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Reactionaries In Our Time

Preferring the cathedral to The Cathedral

The anonymous “Flight 93 Election” essay on the Claremont Review of Books site has gotten a lot of traction. I wrote about it earlier in the week, but it says something about my own pessimism that I didn’t notice that it was all that radical. In fact, it sounds like an especially articulate version of what conservatives I know who dislike Trump tell themselves to justify their planned vote for him.

I am not one of those people. I don’t at all agree with the writer’s claim that conservatives are obliged to vote for Trump to save the Republic. I’m not voting for Trump (or Clinton) because I see them both as evidence for and agents of our decay. I agree with Yuval Levin here:

There are certainly arguments out there about what people wish Trump might be or mean, but very few of them (as their proponents are generally willing to acknowledge), have all that much to do with the actual Donald Trump. They are mostly about voters and issues that deserve a hearing or problems that have been too long ignored, or a sense (borne of a radical failure of imagination, it seems to me) that our politics should just be blown up since things could hardly get much worse. Some serious people have pointed to very real value in the sheer disruption of Trump having gotten this far, but they are at a loss to then justify actually making him president for four years. Conversations with Trump voters about the prospect of a President Trump generally conclude in the hope that he might be surrounded by people who will restrain his instincts or direct his energies—which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence.

It’s hard to ignore the hideous character failings at the core of the man, and for this purpose maybe especially his fundamental infidelity toward all who rely on his word, which makes it hard to take seriously any assurances. He has sometimes shown himself capable of sticking to script or obeying the teleprompter, and when he does that he raises the possibility that he may be containable. But when Trump is given a chance to reveal something of himself, he without fail reveals a terrifying emptiness. The idea that such a man would be improved by being handed immense power simply refuses to be believed. Even wishful thinking supercharged by a justified dread of what a Hillary Clinton administration could do to the American republic can only go so far—certainly far enough not to vote for her, but for this voter not nearly far enough to vote for him. Neither major-party option in this election is worthy of affirmation, and no amount of wishing it were otherwise is likely to change that. All we can do, it seems to me, is hope and work for a Congress able and inclined to counterbalance a dangerous executive.

That’s my view. Damon Linker is chilled by the Flight 93 essay. Excerpt from his column:

For all the talk of conservatism in the essay, there is really nothing significantly conservative about it. Oh sure, it lists a series of positions that are typically embraced by conservative writers. But when it comes to the crucial question of judgment, prudence, practical wisdom — of how one who affirms these conservative views should act in present political circumstances — it is a shockingly radical document.

Or rather, it’s a reactionary one — not in the watery sense that it opposes what progressives lazily presume to be the inevitable drift of history. It’s reactionary in the precise sense delineated in Mark Lilla’s just-published book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. Like all reactionary thinkers, Decius Mus identifies a past golden age (America before progressivism) and a historical fissure after which steep and perhaps irreversible decline set in (the establishment of the administrative state) — and also like other reactionaries, he has come to believe that only a new historical rupture, a sundering of the status quo, has any hope of altering the apocalyptic course of history.

After Trump, the deluge.

I happen to be reading Lilla’s book too, and it’s obvious that the Benedict Option project is a neoreactionary one (I’ve never denied that, and it doesn’t bother me if people call it that). There is, however, a significant difference between it and Lilla’s definition of reactionary, which Linker mentions above.

It’s this: I don’t believe there was ever a Golden Age. St. Augustine, in his City Of God, written after the Sack of Rome in 410, cautioned his readers to remember that the human condition (from a Christian point of view) is exile, and that any peace we have in the earthly city is “the peace of Babylon” — this, referencing the Hebrew exile there. It is true that I start our descent into our particular civilizational fragmentation in the West (I accept Bauman’s “liquid modernity” as accurately descriptive of our time) with the loss of metaphysical realism in the High Middle Ages. But it would be absurd to claim that the West was living in anything remotely resembling a paradise. Nobody who read Dante, and has the slightest clue about the political and ecclesial corruption and decline from which the Commedia grew, can believe that Thomism preserved Europe from decadence.

