Our Rotten Elites
Russell Kirk’s canons of conservative thought begin like this:
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.
Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.
It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.
A “moral order” means hierarchy, and hierarchy requires elites. It seems to me today that the reason right-wing populism is so hard to resist is that our elites — both in general, and within conservative institutions — is so lousy.
This is not an excuse for the populace to rejoice in its own moral mediocrity. David Brooks wrote a good column recently contending that the problem is both with American elites and the grassroots. That said, boy, do we have terrible elites.
Take, for example, the finalists for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. As described by Meghan Cox Gurdon, here are three that didn’t win:
The four other contenders for the NBA’s young people’s literature prize make for an interesting contrast. The flyleaf of Elana K. Arnold’s novel “What Girls Are Made Of” (Carolrhoda LAB, 200 pages, $18.99) assures the buyer that the book “explores the darkest crevices of femaleness.” The reader certainly goes to places where the sun doesn’t shine in this unsparing exploration of love, cruelty and the grittier, bloodier aspects of sexuality. The narrative toggles between stories of early Christian martyrs and the first-person experiences of Nina, a teenager whom we accompany to, among other places, the bed of her boyfriend, her own bed with a vibrator and the offices of Planned Parenthood, where she undergoes a transvaginal ultrasound and gets pills for a medical abortion (“the best thing I’ve ever done for myself”). Advocating feminist independence, Ms. Arnold preaches a radical detachment from others. “You don’t owe anyone a slice of your soul,” she tells young readers in an afterword. “Not your parents. Not your friends. Not your teachers or your lovers or your enemies.”
Erika L. Sánchez strikes some of the same hard notes in “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” (Knopf, 344 pages, $17.99), a novel that begins with the combative main character, 15-year-old Julia, thinking horrible thoughts about her dowdy, dutiful elder sister, who has been killed in an accident. The phrase “Saint Olga, the perfect Mexican daughter” goes through Julia’s mind as she glares at Olga in her coffin. Julia wants nothing more than to get away from the scrutiny of her Chicago family, from poverty and from the constraints of traditional morality. She wants to be a writer. “All I know is that I’m going to pack my bags when I graduate and say, ‘Peace out, mothafuckas,’ ” she tells us. In this raw, sprawling narrative, Julia discovers, among other things, that Olga died carrying a huge and meaningful secret, but Julia is not diverted from her worldview. “There is no way in hell I’ll ever have a baby,” she declares, “even if I do get pregnant.”
Things are fraught in a different way for Fabiola Toussaint, the Haitian heroine of Ibi Zoboi’s novel “American Street” (Balzer + Bray, 324 pages, $17.99). When Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration authorities as the two try to enter the U.S., the girl enters the alien, sometime menacing world of her Detroit cousins alone. Struggling to make sense of her new life, Fabiola draws on her voodoo faith for supernatural support as she negotiates first love and the moral entanglements of money, loyalty and crime.
What kind of garbage culture is this, when books like this are considered by the USA’s most elite literary prize to have been the best books for young adults published this year?
No. Just, no. I’ve not read them, obviously, but they sound like what the late cultural critic Philip Rieff would call “deathworks” — works of art and literature that contribute to the death of a culture, not its life. As Bruce Ashford puts it in his summary of Rieff’s final published work:
As Rieff saw it, human civilizations have always understood social order to be underlain by sacred order. The latter always and necessarily funds the former by providing a world of meaning and a code of permissions and prohibitions. Sacred order translates its truths into the tangible realities of the social order. Thus culture makers and cultural products served as middlemen between sacred order and social order, between God and society.
But the spirit of our third cultural world seeks to undo all of this.
Within this three-world conception of history, Rieff placed Christianity in the second cultural world. Christian monotheism provided the sacred foundation on which Western society was built, and gave individuals a place to stand. Virtue wasn’t just taught explicitly but reinforced implicitly through cultural institutions—in such a way that it shaped the instinctual desires of each successive generation. Most importantly perhaps, the underlying sacred order provided a powerful means of opposing social and cultural decadence.
The third cultural world, however, defines itself by its desire to sever this sacred/social connection. Whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing” (Deathworks, 12).
Rieff pulls no punches in describing the cultural fruits of this project, describing them as deathworks. Instead of causing society to flourish (via works of life), modern cultural products function as subversive agents of destruction (works of death), undermining the very culture from which they arose.
Ashford, again summarizing Rieff, says that we cannot return to the past … but that does not mean that we are free to surrender to the culture of death.
There is another way. In The Benedict Option, I write about the example of dissident Czechs resisting communist totalitarianism. Excerpts:
[Vaclav] Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis ” — a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order . Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “ Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”
At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.
Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word — along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.
I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful , and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime — partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature — has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.
From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “ borders ” — formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture — but to “ push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”
In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.
“The best resistance to totalitarianism is simply to drive it out of our own souls, our own circumstances, our own land, to drive it out of contemporary humankind, ” said Václav Havel.
What’s my point here? Many of our cultural elites — like the National Book Award judges, as well as many academics — are untrustworthy. But that does not mean that anti-elitists are trustworthy either! The answer to corrupt elites is not to abandon the idea of hierarchy and moral order, but rather to drive the values of corrupt authority out of our own souls and our own circumstances, and to search for new and trustworthy authorities. They exist. They have not gone away, but only into eclipse.
The classical education movement is a positive response to this crisis. You will not read, see, or hear much about it, certainly not by comparison to the attention paid to the National Book Award winners. But it exists, and it stands as a rebuke to the garbage culture our elites embrace, as well as the garbage popular culture. The classical education movement is building a living future amid the American deathworks.
UPDATE: To repeat: “I have not read them, obviously, but they sound like…” means I am basing this judgment upon the Wall Street Journal’s description of the plotting, and am confiding to you readers that my judgment is based only on this second-hand description, but insofar as this description is accurate, these books seem to me to be … . I welcome correction or clarification from readers who have read these books.