by Mark Anthony Signorelli (February 2015)
I feel as though this essay requires a sort of apology. To offer yet one more reflection on the Charlie Hebdo incident, at this late date, and with the presumption of saying something which has not yet been said about these events by dozens of other intelligent writers, may risk trying the patience of many readers. But the fact is that among the avalanche of commentary set in motion by these murders, I have found little that reflects my interpretation of their significance, and much that strikes me as grossly misleading cant. These are certainly not new sentiments for me; most of the chatter that fizzes across our media at times like this is entirely alien to my very traditional, very unmodern way of looking at the world. On the assumption, then, that there may be a few readers out there who share such ultra-reactionary sensibilities with me, and who have similarly searched in vain for some adequate articulation of their own reaction to these events, let me try to explain the way I think they should be properly interpreted.
It would be best, to avoid misunderstanding later, to state frankly at the outset that I think the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the editor Charbonnier in particular, were undoubtedly heroic persons, whose courage ought to be the subject of our unqualified admiration. I say this, despite the fact that I find everything they lived for and believed in stupid and revolting in the extreme. Something has been lost to our culture if we can no longer recognize the virtues of our ideological adversaries, the way the Christian West could once concede the chivalry of Saladin, or the way Union partisans could acknowledge the sincere piety which determined the military allegiance of Robert E. Lee. For in the end, these people died for something more fundamental – something more elemental – that cheap slogans about “freedom of expression.” They died because they refused to be ruled by violence. They did not die for an idea, but for an instinct; an instinct which cannot atrophy among a people without signaling their immanent return to a state of barbarism. It is an impulse inseparable from our human dignity, as Friedrich Schiller writes at the opening of his On the Sublime:
All nature acts according to reason; (man’s) prerogative is merely, that he act according to reason with consciousness and will. All other things must; man is the being who wills. Precisely for this reason is nothing so unworthy of man, as to suffer violence, for violence annuls him. Who does it to us, disputes nothing less than our humanity; who suffers it in a cowardly manner, throws away his humanity.
This is what made those responses criticizing the “extremism” or “provocativeness” of the cartoonists so insufferable; in such extraordinarily bad taste. The Charlie Hebdo folk may have been people with all the wrong opinions – I think they largely were – but they were willing to take a stand that none of the men with the right opinions have been willing to take, against a horrendous enemy who threatens us all. If the pillars of western institutional moderation had demonstrated the least bit of gumption by decrying the advance of such a dangerous ideology, we wouldn’t have to rely on the shaggy-haired provocateurs to do it for us.
So, to my mind, the first and most consequential error of our commentariat has been to interpret the murders in terms of ideas, rather than in terms of virtues. But even taking these events in light of the ideas at issue, the dominant interpretation on offer from our pundits has been predictably facile. The typical picture that has emerged is of a conflict between what is alternately labeled “freedom of speech,” “Western values,” or the values of the Enlightenment (and the conflation of all these things together hints at the systematic confusion that reigns in our culture), and on the other, the aggressive, totalitarian impulses of the jihadists. In this narrative, the cartoonists assume the role of martyrs for unfettered expression, the unqualified right to offend, and even blaspheme, and we who admire their courage are assumed to acquiesce in these principles (such as they are), or else to advocate some form of moral equivalence between them and their antagonists. The ideological choice before us is presented to us as one between advanced liberalism or retrograde fanaticism, with little middle ground to find between them. And it is precisely this dichotomy that I want to call into question.
Undoubtedly, we have a practical choice between the centers of force aligned to these two ideologies – between the legal order of Western liberal regimes and the terroristic bloodlust of the jihadists – and equally undoubtedly, we have a duty to support all of the efforts of our lawful authorities to stamp out the violence of the latter, and this for no other reason than that that violence threatens ourselves and our families, every bit as much as it threatens the lives of the most progressive citizens among us. The bombs and the bullets of the jihadists do not offer quarter to anyone, even their co-religionists, and so all of us who do not adhere to their insane doctrines are thrown together in league against their brutality. In this respect, we may support our countries’ efforts against the jihadists as ardently as any progressive – indeed, quite a bit more ardently – so long as we remember that it is a support stemming from the primal desire to protect the life and limbs of ourselves and our dear ones.
