The other day I wrote that the escalation in violent, anti-social, politically motivated behavior baffled me and left me groping for a theory. That wasn’t entirely true, insofar as I have a speculation of sorts ready for launch; and the rowdiness of the moment, by the way—as wiseacres will rear back and yawn out (and as I kept remarking last time myself)—isn’t really new. We could travel all the way back to the days of Apuleius’s Golden Ass if we wanted a snapshot of a society where attacks in broad daylight and boldfaced home invasions were routine. Granted, such “civil unrest” was a phenomenon of the Roman Empire’s frontier and not so much of its urban centers, and it also lacked a political component. Retreat, then, to everybody’s favorite example of dysfunctional society, the rise of fascism throughout Western Europe in the Thirties. I just finished reading The Garden of the Finzi-Contini: Jews were being chased out of public libraries and banned from sporting events in cities like Ferrara at least a couple of years before anyone was rounded up for the concentration camp.
Nevertheless, such cases are far from posing precise historical analogies. It was Otto Spengler, that inveterate enemy of Arian propaganda, who insisted that history never repeats itself to the last syllable (or even follows the same script for more than a scene). The thugs who were harassing Jewish minorities along quaint sidewalks and in mom-and-pop shops were perhaps themselves in the minority—but the thuggery came to draw passive support from rank and file bourgeoisie who associated the Jew with the Bolshevik and Bolshevism with ruthless anti-clerical carnage. To a certain degree, I do believe that the typical Trump booster partakes of that amused passivity. Imagine an outbreak of brattiness in fourth-grade children utterly undisciplined by their parents. The greater number of responsible parents remains irrelevant to any solution, since these good parents can only impose correction within their own household. Class plays and concerts are disrupted, recess has to be canceled, lessons can’t be taught because the teacher must spend most of each hour calling out trouble-makers… and futility gnaws away at every positive endeavor. Then a big brute of a kid who’s been held back twice starts to push the brats around. He smacks them in class and kicks them on the playground. The teacher shakes her finger and the good parents feign shock—but behind hands raised in horror, all are smiling.
Yes, but… but again, the smacks and kicks in my vignette are only metaphorical if applied the activities of the MAGA crowd in our civic life (much as this distresses the mainstream media). Physical attacks were all too real during the rise of fascism—and they are increasingly real in the conduct of our activist Antifa “brats”, who have carried acting up from feces-slinging Yahooism to club-wielding riot. The fine points of the analogy are simply not matching up with anything I’ve ever read about or seen before.
So here is my theory. Progressivism has grown to be a religious cult. It was so, perhaps, at its inception: I will concede yet again that significant precedents exist. The “unanism” championed by French novelist Jules Romains after World War I, while infinitely more humanist and liberal (in the word’s true sense) than what we see now, had the essential elements. God was dead, but (and?) men were enlightened. Scientific learning was proceeding at an exponential rate that thinkers like Ortega y Gasset underscored (with much more wariness than Romains). Oh, yes, we would all die as individuals, and we all knew that nothing awaited us on the Other Side; but we were also awakening to the prospect of an immortality in the ever-advancing collective. Jack and Jill would turn to dust—but their son Joe would walk on the Moon, and his daughter Jane would journey through time. In the collective lay our hope: so claimed Romains’s unanism, and so sayeth the progressive gospel today.
A more anti-conservative keygma is inconceivable. Most on the Right, indeed, have yet to grasp that the mere act of holding fast to old ground on any particular issue is itself odious and anathematic to the progressive. We must change. Everything must always keep changing. Even when alterations appear to be destructive or retrograde, their failed experiments are mapping out better paths (hence the “virtue” of the old Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba). The one thing that we must never do is simply stand pat. Such is the posture of dumb beasts of the field. Those who want tomorrow to resemble yesterday are “unawakened”, as well as eligible for a host of less charitable and more spittle-ridden noun phrases: stupid idiot, dumb s—t, stupid c—t… the words themselves are already just a brick away from assault with a deadly weapon.
To me, the genuine panic of seeing anything from the Obama years (let alone from earlier decades, such as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision) compromised or retracted is comprehensible in this light. Think of it. We’re all going to die. We live this life for perhaps thirty or forty good years, then we start to wither and lose our ability even to enjoy basic pleasures. Then… nothing. What hope do we have? Only that our mounting holocaust is steadily fueling the advance of future beings. It’s a kind of postponed millenialism, with the Messiah ever drawing closer but never fully arriving. And we are the Messiah’s approach—the fall of his sandal, the brush of his hem, the clearing of his throat… but only if we continue to distance ourselves somehow from the previous generation! That failing, we have lost everything. Our own lives plunge into irredeemable meaninglessness, the future that trusted in us is betrayed, and the past whose steps led up the staircase is nullified. All is lost! All is lost!
Such a mentality would not pause to mull over delivering a reasoned rebuke to the opposition, would it? Rather, it would revile the idiot saboteurs (who are destroying their own one possible redemption, as well, without even realizing it) with words void of rational content but replete with sacred outrage. We who would conserve are cursed as a Puritan would damn the Devil: not with an indictment of specific crimes, that is, but with an inspired loathing—a holy possession that sets its prophet rolling in the aisles. Whatever words most faithfully translate furious expectoration are those which best suit us.
Need I add that raising polite protests about constitutional license and legal precedent before such zealotry is tantamount to arguing over doctrinal inconsistencies with a whirling dervish? Progressive cultists no longer even trouble to couch their terror and their rage in vaguely constitutional terms. The selection of a traditionalist Supreme Court justice, for instance, means instant abrogation of advances made in the past—never mind that judges even on that highest bench may legally only interpret law, not create or negate it. Plebiscites are too slow; democratic republicanism is too unwieldy. As science is forging ahead exponentially, so social change must shift into high gear. This will require philosopher kings, peerless leaders, and big brothers. The very suggestion that change proceed through the cumbersome process of deliberative arbitration is as maddening as an old priest’s insistence that prayers follow a formula or appear where the order of worship allows them.
This is how I am best able to understand what I see: that is, as the rise of a cultic fanaticism. I find that I can muster a certain pity for those who suffer from such mania—but I also fear that too many of my fellow citizens haven’t adequately assessed where the delirious irrationality of their children and neighbors is likely to drive us all if handled merely as an opposing political ideology.