12-4 polis2

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

12.4 (Fall 2012)

 

the polis vs. progress

prae-203

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Folly, Lunacy, and Downright Stupidity: The Testimony Against Progressives in Their Own Speech and Writing

John R. Harris

Some things never change.  One would not have thought that the progressive mentality would be among these—if, that is, one credited it with having any truly progressive inspiration.  Yet documentary evidence suggests that a certain kind of mind has long (if not from intelligent life’s beginning) considered itself, as the exclusive custodian of virtue and goodness, to be locked in a mortal tug-of-war with evil.  Of course, such facile polarization of complex moral issues is the essence of the Manichaean Heresy.  Yet more instructive still—because the echoes are so clear and the consequences so evident—would be a connection of current progressivism to political movements of the past two centuries.  After all, it has only been within those two centuries or so that God has appeared distinctly dead and that Progress has been insistently thrust forward as His miserable replacement.  Alexis de Toqueville attributed Christendom’s beleaguered condition in Europe of about 1830 to formal religion’s excessive and disastrous involvement with politics.  “The unbelievers of Europe pursue Christians like political enemies,” he wrote, stressing what was then a stark contrast with life in America, “rather than like religious adversaries.  They hate faith like the opinion of a rival party rather than like an erroneous belief; and they decry the priest less as God’s representative than as the ruling power’s friend” (Part 2, ch. 15). [1]

Toqueville’s insight is the perfect prolegomenon to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s account of the liberation of Italy in I Mille (“The Thousand”).  The following passage, written without any awareness of Toqueville’s masterpiece, reveals the prophetic clarity of the Frenchman’s judgment:

To everyone it is known that corruption and betrayal are the principle arms used by the clergy to dominate the masses—to exhort them to obey Caesar and then to exploit his good graces for having rendered him such immense services.  The Jesuit sect, which might be called the sublimation of the priesthood, was so powerful in other times as to dominate entire monarchies and courts.  Today, however, I would say that only zealous idiots, burdened with every mortal sin, and various other cretins are the sect’s plaything.  Emperors and kings pretend a devotion to it so as better to fit their eggs into their basket.  They bankroll and support the priest for reasons of convenience, but they know as well as I that a tonsure signals an imposter.

Jesuit stock ebbs and flows in inverse proportion to that of human progress.  Generally, when a state becomes free, or somewhat free, the first care of intelligent people is throwing out the Jesuits; and when the nation falls back into the talons of the hawk, this weed proliferates once more at marvelous speed. (ch. 40)

Garibaldi is no writer.  He mixes metaphors, he launches into subordinate clauses from which he cannot find exit, and he shamelessly melodramatizes the historical struggle of Italian nationalism against foreign domination.  Of these three great technical flaws, I shall eventually pay close attention to the last, since it opens much the largest window upon the Liberator’s ideological fixations.  The former two simply point to the seething, irrepressible passion of a man without sufficient literary training or talent to control himself on paper; and this indication carries its own crude charm, of course.  Most of us are readily convinced that the stammerer is more genuine than the smooth talker, especially if we can ascribe the former’s discomfort to the strength of an emotion scarcely to be tamed by the tongue.  Garibaldi, through the very excesses of his writing, appears to mean what he says, and to mean it with utter sincerity.  Let us concede, in fact, that the same is true of any real progressive.  He or she always believes in The Ideology with a delirious passion reserved in previous eras for religious ecstasy.  (Manichaeans, as far as we can tell, were indeed passionate zealots.)

To someone who picks up I Mille haphazardly, as I did, the virulence of its anti-clericalism leaps off of almost every page in a most shocking manner, its terms usually far more hyperbolic than those above.  Garibaldi hates, loathes, detests, despises, and execrates formal religion generally, Catholicism in particular, and the Jesuitical strain of Catholicism very particularly.  Toqueville seems to have pinpointed the reason, or at least a significant part of it: Catholicism has allowed itself to become an instrument through which foreign powers have oppressed and dominated Italians.  I would suggest that this loathing is precisely analogous to the irrational and well nigh ungovernable hatred which the contemporary American Left (an America long since unrecognizable as Toqueville’s) sprays steadily at Christianity.  Religions whose mainstream contains genuinely oppressive elements (e.g., Islam) find favor because they play no role in domestic American politics and, indeed, tend to disturb or alarm many Christians.  (Cf. that favorite proverb of Machiavellians, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”)  Religions such as the Native American worship of nature, which must surely be deemed superstitious in the light of that superior reason supposed to blaze from the Left’s high-held torch, are contradictorily embraced for being as alien to mainstream culture as possible.  (Sun worship—let us be frank—is no longer very seriously practiced even on Cherokee or Navaho reservations.)  All things Christian, however, are incessantly and tastelessly derided by the likes of Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann.  The Christian faith, as practiced by the mainstream, opposes homosexuality, homosexual marriage, abortion, polygamy, pornography, the abuse of intoxicants, public displays of indecency, public utterance of obscenity, and perhaps a dozen other behaviors that are standard components of the Far Left lifestyle.  Therefore, Christianity must die—and individual Christians, one divines from frequent left-wing “hate speech”, may as well start dying today if they refuse to “convert”.

Yet something is off-center in this equation.  One would be hard pressed to maintain that Christianity has earned special opprobrium by meddling in politics as Garibaldi indicts the Jesuits of doing.  To the extent that Christian churches in America oppose such progressive initiatives as abortion, they have merely reacted to an aggressive subversion of their core beliefs: they have not strayed preemptively into the public sector, as happened with Prohibition.  (And let us never forget that Prohibition was itself a progressive venture, aimed at sanitizing the masses in a crusading burst of energy that fought for eugenic legislation at the same historical moment.)  I think perhaps Toqueville has overlooked one or two factors in his formula.  To recover these, let us return to Garibaldi—to a chapter in his tome that immediately follows his eavesdropping upon a diabolical conference in the Vatican (the source of the above citation).  Here we find, contrastively, a meeting of freedom-fighters deep within Rome’s catacombs.  The assembled “brothers” are making ready to storm a heavily guarded convent and rescue the beautiful revolutionary Marzia, who has been forcibly confined therein:

“Brothers,” vibrated the masculine and melodious voice of Muzio, “Rome will follow the example of our valorous men in the provinces, who, dedicated to the liberation of the enslaved, are even now fulfilling one of those undertakings that constitute the character of a nation intolerant of outrages, and that print in letters of blood a truly glorious page in her history!  Unfortunately, deceived until now by the vacillating or the presumptuous, we—until now—have awaited in vain the signal to fight.  Now at last, enough of this timid postponement—we wish no more to stand with our hands on our hips; and if the expedition of those proud soldiers of Marseilles toppled into the dust a petty tyrant, condemned to pay for the sins of his ancestors and without any crime of his own beyond having been born on the step of a throne, we will hurl down our chains beneath the elevated bier of human vices and corruption—yes, we will topple the most iniquitous, the most pestilent of all autocracies—an autocracy which isn’t content to create slaves, but which wishes them also to be depraved, corrupt, deformed, despised, unworthy of comparison to anything human.