But if it comes to heart-felt loyalties and motivating principles, the matter appears altogether different. It is obvious that a bunch of scurrilous, nihilistic cartoonists constitute a far lesser threat to us than a gang of fanatical cut-throats, but it is not nearly so obvious that they are therefore deserving of our affection or allegiance. Ideologically speaking, people like me have no dog in the fight unfolding before us. It is, in essence, a conflict taking place within liberalism itself, between those who have changed attitudes along with liberalism’s mutation into political correctness – with its absolute deference to minority communities – and those who still adhere to the old demolishing spirit of the ‘60’s, who still think it the role of the left to crap on everything that makes civil society possible, and who are now absolutely dumbfounded to find their erstwhile fellow travelers imploring them to limit the scope of their demolition. It is a quarrel between people who all want to wreck traditional Western culture, but who diverge in the strategies they think best fitted to that end – unlimited immigration on the one hand, cultural depravity on the other. The jihad could never have taken hold in the west – would not even now be a topic of conversation among us – if enormous numbers of liberals did not shift over the last few decades, and espouse minority rights as the most effective weapon against the purported “establishment” they so zealously seek to crush. Whether the one type of liberal or the other completes the destruction they are both attempting matters little to me.
Incidentally, this is the character which most political conflict is going to assume for people like me in the immediate future – bitter and often violent rivalry between various loci of power invariably estranged from our deepest convictions. The journalist Rod Dreher has popularized the notion of the “Benedict Option,” by which he means a conscious detachment or withdrawal of traditional-minded persons from the dominant culture, in order to create communities grounded in alternative values. Much interesting discussion has ensued concerning what exactly such a detachment would entail, but I think one thing it most certainly does entail is the acceptance of the fact that in our lifetimes, the primary centers of power will never stand for anything resembling our beliefs, and that when they go to war – as they increasingly find themselves doing – their victories will never represent the triumph of an order we find fundamentally congenial. All of our loyalties will be pragmatic, attachments to forms of power that appear least dangerous to us. It is of the utmost importance that we are perfectly candid about this, lest we find ourselves swept up in the flurries of cant and fervor that burst out in times of crisis.
Consider, in this light, the endless platitudes about “freedom of expression,” which was supposedly under attack in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. If we have learned anything from Edmund Burke, it is that political freedom is never unqualified or perfectly abstract, never properly considered “as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” Political freedom is always the freedom to do this or that, or the freedom from this or that. It is ridiculous to suppose that liberal western society at the present day does not promote its own account of the specific content of political liberty; ridiculous to believe it is any more committed to the “freedom of expression,” full stop, than every other society on earth. If you don’t believe me, just go into work tomorrow and share some of your favorite ethnic jokes with your colleagues, or publicly sign on to the next local petition against gay marriage, and see how much respect for your “freedom of expression” this garners from those around you. Progressive liberalism has its own sanctities, and its own methods of enforcing its prescriptions. To be sure, these don’t generally include machine-gunning whole offices full of offenders, but other, more antiseptic modes of coercion, imposed through a hegemony of culture, politics, and finance, which have proved far more effective at compelling conformity among the masses. The typical liberal does not advocate random murder to enforce reverence for his pieties, but then, neither did Torquemada, and perhaps if the bad old Cardinal had the advantage of Twitter and television, he might have found less use for thumbscrews and the rack.
Numerous commentators on the right have called out their liberal antagonists on this score, reminding them of the way they themselves have whittled away at our customary protections on the liberty of debate. But in the course of doing so, they have routinely appealed to this chimera of absolute freedom, placing the offense of progressives primarily in their violation of a kind of compact, whereby we accord each and every citizen the right to say (and really, on present interpretations, to do) anything at all, so long as we are entitled to reserve this license to ourselves. Whatever else such an opinion might be called, it cannot be called conservative, for conservatism has traditionally understood that the exercise of any freedom – including the freedom of expression – is always qualified by considerations of truthfulness, decorum, human dignity, and neighborliness. Matthew Arnold, himself no conservative but a figure who represents what I would call the broad Western tradition of inquiry far better than any living conservative, dismissed the notion that there exists a right “to say what we like:”
“May not every man in England say what he likes?” – Mr. Roebuck perpetually asks; and that he thinks, is quite sufficient, and when every man may say what he likes, our aspirations ought to be satisfied. But the aspirations of culture, which is the study of perfection, are not satisfied, unless what men say, when they may say what they like, is worth saying.
