When I was just sixteen and like a lot of children of the 1960s in that I was seeking truth, I attended a lecture by the social philosopher Paul Goodman, whose Growing up Absurd seemed to have predicted the youth revolution to come later in the decade—at the massive Unitarian Church on 8th Street in Los Angeles, which was then a center for progressive thought and politics.
I recall that the title of his talk was “On Being a Great Power,” and the gist of his argument was that being a great power was antithetical to being a good country, and that being a good country meant being an active democracy with vibrant civic involvement, prizing education and concomitantly, cherishing culture, promoting the general welfare, and being a good neighbor—using military might only when absolutely necessary for self-protection.
In short, Goodman’s ideal country, and he was an unfailing idealist, would embody the promise of the Enlightenment—a promise that he believed was incompatible with the wars of aggression in which the U.S. was then embroiled. But, he further contended that being a great power in the world was not a good thing and could only exist by forfeiting a claim to righteousness.
Dutch philosopher Rob Riemen takes a look at an idea not far from that of Goodman’s that night so long ago in Los Angeles, in his new book To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism. The focus of his book is Europe—more specifically, the idea of Europe which he says has a particular moral code worth preserving even as it diminishes as a world power militarily and economically. But one cannot overlook recent events in the U.S., a nation founded on the precepts of the Enlightenment, when considering what Riemen has to say about the West in the broadest sense. The book is divided into two long essays, the first is “The Eternal Return of Fascism,” followed by “The Return of Europa: Her Tears, Deeds, and Dreams.”
The liberal democracies of the 19th Century, the workshops of the Enlightenment, were disrupted by the pernicious disease of fascism in the 20th Century, and now in the 21st Century it is emerging again in the very countries that fought back the scourge of the Nazis and the fascist regimes in Spain and Italy seven decades ago. The word fascism now though is a taboo, so it is replaced by the far right, radical conservatism, populism, or right-wing populism. Riemen says that references to fascism or neo-Nazism are derided as panic-mongering, but that the “fascist bacillus will always remain virulent in the body mass of democracy.” And populism, he suggests, is nothing more than the breakdown of democratic institutions and tends to arise when populations no longer participate in democracy, or democracy devolves into autocracy.
Riemen begins “The Eternal Return of Fascism” with the story of Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague. During the Second World War in the North African city of Oran, which was isolated from the war to the north, a doctor finds a dead rat on a landing of his apartment. He tells the concierge, who brushes it off. The next day he finds three dead rats. The concierge says there are no rats in the building and passes it off as a boyish prank. As the days pass the doctor finds more and more dead rats around the city, but most residents are nonplussed by his discovery. But he also finds that he is attending to an increasing number of patients with sores, swellings and delirium. When he tells a colleague that what he is seeing appears to be the bubonic plague, the other doctor tells him that his suspicions are exaggerated, that this isn’t the Middle Ages, and that, anyway, the authorities would deny the truth for as long as possible. When it becomes clear that the plague has infected the city and human bodies are stacked up like so much cordwood and burned along with houses to kill the scourge. In the end the plague is defeated, but the good doctor is less than jubilant. Camus writes:
He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books—the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good. It can bide its time for decades, slumbering in furniture and linen. It waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs, old papers. Perhaps the day will come when, for the affliction and instruction of humankind, the plague will rouse up its rats again and send them out to die in a happy city.
Riemen says that Camus, along with Thomas Mann, who found asylum from the Nazis in the United States, and even Goethe—who warned of fascism before there was a name for it—knew that “the fascist bacillus will always remain virulent in the body mass of democracy.”
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset a decade before the fascism bacillus infected Europe warned of the dangers inherent in “mass society,” in which a decline in moral values feeds the power of nihilism. Riemen points to the end of religion in Europe (this is much less evident in the U.S., of course) and the danger, as predicted by Friedrich Nietzsche, of finding nothing to replace it as a moral compass. He says “Man, ‘freed’ from all spiritual values and from being guided by anything that could make life meaningful, would primarily make things easier for himself. He would demand that all his desires be satisfied, and if that should not happen, he would become violent.” Mass-man, Riemen writes, “refers not just to quantity but also to quality, to a certain mindset, or, more accurately, to an absence of mind.”
When mass-man revolts in the name of populism the results can lead to disastrous elections, such as recent ones on both sides of the Atlantic. When the masses are governed by fear and desire, Riemen says, and “democracy becomes mass democracy, democracy ceases to exist.”
Democracies can turn into tyrannies in two ways—pointed out by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die—as recently witnessed in our own hemisphere: quickly, as in the case of Allende’s Chile, where within a day the democratically elected president was dead and the military took over, helmed by the ruthless Augusto Pinochet; or, gradually, as in Venezuela where Hugo Chávez promised much-needed government reforms and was twice elected democratically, only to turn in his second term into a reckless autocrat. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, has shed any pretense of democratic governance.