“And we, brothers, who have no other church than wide space—the Infinite universe—and no other guiding lights than the infinite stars, no other god than reason, science, and the infinite intelligence that governs the movements, combinations, and transformations of infinite matter—we are condemned by these enemies of Humanity to remain here in the catacombs, where the skeletons yet rot of so many victims of tyranny and fanaticism.”  (I Mille, chapter 41)

All of Garibaldi’s characters have trouble completing clauses when, Thucidydes-like, he primes historical occurrences with fanciful speeches.  Perhaps the most patent tendency of Muzio’s (and Garibaldi’s) thought on display here, however, is the Manichaean good/evil dichotomy applied sweepingly to every aspect of the current crisis.  In the interstices of this struggle are caught vacillating counselors who have now been swept aside—and also, interestingly, a petty sovereign unfortunate enough to have inherited a throne.  The titanic forces of the epic contest tread under such puny figures on both sides: Liberation will now battle Tyranny to the death.  A purity that cleanses and transforms all who touch its cause will vanquish once and for all an indescribable depravity.  The cosmos is about to be reborn.

This cosmos, in a rare moment of perfect candor about such matters for Garibaldi, belongs fully to the materialist philosophy of Democritus and Lucretius (the “combinations and transformations” passage reeks heavily of De Rerum Natura).  Reason and Science are two names for the god who presides over the triumph of progress.  The truth is fully within reach now of human intelligence, and any system that maintains otherwise—that argues for the invincible presence of mystery—is a wicked fraud.  As men are casting off the chains of foreign oppressors, so they are striking from their minds the shackles of inhibition and taboo.  An Other World that cannot be completely grasped in the terms of this world is but a trick, designed to sustain the subservience of the meek and the broken-spirited.

Religion, then, must go whether it meddles in politics or not.  It necessarily meddles in the progressive vision, simply by persuading its faithful that they cannot solve all of their problems and fulfill all of their needs by applying a positivist understanding of things.  Toqueville was indeed wrong—or came short of the full answer, let us say.  He believed man to have a natural need of the supernatural.  “All religions,” he wrote, “draw upon an element of force in man which can never be exhausted, because it taps one of the constitutive principles of human nature”; and, a little later, “”beliefs differ, but irreligion is unheard-of” (2.15).  Thanks to his elegant clarity of thought—a bequest more of Voltaire than of Robespierre—he could not adequately assess the vigorous, even manic self-centeredness with which progressivism substitutes earthbound goals for metaphysical ones.  (Progressivism serves the need to be rid of the need for faith, if you prefer.)  The progressive must reduce reality to the level of his comprehension in order to take control of all real events with authority—in order to convince others and himself that he does not rush in where angels fear to tread.  Yes, human beings have a natural fear of the void beyond death and long for immortality; but this “afterlife” is reality rather than fiction only as a conscious, willful creation of their own.  As ephemeral individuals give themselves to the thrilling upward movement of history, so they live forever through their species’ transformation into higher beings.

I mentioned Garibaldi’s penchant for melodrama earlier, and I claimed that it signified much about his ideological parameters.  At this point I can clarify my claim.  The narrative of I Mille is most tedious (and its author insists upon the narrative, the excitement mounting to grand climax) at the level of characterization.  No distinct characters exist: only caricatures.  The brave and beautiful Marzia is mirrored in the brave and beautiful Lina.  One is dark and of Hebrew lineaments, the other fair and of Swiss build: both equally brave, equally beautiful, equally committed to the cause.  Indeed, Marzia’s Jewish origins merely relate to her vague physical differentiation from Lina, for she appears to have forsaken all formal religion long before the evil Jesuit Corvo forces her into a public conversion.  (Corvo means “crow”, by the way—just as the chief of the Vatican’s secret police is named Volpe, “fox”: Garibaldi draws his villains with the same thick charcoal pencil as etches out his heroes.)

So for male revolutionaries.  Muzio, an immediate and complete incarnation of manliness, almost literally floats to the story’s surface from nowhere.  He rescues a fair lady from drowning in the Tiber—the Contessa Virginia, who is also frightfully beautiful, and proceeds to became wonderfully brave once Muzio’s strong arms dispense to her an epiphany of having spent her life on the wrong side (i.e., as a devoted Catholic).  Out of Muzio’s mold fall all of the other males who fight for liberation: all fearless, all strong, all handsome.  The cause confers manhood upon them, with its attendant courage, strength, and good looks emanating from a transformed heart.  Women naturally swoon for such men, just as women themselves are apotheosized into Delacroix’s bare-breasted Dame Liberty once they join the march.  Femininity never fared so well as with revolution’s saber in its hand, and masculinity never so well as when striding oblivious into a hail of bullets.

delacroixEugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

There is something profoundly masculine, let us admit, about braving death—and perhaps something especially so about facing death as a lonely individual defying the tyrant’s efforts to enslave.  Yet these terms have already contradicted themselves, at least in the progressive’s imagery; for the revolutionary becomes enslaved to revolution, and in rising up individually he slips into the inflexible stereotype prepared for him by Garibaldi and his co-religionists.  This contradiction is nowhere better encapsulated than in the glorious sobriquet, “The Thousand”.  No matter how many of Garibaldi’s followers are slain throughout his account or how many new recruits join, they are always The Thousand.  Compared to the forces that oppose them, this number is exiguous: it might annotate as “the brave few”.  Yet it is also a collective, resistant to any and all efforts of the true individual to stand out.  The recruit cannot so much as extract a recognition of his personal identity: he becomes one of The Thousand as soon as he joins up, whether he is #684 or #14,097.  His character, as we have just seen, is even more narrowly predetermined (infinitely more, we might say, if Muzio’s superlative-addiction had not already infinitely overused infinity).  He becomes a cartoon superman, with all of the virtues there implied and none of the foibles to which flesh was once heir in pre-revolution reality.

