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Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Toward the Renewal of Civilization: Political Order and Culture

Society Manages Itself Better Than Any Rationalistic Intellectuals Ever Have or Could

To explore the relationship between politics and culture with an eye toward the “renewal of civilization” is a tall order for one volume. And yet the contributors to this collection do an admirable job of examining many facets of the intersection between political-cultural trends and what most of these authors regard as the decline of civilized standards in arts, letters, behavior, and law, not only in this country but throughout the West. But Toward the Renewal of Civilization is no gloom-and-doom tract about the end of the world; indeed, it ends on a wonderfully hopeful note.

This book had special poignancy for me, because I read it after last spring’s Littleton, Colorado, high-school shootings. The two young killers had jettisoned civilized norms long before the shooting began, but it appears that adults around the kids were paralyzed with confusion and fear about how to respond. They tried psychiatrists and drags and a bit of counseling, but for the most part, the parents, teachers, and school administrators were just biding their time, hoping the kids would straighten out naturally.

Why have such events become almost routine? Hilton Kramer argues that they are a consequence of the institutionalized counterculture that began in the sixties. The intellectual error is rooted in the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and specifically the belief that received norms, social customs, institutionalized authorities, and traditional standards of accomplishment and morality are merely artifices designed to inhibit the natural development of the human person. The object, then, is to break free from these supposed artificial restraints, which is precisely what the boys in Littleton imagined themselves doing.

The notion of tyranny is different in each respective vision of what constitutes the natural society. In classical liberalism, tyranny is associated with violence, whether perpetuated by private parties or invasive government. To the Rousseauian, tyranny is bound up with societal expectation, as Claes Ryn points out in his brilliantly argued essay. What’s more, he writes, “the longing for Rousseauian liberation often expresses an ominous drive for uninhibited power.”

For Ryn, the cultural crisis comes down to a misapplication of the capacity of humans to imagine social improvement. Instead of turning this impulse toward the creation of great art and literature, modern man has turned it toward escapism on one hand and a futile attempt to reconstruct society itself on the other. The result, writes William Allen in his essay, has been that radical challenges to liberal democracy have taken hold in the academy and spilled out into society to create a kind of slow-motion French Revolution against the family and other foundational institutions of the genuinely free society. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese concentrates on that point in her eloquent essay.

The hot-button issues of race and sex are not skirted in these pages, for they too have become bound up with a political tug of war in recent years. With rights given out by the regime to groups according to their lobbying power and their ability to form pressure groups based on shared identity, the politics of race and sex has become a game of spoils in which no one can be said to win. The old racism mutates into a new racism with scarcely a thought given to the possibility that human cooperation and social peace are possible only when the state does not interfere with people’s freedom of association.

If the book has a weakness it is that the state is not consistently identified as a leading cause of the continued weakening of essential social institutions. The contributors do not make the mistake of viewing the solution to every social problem as resting with political authority, but that is not the same as identifying the state as the culprit.

They rightly see intellectual and spiritual rejuvenation as the likely font of a cultural renewal which is the only long-term means of combating the moral nihilism at the heart of the Littleton shootings. The book strongly reinforces the central point of classical liberalism: society manages itself better than any rationalistic intellectuals who grab hold of the reins of power ever have or could.

Fr. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.