In a barrel

Nice post by Andrew Sullivan, ripping up Stanley Fish for “post-modern claptrap”:

Yes, Fish has read Nietzsche, hence his homage in the sentence: “The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously.” But this is a distortion of liberalism, as Nietzsche’s was. The defense of free speech is not a frivolous exercise, as Fish argues. In the context of a continent where artists and writers have been threatened with death and murdered for their freedoms, it is a deadly serious task. And maintaining support for the difficult restraint that liberalism asks of us — to maintain faith if you want, but to curtail its intolerant and extreme influence in the public square — is, pace Fish, not an easy or platitudinous path. It is the difficult restraint liberty requires in modernity. Fish, however, like many postmoderns, is skeptical of such ideas of liberty and, in a pinch, seems to prefer the Taliban’s authenticity to societies where writers dare to challenge religious taboos.

This cultural jiu-jitsu put me in mind of a passage from George Orwell’s great essay, Inside the Whale. I don’t think I’ve written about this passage before. Orwell has been discussing political trends among British writers: the modernists of the 1920s — whom he characterizes largely as fascists — and the Comintern-supporting writers of the 1930s. Since I can’t write anywhere near as well as Orwell, let’s just go with an extended passage:

[W]hy did these young men turn towards anything so alien as Russian Communism? Why should writers be attracted by a form of socialism that makes mental honesty impossible? The explanation really lies in something that had already made itself felt before the slump and before Hitler: middle-class unemployment.

Unemployment is not merely a matter of not having a job. Most people can get a job of sorts, even at the worst of times. The trouble was that by about 1930 there was no activity, except perhaps scientific research, the arts, and left-wing politics, that a thinking person could believe in. The debunking of Western civilization had reached its Climax and “disillusionment” was immensely widespread. Who now could take it for granted to go through life in the ordinary middle-class way, as a soldier, a clergyman, a stockbroker, an Indian Civil Servant, or what-not? And how many of the values by which our grandfathers lived could not be taken seriously? Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline — anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes. But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in. There had been a sort of false dawn a few years earlier when numbers of young intellectuals, including several quite gifted writers (Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hollis, and others), had fled into the Catholic Church. It is significant that these people went almost invariably to the Roman Church and not, for instance, to the C. of E., the Greek Church, or the Protestants sects. They went, that is, to the Church with a world-wide organization, the one with a rigid discipline, the one with power and prestige behind it. Perhaps it is even worth noticing that the only latter-day convert of really first-rate gifts, Eliot, has embraced not Romanism but Anglo-Catholicism, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism. But I do not think one need look farther than this for the reason why the young writers of the thirties flocked into or towards the Communist Party. If was simply something to believe in. Here was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline. Here was a Fatherland and — at any rate since 1935 or thereabouts — a Fuehrer. All the loyalties and superstitions that the intellect had seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises. Patriotism, religion, empire, military glory — all in one word, Russia. Father, king, leader, hero, saviour — all in one word, Stalin. God — Stalin. The devil — Hitler. Heaven — Moscow. Hell — Berlin. All the gaps were filled up. So, after all, the “Communism” of the English intellectual is something explicable enough. It is the patriotism of the deracinated.

But there is one other thing that undoubtedly contributed to the cult of Russia among the English intelligentsia during these years, and that is the softness and security of life in England itself. With all its injustices, England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the over-whelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality. If you have grown up in that sort of atmosphere it is not at all easy to imagine what a despotic régime is like. Nearly all the dominant writers of the thirties belonged to the soft-boiled emancipated middle class and were too young to have effective memories of the Great War. To people of that kind such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial etc., etc., are too remote to be terrifying. They can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism.

Update: I zapped this post to Andrew Sullivan, who liked it enough to riff on it as his second Quote of the Day, and extend me a hat-tip! Much appreciated! New visitors: Enjoy the site!

2 Replies to “In a barrel”

  1. So this is relevant today is it? And where is the Great War that so profoundly effected the British and set them on the path Orwell covers for us? And where is the Depression that was wrecking people lives and dreams of a better life? I tend to agree with the ‘effect’ you, Orwell or Andrew postulate. But not the ’cause’. Where is your “cause”?

  2. I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking. Are you asking what the cause of ‘deracination’ is? I would say that it’s part-and-parcel of the bankruptcy of postmodern thought.

    In the era about which Orwell is writing, the Comintern writers were seemingly ‘too smart for their own good’, bashing every belief structure without admitting that their own political system was just a recasting of it.

    I think the crux of the argument (the effect that we’re all citing) is, “You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in.” This leads to a gentleman like Stanley Fish commending rioters because of some vague idea that they’re ‘authentic’ because of their willingness to lose their minds.

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