This sort of thinking is perfectly inane, as a mere littérateur might say on the basis of poiesis. To any stable, mature adult, it is perfectly insane, as well.  Manichaeanism was declared a heresy, not because its narrative fails to compel: “good guy/bad guy” contests are always compelling to the unschooled.  People of taste quickly tire of them, however, for they are also childish, morally insipid; and when they deeply inform an adult’s worldview, they may become the catalyst of lunacy.  None of us is capable of constant, infallible virtue (as, perhaps, none of us is capable of unremitting wickedness).  To maintain otherwise is to misjudge human struggles on a vast scale and also to deny individual human beings the possibility of a full, coherent identity.  Yet no priest can ever do anything right in Garibaldi’s estimation.  A cloister of Franciscans who assist his uprising peasants in Sicily receives such curt, grudging treatment from his pen that the man’s typical magnanimity yields to what we can only call mean-spiritedness.  Likewise, any faithful crusader for freedom in his chronicle who makes a slip has succumbed naively to the serpent’s temptations.  (There are no such fallen cherubs represented in any detail, but vague allusions to rare or collective lapses occur: cf. from chapter 43, “Poor people!  Why not lift them from the cowardice in which twenty generations of tyrants and priests—each worse than the last—have educated them?”)

What would you or I make of a person who insisted bombastically, “He can’t be wrong!  He’s on my side!”—or, “No, you’re not right!  Nobody on your side is ever right!”  We should suppose ourselves to be dealing with a spoiled brat… or a lunatic.

Or a college student AWOL from classes at an Occupy Wall Street rally.  Or a long-haired protester of Sixties vintage adorned in flowers, sweetly smelling of weed, and uniformed in denim and sandals… or any one of the metamorphoses between then and now wearing mass-murderer Ché Guevara’s bearded mug on a tee-shirt and imbibing an arsenal of sedatives to ease his or her absorption into the mob, the mass, The Thousand, The Revolution.  Sons pampered to ruin by their single mothers who seek quick passage to the highest ranks of heroism, daughters who over one injudicious weekend in the freshman dorm have strayed so far in their courtship of popularity that they can now not burn all of their bourgeois bridges fast enough… the spiritual flotsam and jetsam of “rational self-sufficiency’s” return to clannish savagery: this is the most recognizable of progressivism’s faces today.  It is a young face, as it has always been in the rank and file.  (Saint Augustine found Manichaeanism appealing only in his youth.)  Suddenly on their own in a confusing adult world (ever more confusing since the Industrial Revolution, with its accelerating annihilation of the immediate past), young people want somehow to be good, to do right, to look beautiful, and—perhaps most important—to do all of this on their own.  Progressivism confers upon them instant and automatic justification and desirability while absolving them in advance of any stupid error along the way.  All errors belong only to the other side.  One’s own errors belong to “them”, as well.  “The Old Guard made me do it!  How I hate them, how I hate them all!”

I can scarcely imagine a greater tragedy than being denied a personal identity—a soul, in Christian terms.  Even slaves cannot be denied their inner life, as Epictetus proved; even the prisoners of a ruthless totalitarian regime cannot, as Solzhenitsyn proved.  This suppression of individual personhood lies at the heart of progressivism in action.  All tyrants who peddle “transformative” ideologies love displays in which the individual dissolves: first unruly marches, then raging riots, then the Platz or stadium filled with saluting rank and file in workers’ overalls or footsoldiers’ uniforms, then and at last the neatly logged, readily manipulated numbers that make “change” as easy as addition and subtraction.  To be blunt, there is something indigestibly grotesque about equating this Satanic reduction of individual souls to teeming termites with the advance of human progress.  Anything that buries the human identity in a mob—whether that mob marches in wondrous synchronization or sprawls in Woodstock’s grass—is evil.  Good deeds can only come from good choices, and good choices must be based in self-knowledge: the suppression of discovering one’s inner being can therefore only lead away from good, whatever mass acts of “charity” the progressive clone may be enlisted to execute.  Is such hoodwinking and brainwashing not precisely the crime that Garibaldi flung at the Church?

Twentieth-century French novelist Jules Romains was no clumsy Garibaldi in matters literary.  The series of novels, Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, whose pages covered a period roughly five years preceding World War One to the eve of World War Two, was intended to weave the case for progress from strands luridly colored—to all appearances—by a dreadful decline.  It was a daunting task, and one must admire Romains for having the intellectual honesty to seek out rather than evade Western civilization’s backward slide into barbarism.  Yet his central thesis, after all, was that humanity advances on a very vast scale indeed, and that even a decade or a continent represents but a snapshot in the entire process.  The Great War, to Romains and fellow heirs of Garibaldi, was the last poisoned gasp of the Ancien Régime—or perhaps the last but one.  The novels end on the faintest expression of hope as the clouds of German aggression once again gather thickly.  Nazism was clearly not on Romains’s horizon when he began the series, and its ominous crystallization from various destructive forces may have had much to do with exhausting the progressive drive at the heart of his creativity.

Indeed, it is impossible to understand in humanitarian terms how the progressive loathing of Hitler coexists with a contrasting affection for Stalin—the latter an exponentially greater butcher than the former—unless one factors in a furious resentment of Nazism for stalling “forward motion”.  To borrow Lenin’s psychotically indifferent image, eggs are fine to break, by the million: but they must be broken along the advancing vector of “change”.  This progressive brief against Hitler, of course, always overlooks the vigorous centralizing and socializing thrust of the Führer’s own political agenda (not to mention that of Bismarck’s).  The single element of nationalism seems to cancel out, in the progressive’s view, all the generous lacings of progressivism in post-Napoleonic German politics.  Any sort of regionalism always limits the exportation of the “better way”, which can—in a Nazi framework—only be pursued with contempt for the vanquished (rather than with compassion for their backwardness and a missionary zeal to convert them).  The globalists of contemporary American politics (a breed very discernible in both major parties) herein reveal their progressive colors.  Imperialism, to them, is an act of love—a moral duty.  For Hitler, it was all about money and power (though one must imagine that the difference meant little if you were being marched to a mass grave).  And the missionary, take note, can never be discredited for killing as many (or more) than the fascist, because his intentions are pure: circumstances merely refused to cooperate… this time.  Next time, the transformation of the benighted will proceed more smoothly.  The filthy fascist wants to steal material resources: the crusading progressive wants to bestow a shiny new universal soul.  Since there really is no soul of any other kind… well, why reckon the deaths of soulless people at any value whatever?  Thirty million times nothing is nothing.

