Recently my hometown of Chicago, where my great-grandfather was in the Wigwam at the floor-stomping nomination of Abraham Lincoln as Republican candidate for President in 1860 at Lake at Wacker, raised its iconic river bridges to head off looter-rioters in a milestone of America’s current civil unrest.
To borrow the language of the cultural revolutionaries, we are in a crisis of secularness that requires antisecularism. Those pretending neutrality are guilty of secular nationalism. There must be discrimination against secularness and a confession of its guilt.
These are the flipped lessons, as authority collapses and cultural revolution comes to the republic, of the woke ideology of antiracism and its twins Antifa and the Green New Deal, all covers for the current ascendance of cultural Marxism. For those causes currently, voices like Ibram X Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Mark Bray, and the Sunrise Movement, in shallow textbooks masking partisan ideology, provide the socially acceptable and elite-endorsed manifestos for the destruction of America as an historic constitutional republic “under God,” as Abraham Lincoln summed it up.
But what is needed instead is the harder recognition from self-reflection and individual sacrifice that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted of Russia’s calamity in the last century leading to totalitarianism and cultural genocide, it is the forgetting of God that led us into the current crisis. With each person acting as their own god or idol, and raising their own idols of race or sex or ideology or a combination, comes the atomization that the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt noted leads to totalitarianism — accompanied by the terror of meaninglessness and unfettered self-assertion. In the American case, we want it all and revolution too, as consumerist-radicals.
The result, Solzhenitsyn concluded, is the ethos of “survive at any price” and “only results matter,” which leads to the “permanent lie” of Arendt’s “banality of evil”–a virtual reality that becomes accepted as the only idolatrous (and false) truth. That “permanent lie” ends in the “egotocracy” that Solzhenitsyn saw as the self-destructive finale of nihilistic-scientistic socialism: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc.
From the 1929 book Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (English edition), the classic first adventure of Tintin, by Hergé
The “soft” or “cultural” totalitarianism America faces thankfully hasn’t involved much physical violence, at least yet, but has involved the capitalistic American equivalent of professional, social, media, and economic force. One collateral target recently was my friend and fellow Orthodox Christian John Kass, lead columnist at the Chicago Tribune for more than two decades. He wrote a column criticizing truthfully the lenient law-enforcement officials, the elected prosecutors, who have been contributing to the anarchistic climate in Chicago and elsewhere. The most prominent have received campaign contributions from billionaire provocateur George Soros, in an effort whose effect has been to weaken the authority of the criminal justice system and open the door to anarchy. A group of “woke” reporters at the Tribune issued a statement accusing Kass of anti-Semitism, of which there was absolutely no evidence, but based on the canard that Soros is of Jewish background. Kass’ column was removed from page 3 into the back of the newspaper, based on an obvious pretext to obscure a “non-woke” traditional voice before the presidential election. But he stands unbowed before the mob.
Kass’ voice is of national stature and the last remnant of the tradition of the Chicago Tribune as a conservative newspaper, going back to the days of Col. McCormick, who built Tribune Tower as a monument to American freedom and faith, including freedom of the press, featuring a statue of Nathan Hale. Tribune Tower recently was sold by its conglomerate media owner and the newsroom moved, so as not to have witnessed the disgrace of the mistreatment of Kass’ voice of freedom.
The Chicago Tribune’s outstanding (and Orthodox) columnist John Kass, preparing for the Orthodox Pascha feast in a past year. Below him, Nathan Hale at Tribune Tower.
In related news, this week Kamala Harris was made the stalking horse for the US presidency as vice presidential running mate of soon-to-be-octogenarian Joe Biden. A junior senator of a few years she questioned the association of a Catholic judicial nominee with the Knights of Columbus, among other negative stances on religious freedom. Harris joins a presidential candidate who considers transgenderism to be the civil rights issue of our day. Both stands indicate the increasingly immersive nature of secularness in our culture, and how hostility to traditional Christian faith undergirds the current revolutionary anarchism of our cultural moment, as Chicago put up the bridges and John Kass’ column went into internal exile.
