Friday, November 27, 2009

All of This Has Happened Before...

... and all of this will happen again.

I have to admit that there's something haunting and stirring about that catchphrase from Battlestar Gallactica, and indeed in the series' whole trajectory as it showed that humanity seems forever doomed to repeat the history from which we are ever so slow to learn.

This has hit home with me in a particular way recently as I work my way through The Judgment of the Nations by Christopher Dawson (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1942). Dawson's reputation for speaking prophetically is rote for modern students of theology and the philosophy of culture. Still, some of his words can be particularly striking in their prescient insight and indeed unsettling as we observe the slow slouch toward Gomorrah.
It is... important to distinguish two elements in the modern reaction against liberal democracy. There is the reaction that has arisen out of democracy itself, as a result of the progress of man's organization and the mechanization of our culture which has destroyed the economic and social basis of liberal individualism; and, secondly, there is the national reaction of those countries which had no native democratic tradition and which had accepted liberal ideas as part of the material culture of Western Europe, which they felt to be the symbol not only of progress, but also of foreign exploitation [p. 20].
Dawson's diagnosis of the blocs coalescing in the conflict of the 1940s is a remarkably penetrating view given that he was living and writing in the midst of a war during which it was easier than ever to get caught up in mere jingoism. Dawson (along with, history has finally come to demonstrate, some erstwhile maligned administrators within the Vatican) perceived a parity between the Russian and German threats to modernity which the leaders arranging the day's State alliances were slow to recognize.

Dawson's conservatism, also, was carefully nuanced: "It is necessary... to understand what we mean by democracy, and... to distinguish between what is living and what is dead in the democratic tradition we have inherited from the nineteenth century" [p. 21; emphasis mine]. A modern conservative could learn much from Dawson's fey analysis of that cultural heritage.
[T]he rise of Western democracy like that of Western humanism... were the results of centuries which had ploughed the virgin soil of the West and scattered the new seed broadcast over the earth. No doubt the seed was often mixed with cockle, or choked with briar, or sown on barren soil where it withered, nevertheless the harvest was good and the world still lives upon it.

We must therefore realize that when we say we are fighting for democracy, we are not fighting merely for certain political institutions or even political principles. Still less are we fighting for the squalid prosperity of modern industrialism which was the outcome of the economic liberalism of the [nineteenth] century [p. 24; my emphasis again].
It is clear, however, that Dawson - rich in the Christian tradition with its many parables of mixed harvest and weeds growing along with the wheat - had no doubts about whether the work-intensive harvest of the Western experiment in countries like America, Britain, and France was preferable to the totalitarian regimes bred in opposition to it. His attitude in this respect, too, is a lesson for our day. A good summary of Dawson's argument may be to say that Western democracy is enough of a rough and tumble affair to keep on track toward good without worrying about attacks from outside itself; therefore, we must contrive to preserve a unity of spirit and a cooperative attitude in our internal affairs lest we become vulnerable to the dangers of opposing ideologies. Democracy, for all its good, is prone to this unique danger: the foundation of "individualism" can too quickly lead to an atomization within a particular society or between allied States, making it no easy match for more organized, totalitarian regimes. In our own day, we might say the unity of purpose and mores in the Muslim world is a similar structure against which the pastiche of our own pluralism competes rather poorly. Even leaving aside hostile aggression, the spread of Muslim culture and demography is strong enough an ingredient to overwhelm the other weakened and mixed flavors in our Western soup.

Dawson knew that democracy's survival depended upon compromise between liberality and order, organization and laissez-faire. Dawson again:
The great problem that the democratic states have to solve is how to reconcile the needs of mass organization and mechanized power... with the principles of freedom and justice and humanity from which their spiritual strength is derived [p. 26]

Democracy will not be destroyed either by military defeat or by the discipline and organization which it has to impose upon itself in order to gain the victory, if it can maintain its spiritual value and preserve itself from the dangers of demoralization and disintegration. But this is not an easy task [p. 27].
Thus, Dawson is advocating something of a "third way" between anarchic liberalism and militant absolutism. But the dilemma of how to keep a strong military and a well-organized State while maintaining the core, domestic virtues of liberal democracy was a puzzle then, and remains so now. Indeed, the arms race of the Cold War blindly ran us even further into that quagmire. Breaking down the Pentagon juggernaut and cutting military spending (and thereby taxes) is a sentiment many Distributists and Libertarians hold dear, but each day's news from Iran or North Korea makes one more than a little uneasy in playing out the hypotheticals...

Dawson's noble thought experiment in Judgment of the Nations deserves a rediscovery today, as many of its questions weigh as heavily on our world as they did a half-century ago. One final observation of Dawson's, in particular, is worth keeping in mind for those of us who would ponder the problems of our time. Dawson spoke of the visceral reaction of traditional, dogmatic Christians (particularly Catholics) against what he called the "sublimated Christianity" of liberal democracy as it had been inherited by the West. In our day, we can see this frequently, whether it's well-meaning Distributists anathematizing members of the Austrian school, or Christian Democratic Socialists condemning all of Capitalism outright, or free-market cheerleaders selectively reading Magisterial teaching in a defensive posture against anything that would threaten their preconceptions. Of course, I have my own views on the matter and might easily set up a line to show where I think these various systems fall with regard to Catholic Social teaching. But I recognize, too, that each of these schools contains scholars who are on their own journeys, constantly in motion, and each one in very good faith and conscience. I try to avoid the kind of reaction Dawson describes against "sublimated Christianity," and acknowledge that while certain theories leave much to be desired, I can at least give credit where it is due to the common pursuit of the "spiritual strength" of democracy: the virtues of freedom, and justice, and humanity.

While I would not go so far as to say that it is a good dictum to apply universally, there is nevertheless a kernel of truth in the saying that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." In our day, when new ideological blocs are forming, and the cultural inheritance of the West is under renewed threat from without, may we all pay heed to Dawson's rich insights and recognize that there are many "on our side" with whom we embrace much in common; that infighting and name-calling are vulnerabilities we cannot afford; and that through common pursuit in good faith, our more minor disagreements will resolve in truth and justice.
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