Souls—or The Soul—provided the springboard for Romains’s Olympian project.  He seems to have founded (there is some small controversy on the subject) the literary movement known as “unanism”.  As the term aptly suggests, the unanimist believes in “one soul”—the immortal spirit of the human race that overarches thousands of dead-and-forgotten generations, its élan vital always straining after the superior health of the collective even as an entire body labors to restore an injured finger or a sickened stomach.  (If this smacks of Bergsen, perhaps it should: he was all the rage in Romains’s youth, though Romains developed a personal distaste for the man.)

I do not know if the word “collectivism” had already been christened in the shadow of the glistening new Eiffel Tower.  If not, then Romains might as well have claimed it, instead, for the idea is the same.  To be sure, “one-soul-ism” sounds more charismatic, less invasive of the individual; but the difference is mere rhetorical “sell”, which is my point.  If you and I are forced to partake of the “soul of our time”, whatever that is, then we have entered a kind of hell, where our free will has been confiscated and an officially approved version issued, in return.  The exchange reeks (as the French would say).  Even Herr Hitler allowed his troops a chaplain—which, I suppose, would hardly represent a redeeming quality to the progressive’s eye.  The only god is the Party, and Yusef is His prophet.

I like Romains’s writing.  I find it honest—so honest that, in my judgment, the epic undertaking of the twenty-seven novels persistently and invincibly contradicts unanism’s high-flying theoretical claims.  Garibaldi’s writing was also honest, with regard to its sentimentality—but it was intellectually obtuse.  Since Romains’s honesty carries a much more intelligent degree of self-awareness, the conceptual incoherence of his oeuvre does not even try to hide itself behind feelings.  As with I Mille, the great problem here is the characters.  They project finer tones of individuality than the Italian’s cartoon figures—but not fine enough, to my mind, for daily reality.  They still tend toward the stereotypical, despite their author’s extreme subtlety.  In particular, they never progress, viewed as individuals.  None of them ever seems to learn anything morally… but forgive me if I quote myself in this matter, for I have written about it lengthily elsewhere:

The truth is that Les Hommes does not offer the prospect of a single dynamic character whose transformation is actually narrated.  Quinette was already a sociopath before chance introduced him to the fascination of murder.  Laulerque and Douvrin were already constitutional rebels before the communist party’s hierarchy caused them to rebel against its style of rebellion.  Jerphanion and Clanricard seem stunningly unaltered by their years in the trenches of Flanders: no irrational fits of rage, no drinking problems, no tendency to suicide.  Jallez’s near-execution at the hands of the Soviets shakes him up philosophically no more than his exotic sequence of one-night stands.  Over the course of twenty-five very eventful years, none of these people undergoes any profound change of heart whatever.

As a matter of fact, I am unaware of any dynamic character that Romains ever created in any sort of work.  Les Copains is one of the most delightful short novels ever written, and Donogoo-Tonka one of the most robustly provocative plays.  Yet the main character of the former must truly be said to be the group of friends, whose innocent invasion of the French countryside with bicycles and wine flips dormant communities upside-down; and in the latter, although a man actually transitions from almost drowning himself in the Seine to becoming a millionaire developer, all of the change is undertaken by the society around him.

That, of course, the unanimist kerygma: societies change.  Individuals, too, may change–but not as individuals: only by participating in a changing society.  If a man or woman might radically alter from within–if the prostitute were to turn celibate and scrub floors, if the crooked judge were to wake up in a cold sweat and resigns his office the next day, if the poverty-loving minister were to become a demagogue after a quarter-hour’s exposure on Sixty Minutes–then society’s grand advance would melt away like last winter’s snows.  For if the life of one could so change, then the lives of all might so change; the principle would have been admitted that change proceeds through the individual heart.  Some would advance, some fall behind; and the percentages of both would remain about the same, regardless of how much education or health care was offered free.  The single soul would once again become the human universe’s building block, and the god of that universe would once again sit shrouded in mystery, the inscrutable engineer of temporal contradictions. [2]

From a reader’s perspective, it is a grave disappointment to work through such an enormous volume of well-written material and to find oneself, at the end, not especially liking any of the recurrent characters.  Such was my experience; yet I repeat that I find a kind of victory in the author’s failure.  He has clarified what we noticed in Garibaldi’s crudely melodramatic rendition of history: that individuals lose their personality when enlisted into the progressive cause.  They take responsibility for nothing.  They tinker with the lives of others without sufficiently questioning their intent in so doing, and then they philosophize about the times and the customs when their own carelessness produces distress.  They wonder at their acts as if watching a puppet show—their bodies being the puppets, dangled on strings of cultural and biological determinism—and then they moralize when the burlesque ends, abusing bourgeois civilization for making right conduct virtually impossible.

Specifically, Romains’s alter egos in the novels (i.e., those whose habits and adventures most narrowly correspond to his own) use women for sexual pleasure without any mature calculation of the emotional damage they may likely produce, they collaborate or “fellow-travel” with dark forces that ignite bombs somewhere just beyond their hearing, they brood over their professional legacy on the doorstep of middle age as if this were somehow superior to the bourgeois lust for a loud mansion to advertise success, they give no thought to child-rearing other than to avoid it (through a rationale always couched in selfless terms), and they are generally standard fare in a world of bland, dull hypocrites.  Their sketches are brilliantly drawn.  I can recognize in all of them any number of walking contradictions who have flitted across my path in academe.  Beyond their spectral presences, however, the merciful angel of real progress fails to materialize.  One does not—cannot—divine a better world shaping up behind these garden-variety elitists.  One sees only more of the same—or perhaps a little worse, since the intelligentsia of the future will apparently suppose itself to be the best yet.

