What Is A Civilization Worth?
In the comments section earlier today, the man who comments as Kenofken said that a civilization that jailed Oscar Wilde, and was prepared to do it over and over again, deserves to be destroyed. I responded by saying that for many of us, a civilization that celebrates Desmond Is Amazing, the 11-year-old “drag kid” who has been on national TV, is one that deserves to be destroyed.
Something about that exchange has been weighing on my mind all day. Kenofken is a self-described polyamorist. The idea that he considers a civilization that jailed Oscar Wilde (for homosexuality) to be not merely wrong, but worthy of destruction, testifies to what he holds sacred. The same could be said of me, with my disgust at a civilization that holds up a sexualized and feminized male child as an icon.
I can’t speak for Kenofken, obviously, but I regretted my flip remark. Of course I don’t really think our civilization, as corrupt as it is, deserves to be destroyed. On reflection, I realized that mine was actually a very modernist, extremely un-conservative statement: the idea that a civilization is so heinous that the best thing that can happen to it is to disappear from the face of the earth.
Sure, it’s possible. There was nothing worth saving in what the Nazis built — but could any non-fanatic plausibly say that everything German has been so tainted by Nazism that all expressions of Germanness (Goethe, Bach, Beethoven, all of it) should be annihilated? Of course not. Nor did the evil of Soviet communism negate the greatness of Russian culture. Both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, though, worked systematically to eliminate any perspective that challenged their respective ideologies — and not just their political monopolies. As proper totalitarians, they knew that cementing their power required controlling the culture’s memory. Last year, I interviewed a couple who had grown up in the Soviet Union, and they talked about how exhausting it was as a Soviet schoolchild to be taught history as nothing but a prelude to Marx and the October Revolution.
In my upcoming book Live Not By Lies, I quote this passage from Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago:
If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.
It could always be worse. Modris Eksteins’ history of Modernism and the Great War is a cautionary tale about longing for radical change. After World War I, he writes, the old European world and its values were gone, but nothing new had risen to take their place. This is where fascism came from. Eksteins writes:
National Socialism was yet another offspring of the hybrid that has been the modernist impulse: irrationalism crossed with technicism. Nazism was not just a political movement; it was a cultural eruption. It was not imposed by a few; it developed among many. National Socialism was the apotheosis of a secular idealism that, propelled by a dire sense of existential crisis, lost all trace of humility and modesty—indeed, of reality. Borders and limits became meaningless. In the end this idealism completed its circle, turned upon itself, and became anthropophagous. What began as idealism ended as nihilism. What began as celebration ended as scourge. What began as life ended as death.
Contrary to many interpretations of Nazism, which tend to view it as a reactionary movement, as, in the words of Thomas Mann, an “explosion of antiquarianism,” intent on turning Germany into a pastoral folk community of thatched cottages and happy peasants, the general thrust of the movement, despite archaisms, was futuristic. Nazism was a headlong plunge into the future, toward a “brave new world.” Of course it used to full advantage residual conservative and utopian longings, paid its respects to these romantic visions, and picked its ideological trappings from the German past, but its goals were, by its own lights, distinctly progressive.
It was not a doublefaced Janus whose aspects were equally attentive to the past and the future, nor was it a modern Proteus, the god of metamorphosis, who duplicates pre-existing forms. The intention of the movement was to create a new type of human being from whom would spring a new morality, a new social system, and eventually a new international order.
That was, in fact, the intention of all the fascist movements. After a visit to Italy and a meeting with Mussolini, Oswald Mosley wrote that fascism “has produced not only a new system of government, but also a new type of man, who differs from politicians of the old world as men from another planet.” Hitler talked in these terms endlessly. National Socialism was more than a political movement, he said; it was more than a faith; it was a desire to create mankind anew.
No right-thinking conservative should ever be an enthusiast of revolution. Reform, yes — society always needs reform. But a civilizational order that has been built up over many centuries cannot be radically changed without enormous risk. The American Revolution was indeed a revolution, but a surprisingly conservative one, as these things go. We were lucky.
So, as revolting as I find many aspects of our contemporary social order, and though I agree with the reader that imprisoning Oscar Wilde was unjust, I strongly reject the belief that under normal conditions, celebration of a particular evil, or suppression of a particular good, is sufficient cause to damn the entire civilization, or (less grandiosely), the social order. The good things about our civilization were purchased dearly, and are more fragile than we think. I remember once reading something by Camille Paglia (who, if you don’t know, is an atheist and a lesbian; these days, she’s even calling herself trans), who said that her fellow queers ought to be careful about attacking the Church too fiercely. She said that homosexuality has only flourished in advanced civilizations, and religion is an irreplaceable part of an advanced civilization.
She also said this, in an interview with Nick Gillespie of Reason a few years ago:
Paglia: There [comes] a time when these fine gradations of gender identity—I’m a male trans doing this, etc.—this is a symbol of decadence, I’m sorry. Sexual Personae talks about this: That was in fact the inspiration for it, was that my overview of history and my noticing that in late phases, you all of a sudden get a proliferation of homosexuality, of sadomasochism, or gendered games, impersonations and masks, and so on. I think we’re in a really kind of late phase of culture.
reason: So that the proliferation of cultural identities, the proliferation of all sorts of possibilities is actually a sign that we’re…
Paglia: On the verge of collapse? Yes! Western culture is in decline. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, in my view, looking at the history of Egypt, of Babylon, of Byzantium, and so on. And so what’s happening is everyone’s so busy-busy-busy with themselves, with this narcissistic sense of who they are in terms of sexual orientation or gender, and this intense gender consciousness, woman consciousness at the same time, and meanwhile…
reason: Is that also racial or ethnic consciousness as well?
Paglia: Right now, to me, the real obsessions have to do with gender orientation. Although I think there’s been this flare-up [regarding race]. I voted for Obama, but I’ve been disappointed. I think we had hoped that he would inaugurate a period of racial harmony, and I think the situation has actually become even worse over recent years. It seems to be overt inflammatory actions by the administration to pit the races against each other, so I think there’s a lot of damage that needs to be healed.
But I think most of the problems as I perceive them in my students and so on, is that there’s this new obsession with where you are on this wide gender spectrum. That view of gender seems to me to be unrealistic because it’s so divorced from any biological referent. I do believe in biology, and I say in the first paragraph of Sexual Personae that sexuality is an intricate intersection of nature and culture. But what’s happened now is that the way the universities are teaching, it’s nothing but culture, and nothing’s from biology. It’s madness! It’s a form of madness, because women who want to marry and have children are going to have to encounter their own hormonal realities at a certain point.
reason: Do you see your personal liberation as having helped to grease the skids for decadence, for the collapse of Western civilization?
Paglia: I have, yes.
reason: Do you feel at all ambivalent about that?
Paglia: I’ve defined myself as a decadent. One of my first influences was Oscar Wilde. I stumbled on a little book called The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde in a secondhand bookstore in Syracuse, New York, when I was like 14, and I was fascinated by his statements. So I am a Wildean, and he identifies himself as a kind of decadent in that period of aestheticism.
We have spent over a century now kicking at the supports of Western civilization. Now we are being overtaken by people (not only progressives!) who are full of passionate intensity, and the will to destroy. We’re going to miss what we had when it’s gone. Save what you can, while you can.