shattered something deep in the Dutch. After the war, they tried to rebuild what they had, but it was a feeble replica. When the winds of the counterculture began to blow, the establishment institutions collapsed, as if the revolution were inevitable.

I fear that we are seeing the same thing here, in part because there is no pushback against the mob and its demands.

By the way, I strongly recommend The Idol of the Age, Prof. Mahoney’s most recent book of cultural criticism and religious analysis.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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