Out of the very years of fatuous intellectual rot (excuse me if I do not prefer the word “ferment”) which generate Romains’s novels comes a grim reality on our own side of the Atlantic: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  My intention here is not to analyze FDR’s presidency, or even a significant part of it.  I have neither the space nor the scholarly training to do so—though one must wonder if “scholarly training” these days consists of discovering how to peer right through the facts and arrive at a preconceived fiction.  For certain unimpeachable facts surrounding Roosevelt’s handling of the international crises precedent to World War Two absolutely rule out a favorable interpretation, even if they do not mandate the most damning one.  My sources are documents published by the Roosevelt Administration and FDR’s own speeches.  These I have drawn from former president Herbert Hoover’s stunning work, Freedom Betrayed, whose appearance was forestalled by Hoover’s death in 1964 and thereafter—most suspiciously, in my opinion—delayed until only last year (2011).  Hoover’s papers are not a soap box.  On the contrary, they are an assemblage of columns, speeches, treaties, press releases, and communiqués so little highlighted by the former president’s editorial comments as to make rather dry reading in places.

Nothing more than a minimalist style, however, is required to indict the ghastly incompetence (and this is the charitable interpretation) of FDR’s “crisis management” as a global cataclysm loomed.  Roosevelt cold-shouldered Japanese Prince Konoye’s persistent, feverish efforts to arrange a conference that might easily have headed off hostilities (for the pro-American faction in Japan was strong until FDR’s contempt caused it to lose face).  The relevant exchanges are amply chronicled in the communiqués of the American ambassador and other members of our diplomatic corps (cc. 38-39).  Though Hoover leaves us to conclude that callous disregard for world peace and rampant stupidity may have been the “innocent” origin of this diplomatic debacle, the numbers add up more quickly and precisely if we infer, instead, that FDR wanted the United States at war with Hitler, come hell or high water.  His lather of zeal for intervention was only as old, however, as the Führer’s shredding of his pact with the Soviets (ch. 33).  Ignoring sound military advice that this latest Nazi invasion had created a very promising balance of destructive energies—i.e., that the West (particularly Britain) could now play a waiting game as the two authoritarian giants pulverized one another (ch. 34)—FDR instead saw a sudden and urgent need to defend “democracy” (including communist “people’s republics”) from fascist dictatorship.  Goading Japan into an act of war proved a winning strategy.

Yet perhaps the most patent, least redeemable instance of this administration’s Soviet water-carrying was the Tehran Conference (Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, 1943).  In chapter 53, Hoover produces FDR’s mawkishly sanctimonious announcement—styled “The Declaration of the Three Powers”—of the conference’s intellectual fruit.  To be exact, the publication’s language is not attributed to any single source; but Stalin was utterly and proudly innocent of any skill in English, and Churchill was far too fine an orator (and too frustrated a third party) to have cooked up this progressivist Mulligan stew:

We—the president of the United States, The Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the Premier of the Soviet Union, have met these four days past in this, the capital of our ally, Iran, and have shaped and confirmed our common policy.

We express our determination that our nations shall work together in war and in the peace that will follow.

As to war—Our military staffs have joined in our round table discussions, and we have concerted our plans for the destruction of the German forces.  We have reached complete agreement as to the scope and timing of the operations which will be undertaken from the East, West, and South.

The common understanding which we have here reached guarantees that victory will be ours.

As to peace—we are sure that our concord will make it an enduring peace.  We recognize fully the supreme responsibility resting upon us and all the United Nations, to make peace which will command the good will of the overwhelming mass of the peoples of the world, and banish the scourge and terror of war for many generations.

With our diplomatic advisers we have surveyed the problems of the future.  We shall seek the cooperation and the active participation of all nations, large and small, whose peoples in heart and mind are dedicated, as are our own peoples, to the elimination of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance.  We will welcome them, as they may choose to come, into a world family of democratic nations.

No power on earth can prevent our destroying the German armies by land, their U-boats by sea, and their war plants [sic] from the air.

Our attack will be relentless and increasing.

Emerging from these friendly conferences we look with confidence to the day when all peoples of the world may live free lives, untouched by tyranny, and according to their varying desires and their own consciences.

We came here with hope and determination.  We leave here, friends in fact, in spirit and in purpose.

Signed at Tehran, December 1, 1943.

F.D. Roosevelt

J. Stalin

W. Churchill

Does any more really need to be said about the motives guiding FDR’s involvement in World War Two?  This insipid document is a veritable inventory of progressive claptrap.  First and foremost, all the evil that besets the world has been thrust upon Hitler and the fascists.  Their utter annihilation is a sacred duty; and once accomplished, it will open the gate to a golden age for many generations—a time when large nations and small will enjoy uninterrupted peace.  The transference of responsibility for all human malice and wrongdoing to a unique source is complete.  One must add, by the way, that Churchill’s subscription to so childish a view, far from being coerced, had been vigorous from the start.  Churchill’s loathing of Germany as the universe’s Ahriman indeed probably rooted in the previous war.  The pursuit of that subject would draw us far off course, for Winston Churchill’s name can hardly be enrolled among the previous century’s progressives, or even among their well-wishers.  Yet his limitless detestation of “Herr Hitler” nonetheless carried the progressive trademark of concentrating all energy upon a single supremely wicked adversary.  “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil,” he once quipped in the House of Commons (doubtless to no one’s surprise).  In his maniacal crusade against his own terrestrial devil, he did in fact make common cause with forces even more repressive than Nazism—and with butchers whose hands were far bloodier than Hitler’s.  Insofar as he was no proselyte to the progressive faith, Churchill may well have been the most benighted celebrant of all in this danse macabre upon the corpse of Western civilization.

One more side-light: Roosevelt had proclaimed mere months earlier—in January, 1943, after the Casablanca Conference—that the Allies were seeking the unconditional surrender of their adversaries.  Military analysts estimated shortly after the war that this incredibly careless utterance drew out and intensified the conflict’s mutual slaughter by about two years; for the Germans and the Japanese, now convinced that they faced complete extermination, had no reason to seek an armistice (ch. 46).  Were FDR’s words truly careless?  He himself explained them later as having rolled thoughtlessly off his tongue—and his account is about as bald a confession of sheer idiocy as one is ever likely to obtain from any politician (viz., “… the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant ‘Old Unconditional Surrender’, and the next thing I knew I had said it” [ch. 46]).  Yet he did nothing thereafter to “walk back” the phrase, as we say today.  Is it not more credible that Roosevelt’s Manichaean zeal to root out all evil forever had taken full possession of his loose lips at a critical moment?  And is it not only too clear, from the “Declaration of the Three Powers”, that he was wedded heart and soul to this project of utter eradication?