Avowals of absolute freedom, then, are as preposterous coming from the right as from the left, and bound to lead to similar levels of hypocrisy. Consider the fact that conservatives routinely declare the need to fight the ideology of the jihadists, but rarely go into great specifics about what such a confrontation would entail. That’s because, quite obviously, it would entail proscriptions on the sorts of doctrines that could be taught in mosques and madrassas, and indeed, on the very proliferation of these institutions, and such prescriptions necessarily represent an impingement on the absolute freedom to teach and debate. There is no way to “fight the ideology” and preserve an unqualified right of expression. We simply cannot have it both ways.
Over the last few decades, the left has filled out the content of their notion of freedom of expression as definitively as you could wish. Every time some nasty “performance artist” has gone before an audience to fondle her genitalia, she has invoked her “freedom of expression.” Every time some particularly violent or salacious film receives a whisper or two of criticism, the producers and actors all proclaim their “freedom of expression.” Every time someone suggests censoring the obscene lyrics commonplace now in popular music, whole segments of the population respond with howls about “freedom of expression.” Conversely, when various authors have put forward theories calling into question progressive pieties concerning race and gender, the left has routinely sought to silence them, banning them from speaking on college campuses, or in some cases, filing lawsuits against them. In such cases, we are told that the “freedom of expression” finds its limits in the expression of “hate” or “intolerance” (i.e., non-liberal opinion). From these practices, now regular features of life in Western society, a determinate content has inevitably been assigned to the concept of “freedom of expression;” freedom of expression in the Western world includes the right to say or publish anything raunchy, profane, degrading, or destructive of the bonds of civil society, but violently excludes the right to question the accepted prejudices underlying identity politics. This, and nothing else, is what the “freedom of expression” means in the Western world at the present day. Who, besides a progressive, would wish to fight, and even to die, for such freedom? You cannot do dirt on your flag repeatedly, and then expect everyone to come rallying to that same standard in times of need. You cannot, for half a century at least, associate “freedom of expression” with everything base, and then pretend, when it is challenged, that something crucial to human flourishing is being threatened.
The fact of the matter is that every civilization has its spiritual and intellectual center, comprised of principles or beliefs or dogmas, which it does not suffer to be challenged lightly. Every culture has its conception of the sacred. Liberal society is no different from any other in this regard; it is just uniquely dishonest in its refusal to acknowledge its own philosophical commitments. The old French monarchs once declared themselves “The Most Christian King.” Modern French monarchs will never declare themselves “The Most Liberal President.” But for all his coyness, the second ruler is as ideologically committed as the first. Liberalism is essentially a rhetorical strategy, implemented to protect the dogmas of the rulers from critical appraisal by maintaining the pretense that they are not holding them in the first place. What is detestable about the modern liberal order, besides this dishonesty, is not that it aims to police the limits of discourse through a variety of social and legal means, but that it draws those limits in ways that are completely moronic, and then enforces them with a rigor that is no less totalitarian for being largely conventional. When people now lose their jobs for expressing the opinion that marriage is between a man and a woman, you see exactly what I mean. The liberal state is grounded in its own conception of the sacred; it just holds gay more sacred than God.
Indeed, as Richard Weaver suggested in Ideas Have Consequences, it is impiety that is at the heart of modern notions of freedom – the relentless, systematic erosion of all reverence for God, nature, family, or country. The scurrilous satire routinely featured in the pages of Charlie Hebdo represents no other right than the right to believe in nothing; the right to hold nothing sacred; the right to nihilism and complete spiritual decay. Granted that the cartoonists have the full legal right to publish such material, who in the world would want to march in the streets in defense of such attitudes? What intelligent person could passionately embrace such a nullity? The truth is that it is precisely this spirit of irreverence that has demoralized the entire western world, that has sapped it of all of the normal civilizational instincts – including the instinct of self-preservation – and rendered it a fit and feeble prey to the invidious plots of the jihadists. If you want to see what kind of men liberal freedom produces; if you want to acquaint yourself with the moral character of those who believe in the right to believe in nothing, just take a look at the whole institutional response of the West to the murders – the politicians who will not use the word “Islam;” the journalists who will not show the pictures for which the cartoonists were slaughtered; the pundits and professors harping for the hundredth time on the Crusades, in order to remind us – apropos of absolutely nothing relevant to our current situation – that Christianity has its own violent past. These disgraceful, pusillanimous fools are exactly the kind of social leadership produced by a civilization that has convinced itself, for going on many generations now, that there is nothing true, or good, or beautiful in the world. Those who believe in nothing will fight for nothing.