The thing is, Dante’s vision for repairing the fragmentation of his medieval society depended entirely on the Thomistic vision. You don’t have to be a Scholastic to see the wisdom in Dante’s approach. The (radically oversimplified) gist of it is that society’s brokenness, and all that flows from it, stems from choosing the Self over God, who is real, and whose laws are really existing things.

Dante was too wise and too Christian to think that it is possible to restore Paradise on earth. In Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, after he has passed into the outskirts of the Garden of Eden, Dante meets a woman on the other side of the river, named Matelda. The exiled poet uses this meeting to reflect on the nature of poetic memory and nostalgia. From a post I did on that canto:

If the fallen world has corrupted our own imagination, as Matelda indicates, then isn’t it the case that the incorrupt world can at times cause us to read the world falsely, through our hopes? Matelda speaks of the longing of the poets for a Golden Age as being an ancestral memory of Eden — that is, a lost world that can never be fully regained in mortality. I’m thinking that my own nostalgic bent, and my deep and abiding longing for Home, comes from this. Reading and thinking about Canto 28, I’m thinking about how I need to recalibrate my own inner vision. The point is not to become cynical, but rather to educate one’s hope, tempering it with a sense of what is possible in this fallen world, versus what is only really achievable in heaven. To be sure, we can, through grace and by conforming our wills to Christ’s, incarnate heaven in our own hearts and lives to a certain degree; that’s what Dante’s entire pilgrimage is about.

But we will not fully realize the Kingdom of Heaven in this life, and we must be careful about how we allow the images and stories we admit into our imagination to frame our expectations. As I wrote the other day, on Canto XXVII, realizing earlier in my life that I had accepted a false icon of womanhood, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and turning away from it, was instrumental in the purgation of false images from my own moral imagination, and the purification of my heart. It seems to me that the purification of images is not only about casting out false images and replacing them with true ones, but also to regard the true ones rightly. With regard to the Church, and with regard to matters of family and homecoming, I have been guilty of what Flannery O’Connor warned about: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”

What I seek in the Benedict Option is not the recreation of a non-existent Golden Age, but rather a recovery of the metaphysical vision the premodern Christians had, a vision that would give them the resources to resist and repair the kind of fragmentation through which we are living — a fragmentation that, among other things, is leading to the demise of Christianity in the West.

Any political and social peace we find in this world is, as Augustine says, the peace of Babylon, not the peace of Paradise. If I’m a neoreactionary, then I’m a neoreactionary who doesn’t want to return to a prelapsarian era, and who doesn’t even see that as possible, but rather one who wants to create communities within which it is possible to live in greater harmony with God (which is to say, with Reality), and with each other. Also, because I am a convinced Christian, I can never reconcile myself with the racists of the Alt-Right, and don’t want to. I know they, like good Nietzscheans, think Christianity is for patsies. OK, fine. I believe it is the Truth, and that truth condemns racism. This is not a point I am willing to argue here, so don’t even try. I do want to make the distinction that there are different kinds of neoreaction. Though I do not think he is a man of faith, I would prefer to be identified with the disposition of Prof. Peter King, author of a wonderful book called The Anti-Modern Condition, and who has written:

Conservatives are people who wish to protect things. They recognise what is valuable in their culture and their daily lives and work to sustain these. This is not about principles, but is a matter of reaction. It is a disposition based on vigilance and on an awareness of the dangers posed by others who wish to sacrifice the present for a future only they can imagine. When you come across those with such principles, sit them down and buy them a drink. It will keep them off their feet and off our backs.

The Benedict Option is about we orthodox Christians protecting what we have against those who wish to strip it all away from us. The neoreactionaries hate the Cathedral and its secularist clerisy, and I’m with them on that. But I affirm the cathedral, in the Christian sense.

Vote Trump, or vote Clinton. It won’t make much difference to the kind of things people like me value. Both are deadly, though in somewhat different ways. I’m not shocked, or chilled, by the Flight 93 essay, but I’m not remotely persuaded by it either, except in its contention that we are at a critical moment in the life of the Republic. But I don’t have the sense that its author and I understand the nature of the decay or the cure for it in the same way.



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