“With our diplomatic advisers we have surveyed the problems of the future”: this sentence is also highly revealing.  The progressive places elaborate confidence in specialist advisors—people narrowly trained in complex areas of study whose verdict is therefore immeasurably superior to the rank-and-file’s.  Though the “Declaration” voices a ringing commitment to democracy and freedom that would rival anything in Garibaldi’s history/melodrama, it also informs us bluntly—without any hint of irony or self-consciousness—that specialists have been entrusted with preparing for the liberated people of the earth their proper path.  These wizards “survey the problems of the future” like Roman augurs perched on a high hill who watch for eagles sent from the gods.  Unlike ordinary mortals of our puny stamp, they can see an event before it happens.  Obviously, we need to do as they say—and as the emperors who employ them say.

Roosevelt’s progressive druids foresee a “day when all peoples of the world may live free lives, untouched by tyranny, and according to their varying desires and their own consciences.”  With an imminent utopia of such delight, who needs heaven?  Though no epoch of human history (or pre-history, insofar as we can tell from broken bones and arrow heads) has ever known perfect peace, its arrival is tomorrow—or the next day, at the latest.  The free denizens of this Elysium will, without a particle of coercion (or without many particles… at what point does coercion become tyranny?), pursue their “various” desires.  The extreme variation in human desires, of course, has always been a source of friction, both between and within individuals: but no longer.  Two men will not so much as fight over the same woman.  For this new species will be ruled by conscience—each by his own conscience, but every conscience (apparently… presumably) obeying the same universal law.  Actually, nothing prevented men and women from living by the laws of conscience in 1943, nor did so in 1743 or at any point in human history.  From Socrates to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, men of will have found a way to do their higher duty, though they suffered or even died for it.  FDR must mean that these blessed ones of the future can obey their conscience without ever having to endure discomfort for it.  Oh, happy day!  And all we have to do is exterminate Nazism….

To ensure that “small nations” would also partake of such bliss, Roosevelt had been toying with the idea of a post-war body of enforcers (for, as a practical consideration, the progressive eventually recognizes that people en masse have to be consigned a conscience—by expert engineers—so that deficient models may be phased out).  This unborn brain-child was not precisely the United Nations, though it appears to have been the airy nucleus of what would become that bureaucratic megalith in two years.  In FDR’s fevered brain, at any rate, the august body would consist of the Big Three plus one: i.e., the US, the USSR, Great Britain (no longer very great, for Roosevelt was determined to see her empire dismantled), and… China (ch. 49).  Which China?  The People’s Republic of China did not yet exist, but Roosevelt and his entourage had long manifested their distaste for and contempt of Chiang Kai-shek, by means up to and including the outright breaking of promises (cf. ch. 52).  Stalin insisted that Mao be granted an equal role in a unified Chinese resistance, and FDR’s emissaries constantly pressured Chiang to accept this volatile arrangement—an obvious back door to communist ascendancy (ch. 47).

The nannies of tomorrow’s world, in short, were to be two communist juggernauts, an America transformed by Roosevelt into a socialist dynamo, and a tag-along signatory whose erosion was rapidly being effected by the winds and rains of history.  (Hoover remarks in chapter 49, by the way, that the notes to a mysterious discussion about this Big Brother police force during the Moscow Conference of 1943 strangely disappeared, leaving only clerical hearsay.  The loss of these documents is treated much more fully in chapter 51, where the anomalies brought to light are quite striking.  The Western participants in the discussion plainly did not want its contents broadcast to their constituencies back home—either in 1943 or, apparently, for many decades later.)

Before ink was ever spilled on this folderol, Roosevelt and Churchill had already sold out the “small nations” cringing around the USSR’s skirts to Stalin.  Hoover writes with uncommon frankness at the beginning of chapter 56 (“The Two Great Commitments at Tehran Which Destroyed Freedom in Fifteen Nations”):

I have delayed the narrative of the two vital commitments at Tehran until less important matters have been dealt with.  These two commitments or understandings between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were the greatest blows to freedom in this century.

They were not explicit, signed documents.  They are only slightly indicated in the published Cairo-Tehran papers.  They are overwhelmingly proved by subsequent statements of Roosevelt, Hull, and Churchill.  They are confirmed by Stalin’s immediate activities following these commitments.

The first of these understandings or commitments was the Soviet Union should be allowed to annex, either wholly or in part, seven peoples which had been under Russian rule prior to the First World War and had been freed as a result of that war and so agreed by Russia.

The second of these commitments was an agreement that Communist Russia should have a periphery of “friendly border states” which in reality meant that these states were condemned to have Communist domination.

Thus, by acquiescence or by secret understandings or commitments, fifteen nations were engulfed in Communism and the independent life and freedom they had enjoyed were snuffed out.

Roosevelt was perfectly aware that this sell-out would infuriate American voters, especially the many millions of Polish descent.  Hence his coyness about the episode: not only was no “declaration” published in faux-1776 bluster for mass consumption, but notes were suppressed and questions evaded.  FDR maintained to the end that no agreement had taken place on the basis that no signed document was ever produced (the Clintonian “definition of ‘is’” defense).  Three weeks after the Tehran summit, on Christmas Eve, he warbled over the radio of his talks with Stalin, patronizing those who had expressed misgivings:

… we were concerned with basic principles—principles which involve the security and the welfare and the standard of living of human beings in countries large and small.

To use an American and somewhat ungrammatical colloquialism, I may say that “I got along fine” with Marshal Stalin….  I believe that we are going to get along very well with him, and the Russian people—very well indeed….

… The rights of every nation, large or small, must be respected and guarded as jealously as are the rights of every individual within our own republic.

The doctrine that the strong shall dominate the weak is the doctrine of our enemies—and we reject it….  (ch. 57)

Within three months of this address, Stalin was already moving in on “small nations” like Finland and the Baltic states, executing political adversaries by the thousand and deporting families to Siberia by the tens of thousands (ch. 58).