This is the way to make sense of all the stupidity about our supposed right to blaspheme. Again, I am saying nothing at all about legal strictures. Not since the charred, strangled corpse of Tyndale was dragged from the prison yard at Vilvoorde, and the flames of Bruno’s immolation went out in the Campo dei Fiore, could one reputably defend the competency of men to regulate the religious opinions of other men. But this does not mean we have to think highly of blasphemy, or proudly trumpet ribald sketches of religious figures as some grand achievement of western civilization. Again, it is the prevalence of this kind of spiritual degeneracy; this lazy, vapid impiety; that has so enfeebled the West. Interestingly enough, one of the things this habitual irreverence has marred has been our capacity for truly ingenious irreverence. If you want to know what I mean, take a look at Swift’s Tale of a Tub or Moliere’s Tartuffe, and then compare the brilliance of those works to the sophomoric pranks in Charlie Hebdo. We cannot even defy our gods anymore with a modicum of wit.
But all the talk about blasphemy is excruciatingly stupid for another, rather more evident reason – we are not Muslims. Our laws, our culture, our traditions, owe nothing to the legacy of Islam, and we have no desire to see this change. Satirical cartoons of Muhommed are not regarded by us as blasphemous, because he is not our prophet; we assign no sanctity to him. No one would say that Dante was a blasphemous man for portraying Muhommed and Ali among the damned, because blasphemy involves an insult to God, and Dante did not regard these figures as godly men. Most of us concur. Muslims disagree. Fine. Let them enforce their prohibitions on blasphemy in their own countries (such as in Pakistan, where punishment for this “crime” is predictably arbitrary, self-interested, and bloody). But for them to expect us to reverence their religion in our own countries, and then to perform violence in order to enforce such reverence, is nothing but the rawest imperial imposition imaginable, an act of naked cultural aggression, which Western liberals cannot recognize only because their dogmas have convinced them that none but white Europeans engage in such aggression. This is also, by the way, another reason why the stand of Charbonnier and the others was so admirable – besides everything else, they were standing in defiance of an invader.
Instead of approaching the issue in light of this plain fact, endless numbers of pundits have subjected us to endless babble about the role of “religion” in modern society, as though there were no relevant differences between religions, and no political or cultural distinctions one would wish to make in light of those differences. So for instance, there has hardly been an article published about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which did not, at some point, reference the infamous painting of Andres Serrano, with the clear assumption that we cannot differ in the way we expect our society to respond to these respective provocations, as though there were no particular reasons to favor – and to wish the institutional structures of our country to favor – a body of doctrine which has been the source and foundation of much of our own political, artistic, and moral heritage, over those which – whatever their merits or demerits – have been entirely alien to the historical development of our civilization.
We saw a similar issue arise when Duke University recently announced that it would allow a chapel on campus to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from its tower, a decision that was defended – and defended by conservatives – on the grounds that the chapel also rang its bells as a signal to Christian worshipers, and so considerations of equality seemed to demand the Muslim call be permitted as well. As though a chapel does not have any sort of history, was not constructed to serve any particular form of worship; as though the particular religion which raised that structure, stone on stone, had not rooted itself to that place through centuries of historical development, had not planted itself in that earth as deeply as the pines and the oaks; as though the people who live in the same state had not been raised in that religion – the religion of their grandmothers, and their great-grandmothers – the religion that impelled their ancestors to pray when they prayed, buoyed them when they fought, consoled them when they mourned; as though the laws and the customs of their country were not traceable in their origins to that one religion and no other – as though none of this provided a single reason why a chapel in North Carolina would be allowed to promote one form of worship and exclude all others. To think about religion in these terms; to suppose that if we wish our society to grant something to one religion – the religion which, for better or worse, has shaped the growth of that society – we must, on principle, allow it to grant the same to every religion, is already to concede the liberal framing of this topic, which designates all religions as equally dangerous to its own ideological hegemony, and equally deserving of marginalization.
