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The Despair Election

The exhaustion of liberalism, and the prospect that pain will dissolve illusion

My friend Michael Hanby, the Catholic philosopher, and I were having an e-mail conversation about the Late Unpleasantness. He said something that I thought was too good not to share. I post it here with his permission:

I really think there is a pervasive, but unarticulated sense that liberalism is exhausted, that we are at the mercy of systematic forces, difficult to name, which can be manipulated by the powerful but not governed by them, and that our problems are unsolvable.   The reasons for this anxiety are manifold and cannot be reduced to politics or economics, though there are obvious political and economic dimensions that defy easy demographic categorization.  In other words, the fact that we are in civilizational crisis is becoming unavoidably apparent, though there is obviously little agreement as to what this crisis consists in or what its causes are and little interest from the omnipresent media beyond how perceptions of crisis affect voter behavior.  This seems to me a crucial part of the point and a key to understanding the sudden collapse of ‘movement conservatism’ on the one hand, and the increasingly shameless sophistry and cynicism of progressivism on the other hand.  Part of what it means to say that liberalism is exhausted is that liberal order–which is more fundamentally a technological order–cannot even supply the conceptual categories and thought forms necessary for understanding our predicament.

In fact, I doubt we any longer possess enough of a ‘civilization’ to understand what a ‘civilizational crisis’ would really mean.  We would not see it as a crisis of soul, but a crisis of management, in other words, another technical problem to be solved.  We would no doubt think of it as something to be diagnosed by a battery of journalists, economists, evolutionary psychologists, and sociologists, who could then show us what levers to pull in order to fix it.

But if this is anywhere close to correct, then it seems to me that what we have in this election is fundamentally a contest between two forms of despair:  Hillary represents despair in the form of cynicism and resignation, as evidenced by the fact that neither she, nor her surrogates, nor even her flacks in the press really pretend to believe in what she is selling.  There is obvious cynicism within Trumpism as well; his supporters, on those rare occasions when he makes sense, seem to know that he is lying to them.  But Trump represents despair in the form of anger and desperation, the willingness to embrace a strongman and a charlatan in the (false) hopes of regaining some kind of control over ‘the system’, whatever it is (which is a fascinating question, by the way.)  Both are absolutely awful, indeed unthinkable, albeit in different ways, and yet this is what liberal order has come to.

It’s a pretty bleak picture, I know, and I’ve been accused of indulging in despair myself whenever I paint it.  Hope is hard, I admit.  But my response is that it is not the pessimist about liberalism who lacks hope, but the optimist who cannot see beyond its horizons.  This is extremely difficult since liberal order IS the horizon of American thought and life and casts such a powerful spell over our imaginations.  But it seems to me that the test of your Benedict Option, and really of Christianity, as well as our own individual lives, is precisely this question of where our hope really lies and whether we can see that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in liberal theory.  In other words, we’re back to the basic question of God or Nothing which is imposing itself on us in ever new and more urgent and indeed more painful ways.  But as C.S. Lewis reports when Puddleglum puts his foot to the fire for the sake of Narnia, “There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.”  Perhaps this is something to hope for.



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