Hoover observes the following (let us all note well who have celebrated Churchill’s virility while denigrating Chamberlain’s):

… It may be recalled that when Stalin, in 1939, had offered his alliance to the highest bidder, the price was approval of his annexation of these [Baltic] states.  Prime Minister Chamberlain refused the price on moral grounds.  Mr. Churchill, then a member of the House of Commons, had urged the acceptance of the Soviet Price.  Apparently Mr. Churchill was little interested in the freedom of these states.  (ch. 58)

On the one occasion in Tehran when this issue surfaced, an interpreter’s mistranslation was the apparent cause (for even Churchill would not dare to bring up the fate of the Baltic republics before his sullen ally).  Stalin fired back that the nations in question had already chosen to ally themselves with the USSR after the war in a formal plebiscite.  Remarks Hoover,

… We have been unable to find any record of such a free vote.  However, Stalin’s statement sealed any hope of freedom for these [Baltic] states if and when Hitler was defeated.  There was no recorded protest by Roosevelt or Churchill to Stalin’s pronouncement.  After the German retreat, Stalin annexed these states to the Soviet Union.  (ch. 56)

Though FDR persisted in denying that Poland and other buffer states had been ceded to the USSR in Tehran, Churchill seems to have been afflicted by no such squeamishness.  Before the end of the new year’s February (1944), he admitted that a verbal agreement had indeed been reached—and offered no apologies.  To the assembled House of Commons, he declared,

… Russia has the right of reassurance against future attacks from the West [but Hitler does not represent “the West”, and the nations being surrendered to Stalin are in fact mostly fighting against Hitler at this moment!], and we are going all the way with her to see that she gets it, not only by the might of her arms but by the approval and assent of the United Nations [not formally the UN yet, but a grand phrase much bandied]….  I cannot feel that the Russian demand for a reassurance about her Western frontiers goes beyond the limits of what is reasonable and just.  (ch. 57)

This is a shocking rationalization to have issued from England’s great “bulldog of freedom”.  The states along Russia’s western border whose fate sat in the balance had resisted Hitler vigorously, if briefly, before being overrun.  Now they were to be handed to a yet more ruthless autocrat as if the Nazi invasion from their point of the compass justified their enslavement.  Churchill’s loathing of Hitler must have run very deep, indeed—as deep as the pit of hell—to have permitted him such latitude in defining the “reasonable” and the “just”.

In the wake of the prime minister’s rhetorical indiscretions, FDR at last virtually admitted, as well, that he and Churchill had come to an understanding with Stalin about the buffer states.  An article by Forrest Davies in The Saturday Evening Post (appearing in two parts: May 13 and May 20, 1944) was actually submitted to the President for screening, and was returned with hand-written corrections.  FDR himself inserted the word “appeasement” to refer to his handling of Stalin in Tehran (ch. 58).  The sacrifice of fifteen Baltic and Central European states, that is, was intended to appease Stalin’s lust for territory in post-war Europe.  Again, one is struck by the irony of Neville Chamberlain’s having been excoriated by every subsequent generation of historians for adopting this policy—and this very word—with respect to Hitler’s aggression, while of FDR’s connivance at a vastly greater and more durable program of servitude, scarcely a line has ever been written in protest.

“Progress”—again and always—is the explanation.  Hitler wasn’t making any: Stalin was.  And in precisely what direction, one may well ask, was the latter outdistancing the former?  In the eradication of the human race from the face of the earth?  No, no: in the breaking of eggs to make an omelet.  Hitler promoted nationalist feelings, as did all fascists, and at least pretended in so doing to recover a glorious past.  Stalin and Mao did all within their power (of which they wielded a diabolical amount) to stamp out every last trace of ethnic or cultural conditioning which might mitigate one’s devotion to the class struggle; and in their purges—naturally—perished much literature and art.  Hitler elevated Wagner, and Mussolini celebrated D’Aunnunzio; Stalin’s creatures reprimanded Prokofiev for displaying Western tendencies, and Mao executed a generation of scholars.  Memories, you see, get in the way of the future.  A program of vast cultural amnesia is the best thing for such distractions—or perhaps second best, surpassed only by a rewriting of the past as a catalogue of villainies in order to legitimize the present’s atrocious reprisals.

Roosevelt had come aboard this ship of fools early on.  His administration had been replete from the start with members of the Communist Party (see cc. 4-5).  His exploitation of the Great Depression to overhaul a constitutional republic into a highly centralized welfare state, far from being swept under the rug by historians, has become the stuff of legendary swashbuckle and derring-do (represented, however, as having ended the Depression rather than protracted it).  Why should we be surprised—why should we resist the obvious conclusion—that the same man considered Stalin and Mao to be ideological allies?  FDR’s irrepressible drive to enter World War Two—which led him to numerous public lies, unconstitutional pacts, and no end of manipulative foreign diplomacy—reflected a hunger for a planetary Marxist utopia.  Unlike Churchill, he had no island-realm to defend.  His administration’s claims that America must be the next domino to fall to Nazi imperialism (ch. 29) were derided by every impartial military mind, and became patently absurd once Hitler turned his might toward Russia (at which point, the alarm was merely raised more loudly).  Roosevelt’s revulsion at the British Empire’s continued survival around the globe found voice in one public insinuation after another, finally eliciting from Churchill the growl, “I did not become the King’s first Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire” (ch. 48—and cf. ch. 50).  There was certainly no humanitarian motive at work to save Europe’s Jews from death camps, for Hitler inaugurated his Final Solution only well after the US had entered the war (and perhaps, in some measure, because of that entry: this is my proposition, not Hoover’s).[3]

Were FDR not ideologically committed to promoting Stalin’s global agenda, we should have to conclude that the man was a complete idiot in the execution of his high duties.  If he were not an incompetent imbecile, then he well knew what he was doing—for instance, in embracing the Normandy invasion for which Stalin clamored rather than Churchill’s Balkan option (ch. 52), designed both to spare Allied lives and to keep Eastern Europe out of Soviet clutches after the war.  In this and other instances, Franklin Roosevelt’s decisions on behalf of Stalin cost our nation thousands of young men.  They were eggs that had to be broken.