The obvious retort to my argument is that, in fact, the culture of the Western world is no longer influenced to any notable degree by Christianity, and so there is no reason why that religion should enjoy special consideration any longer. I think this objection misses the point I made above, that Christianity provided the metaphysical and cultural foundations upon which much of what is most excellent in our civilization has been built. To suppose you can eliminate the foundation, and still preserve the benefits it supported, strikes me as chimerical. But putting this point aside, it is obviously true that the West has lost its own faith. There is all the difference in the world, however, between celebrating that loss, and bemoaning it; between taking the vast spiritual history that led us to this point as the subject of an ode, or that of a tragedy; between cheering on the march towards “pluralism” and “universal tolerance,” and deploring the precipitous sinking of our society into every greater depths of brainless nihilism. We inhabit a wasteland: a civilization that has forgotten all conceptions of the transcendent purposes of a human life; that has allowed every humane ideal to be corroded by cynicism and replaced by political posturing on the one hand and hedonistic consumerism on the other; that tosses the word “freedom” around endlessly only to justify the ability of every last person to do whatever the hell they please. I must be excused if I have no desire to go out in the streets and march in celebration of such a world.
At this point, I only wish to be spared the necessity of lauding the mushrooming nihilism of late-stage liberalism; to demur from the endless sloganeering about “tolerance” and “pluralism” with which our rulers attempt to paper over the huge sucking void at the center of our civilization. I care equally little to counsel liberals on how to save their own project, and keep the horrid, dystopian house they have constructed for all of us from collapsing in upon itself. The question they are now forced to face – the upshot of their own policies – is this: how do you take millions and millions of people holding rival and incompatible conceptions of the sacred – conceptions for which they are often willing to fight and to die – and get them to live side by side with one another in harmony? And the answer to that question is simple: you don’t. That is why you should not try such a thing in the first place, and why people of my own ideological streak have continuously opposed the attempt. For our pains, we have been repeatedly calumniated as “racists,” “xenophobes,” etc., etc., though our only desire has been to prevent the kind of social tension now spreading so rapidly throughout the west. Now that this situation is a fait accompli, I feel absolutely no motivation to stand up in defense of a social order I never wanted in the first place. The left has made this disastrous mess; let them gin up the chants and the platitudes to justify it. For myself, I will not type one word in defense of their empty freedoms, no matter how many innocent persons are slaughtered by the jihadist monsters in the meantime.
If this sounds like a bleak take on our present situation, I can only say that I cannot imagine how anyone can contemplate the state of affairs in the West, and not think bleak thoughts. There is conflict in our future, and we may as well steel ourselves now for this reality. At least such pessimism will prevent us from falling prey to the dubious parties beginning to arise across Europe, claiming the will and the knowledge to set things right. These too are manifestations of the spiritual vacuity of the West, originating in the infantile supposition that whole centuries of neglect towards the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral underpinnings of a civilization can be solved by a trip to the ballot box. We are way beyond the stage where policy can be of any use, and if I could offer any political counsel to my contemporaries, it would be to beware of those in office seeking to fix things.
We are not witnessing a “clash of civilizations” – only a clash of uncivilizations, a global confrontation between the last extremes of bloodthirsty fanaticism and enervated decadence. Those of us who want nothing to do with either of these ideological camps find ourselves in a situation somewhat analogous to peasants of the Piedmont or Lombardy in the declining decades of the Roman Empire, who had to endure the spoliations and tyranny of whichever barbarian tribe happened to be criss-crossing the region that month. We have no power to affect any of the world’s affairs, and can only hope to keep clear of their worst effects. But we still retain the capacity to speak honestly, to think clearly, and to interpret the events of our lifetimes in a way that is free from the vicious, inhumane dichotomies circumstances seem to force upon us. We have no place in the posturing demonstrations of our fellow citizens; our place is at home, studying and conversing and writing and praying, tirelessly working to create some rudiments of civilized life to pass to our children and grand-children, which might be capable of enduring the shocks of the brutal strife beginning to engulf us all.
Mark Anthony Signorelli‘s first collection of poems, Distant Lands and Near, is now available. His personal website can found at: markanthonysignorelli.com
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