Chicago has a complex history that I have experienced in various decades and different neighborhoods, as urban affairs writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and as a child attending Black churches around the West Side on Sundays with my school principal father. The 1995 book The Lost City, by the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt, illustrates the virtues of strong communities in 1950s Chicago, in that era of the Greatest and Quiet Generations, despite grievous sins of racial segregation, corruption, and materialism.
That complexity of Chicago history is part of the history of human community, in a realm of fallen human nature in the struggle for virtue through faith.
“There is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved,” writes Ehrenhalt. “Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a dream in the end….”
There is no point in pretending that the 1950s were a happy time for everyone in America. For many, the price of the limited life was impossibly high. To have been an independent-minded alderman in the Daley machine, a professional baseball player treated unfairly by his team, a suburban housewife who yearned for a professional career, a black high school student dreaming of possibilities that were closed to him, a gay man or woman forced to conduct a charade in public — to have been any of these things in the 1950s was to live a life that was difficult at best, and tragic at worst. That is why so many of us still respond to the memory of those indignities by saying that nothing in the world could justify them.
It is a powerful indictment, but it is also a selective one … Our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they could have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.
Another Orthodox Christian commentator, Rod Dreher, cited the above passages from Ehrenhalt’s book recently in discussing islands of conservative Christian culture under siege today in places like Iowa, often unaware of their impending collision with cultural revolution.
In the end the degradation of culture by consumerism and modernism, materialistic careerism, technocracy, the sexual revolution, the revolt of the elites and their attraction to atheistic cultural Marxism and scientism, and the corruption in the welfare machine of nationalized big-city politics, proved more decisive than the elements of community that Ehrenhalt saw in old Chicago. I experienced those elements in part growing up with their mixture of deep sins and virtues. I knew them in my grandparents, including my grandfather the carpenter and building-contractor who had grown up on a truck farm in the city the son of immigrants. My parents grew up amid that community as children of the Depression who commuted to Chicago Teachers College and served in inner-city public schools, as did also-hardworking African-American colleagues of theirs whose families I knew growing up. It was the setting of the work of one of the most prominent progenitors of modern American conservatism, Richard M. Weaver, who while an acolyte of the Southern agrarians authored his most famous writings, such as his critique of materialistic modern American culture in Ideas Have Consequences, in post-World War II Chicago. Today I recognize the echoes of Ehrenhalt’s “lost city” still in the journalism of John Kass, who grew up at the butcher store of his immigrant family on Chicago’s South Side: Greek-Americans who had fled Turkish and Communist persecutions.
One thing is certain of our current American crisis, as Solzhenitsyn noted: All these things now happen because we have forgotten about God.
In Soviet Russia and Communist China and elsewhere, it led to tens of millions of deaths., Where will it lead today?
Without the spiritual traditions that underlay the founding of the American republic, the republic cannot survive, and her deep roots of authentic community among families and neighbors cannot thrive to support her.
So the bridges go up, the anarchy will spread, and in the end the cultural totalitarianism now enveloping us will seem as a permanent reality.
But, Lord have mercy, it still will not be the truth.
For as Solzhenitsyn’s life and work showed, at great cost, this too shall pass.
Until the Lord comes.
P.S. As a postscript to this reflection, a friend reminded me afterward that it was written and posted on the day on which the Church commemorates Benjamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd, who in 1922 became a martyr of Christ to Communist terror. This iconic photo depicts his steadfast faith in the face of totalitarian-atheistic cultural revolution.
The holy hierarch-martyr said at the trial: “I do not know what sentence you will pass upon me—life or death—yet whatever your pronouncement, I will raise my eyes upward with the same reverence, make the sign of the Cross (here he crossed himself broadly) and say, “Glory to Thee, O Lord God, for all things!”
Then he was shot.