Here I reach my final observation about the progressive mentality.  It is not youthful idealism at play.  It is not naïve romanticism occasionally inspiring us with its daydreams.  It is not the soul that animates an otherwise lifeless, business-as-usual body politic.  It is not the “caring” or “compassion” that saves our dog-eat-dog capitalist system ultimately from devouring itself.  It is most certainly not the projection of Christianity into a post-Newtonian, post-Darwinist world where men walk on water only by making centrally engineered, collective sacrifices.

Progressivism is, rather, a lethal toxin of the spirit.  It fatally corrupts the individual’s moral balance; and, should that individual acquire power over others, it brutally subjugates them to mad self-indulgence disguised (to the autocrat) as a vision.  It suppresses God as the only possible alpha and omega of genuine moral sentiments—since, without this metaphysical referent, “the good” can only be a dully statistical reckoning of the greatest material comfort for the greatest number (utilitarianism) or the arcane rites of a charismatic prophet (gnosticism).  In the former case, the “experts” in lab coats who determine how best to construct a human ant farm rule upon who lives and dies; in the latter, The Chosen One—the Führer, the Duce, the Mahdi (for fascists are merely nationalistic progressives, as we have seen)—makes all the calls.  In either case, and in all similar cases, human arrogance supplants the mystery of divine will that circulates more or less vaguely through ordinary feelings: an inspiration variously denominated “common decency”, “good sense”, “conscience”, and so forth.  Once this arrogance has overcome its initial shock at being allowed to run wild in pastures formerly well fenced, it knows no bounds.  The dream becomes life, and life becomes a dream.  Whereas knifing a man to death had once seemed a horror, now ordering the mass execution of a village seems a kind of bungee-jump—an act of exquisite delight in its utter defiance of laws presumed to bind everything.  If one such law can be swept aside whimsically, then so may all the others.  The limitations to which human societies were always said to be condemned now appear mere superstitions—the taboos of a rude past, as silly as the fear of black cats.

Progressives have no functional equivalent of a promise.  Promises are among those vulgar taboos that once impeded the human race.  The transformative vision tells the prophet to veer right today, left tomorrow.  His allegiance is to the New Jerusalem that he intends to construct, not to microscopic zoning laws obstructing his road.  The reluctance to shed human blood… also a stupid taboo, though deeply inculcated into generations of timid souls.  Avoiding the explosion of heavy obstacles in the way of the entire race’s progress preserves the lives today of a few hundreds, or thousands—or millions—at the expense of an incalculable progeny’s happiness tomorrow.  And since the only real soul possessed by humanity is that collective variety expressed eternally in common ascent, the progressive understands that nothing less than the spiritual salvation of the species requires his exterminating the hordes of the backward-turning.

Righteousness is on his side.  The justice of his cause is unarguable.  Appeals to logical coherence, pledged words, common decency, and the like only seek to seduce him from his high mission.  No zealot ever slew the enemies of his faith with a hope of heaven any higher than the progressive’s hope in his evolving State as he clears away social underbrush by torch and firing squad.

I believe that Roosevelt precipitated a war with Japan, declared to the world that his adversaries must be utterly vanquished, and elbowed away Churchill’s anemic (and far too tardy) objections to a post-war Soviet empire precisely because his heart and mind were consumed by the poison of progressivism.  Neither the millions of lives that he damaged or destroyed among his countrymen nor the millions more that he condemned to Soviet slaughter or servitude—nor the tens of millions that he indirectly consigned to death by arranging the ascent of Mao—could shake him (or would have shaken him, if he had possessed sufficient imagination to conceive of them) from his allegiance to “progress”.  A man’s hubris, once he thrusts himself upon the throne of God, has no natural limits, since by that point he has already exceeded the final limit acknowledged by a yet-healthy egotism.  I believe that Roosevelt was deranged, in the sense that all fully committed progressives are deranged.  There can be no happy outcomes for a state dominated by such lunacy.

Every epoch should have its own Dante to rewrite the Inferno.  In my twentieth-century version, I should replace the infamous trio eternally masticated by the maestro’s Satan with Stalin, Mao, and… FDR.  The two most prolific executioners (thanks to modern technology) in human history are obvious choices to replace the assassins of Julius Caesar.  For the role of Judas, however, only someone who enabled those butchers by lying persistently to all the free peoples of the world—like our thirty-second president—could be said to qualify fully.  Hitler, of course, would lie frozen in the wind generated by the wings of The Adversary (the true adversary—a cancer cell which no amount of Manichaean surgery can cut from our heart).  Churchill, like Dante’s miserable Ugolino, would forever graze upon the Führer’s brain, drawn irreversibly into fusion with an infinitely loathsome creature by his own infinite loathing.  Why the relative reprieve for Hitler—why spare him admission to the abominable trinity writhing above him?  Because he was mad in a more clinical sense than his progressive opponents, and hence less responsible for his half-century of blighting planet Earth.  The three over whom my Satan’s saliva dribbles made their choices with steady deliberation and with consistent adherence to their obscenely self-idolatrous, God-usurping objectives.  May God have mercy on the souls of their victims, so numerous that only He can count them.  To the souls of these ecstatic slaughter-boys and their panting pimp, mercy will be as much a stranger as to him who grinds them.

Concerning candidates for our new century’s Dark Trinity… we shall simply have to wait and see what power the naïve, the frivolous, and foolish choose to bestow upon the latest sorry round of men who would be king.


NOTES

[1] Most of my sources in this essay reached me in the form of e-books.  I am therefore forced to cite by chapter- rather than page-number.

[2] From John R. Harris, “Men of Less Will Than Whimsy: The Moral Non-Sequitur Within Jules Romains’s Epic Portrait of Europe (Part Two),” Praesidium 11.2 (Spring 2011), <http://www.literatefreedom.org/prae-11.2.htm#Men>.

[3] I have already declined to offer myself as a professional historian—yet merely to question whether the Holocaust would have been as virulent without the Allied invasion of Europe hardly seems outrageous.  Hitler got little enough help in rounding up Jews from allies like Italy and Denmark, while more easterly members of the Axis had found ransoming off their Jews to be a lucrative business.  The opposite view appears far less reasonable: i.e., that a Hitler preoccupied with the Russian front would have produced yet a further motive for the US to enter the war by inaugurating his campaign of genocide.

 

 Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.