The undermining of enlightened thought is particularly insidious now in Europe and America where “elite” has become “a term of abuse,” in Riemen’s view, and everything in culture is dragged down to a common lowest denominator. To make university education available to everyone, the standards are lowered; the arts must be accessible to everyone both financially and “in terms of meaning: they will have to be understandable [author’s italics]. The greatest rancor is directed toward anything difficult.” At the same time, there is a “common culture steeped in resentment [that] influences our values.” This is all toxically combined, with masses “who ultimately want nothing more than to blindly believe in and follow a charismatic leader.”
Scapegoating is one of the signposts of nascent fascism, and the chief victims of scapegoating today are the Islamic refugees. “But,” Riemen says, “a far greater threat to our society than Islamic fundamentalism is the crisis inherent in mass society: the moral crisis, the ever-increasing trivialization and dumbing down of our society.” [Riemen is primarily focused on Western Europe when he refers to “our society,” but he doesn’t exclude the U. S. from his analysis.]
The media have long been both belittled and insidiously used to prop up authoritarian leaders, Riemen points out. In the first decade of the 20th Century the Viennese satirist Karl Krauss skewered journalists for undermining democracy more than protecting it, calling the mass media a training ground for demagogues who, Riemen says, “derived their power from the fact that the people, fed on an endless volley of simplifications, can understand only simplifications and want to read or hear nothing else.”
Why do we in the West, Riemen asks, “ascribe so much value to technology, speed, money, fame, titivation, and outward appearances?” In large part, he concludes, because the 20th Century moved toward an “unstoppable march [toward] kitsch. In disregarding the highest good, spiritual values… we live our entire existence under the emblem of pleasure….Because there [is] no objective measure for our actions, and everything becomes subjective. My particular I, my ego, becomes the measure of everything, and so the only thing that matters is what I feel, what I think. I insist that my taste, my opinion, and the way I am should be respected; otherwise I will be offended.”
In a kitsch society, Riemen writes, “politics is no longer a public arena for serious debate on what a good society is and how it can be achieved,” but rather “a circus where people try to gain and hold on to political power with slogans and a public image… [and] the economy is dominated by the spirit of commerce, which wants to earn money at the cost of everything else (people, environment, quality).” The business elite, he says, “have poisoned society with the idea that earning a lot of money is the most important thing in life.”
The debasement of education and the commercialization of everything are no doubt perilous trends in the West, but one wonders where Riemen will tie this in with a dangerous trend toward fascism. Nascent nationalism seems to be one of the prime ingredients, he says, and this is clearly the basis for the Brexit vote in England, the rise of far-right political parties in Riemen’s own Netherlands, France and Austria; and perhaps the current regime in the U.S., which has plans for a massive national military parade for the coming Fourth of July.
“If populism in the kitsch culture of the mass-man becomes mixed with a large dose of nationalism, resentment, and hatred, we will see the false face of fascism coming to meet us,” Riemen says.
Is there a way out of this, or are we doomed to repeat the past? Rieman’s answer is that we in the West need to recapture the spirit of humanism as embodied in the Enlightenment and to “decide to devote ourselves to what truly gives life—truth, goodness, beauty, friendship, justice, compassion, and wisdom—only then, and not before, will we become resistant to the deadly bacillus called fascism.”
It’s a tall order, and the possibility of changing the hearts and minds of a population seems extremely ambitious and idealistic. But as Rieman writes, it took only a day—although the bacillus was growing—for the Reichstag fire to flip the German democracy to a fascist state. To turn the tide in the other direction is much harder, but not out of reach. It requires a return to a reverence for and preservation of culture.
The “requirements of a democratic civilization are the wisdom of poetry and literature, philosophy and theology, the arts and history,” Riemen says. And beyond this a renewed embracing of the tradition of the Enlightenment and its articles of faith: human progress, the natural goodness of man, rationality, and just political and social values. In the future, these may be the greatest contribution of the West. The East will dominate technologically and economically, but the West can continue to nourish the brotherhood of humankind
Rieman expands on the theme in “The Return of Europa,” in which he imagines the Greek goddess Europa as the mother and spiritual inspiration for the continent for which she is named. In his telling, Europa, washed up on the shores of Crete to endow a new civilization with her gifts, was in exile for much of the 20th Century. The European spirit was gone, yearning to return. Sometime, after the wars, the genocides, the national upheavals that marred the century, the princess shows up at a hotel somewhere in Europe and introduces herself. The receptionist asks to see her passport. But she doesn’t have one because she can’t belong to any one country.
The receptionist says he can do his best to accommodate her but that a room would have to be paid for in cash. She replies that she has no money. He asks her where she has come from. She answers: “I was born long ago in Phoenicia, which is now called Lebanon. Since then I have been all over the world.”
The receptionist then recognizes her. “Now I understand. I realize you are a refugee and I would certainly help you if I could. But look, this is a hotel, not a refugee center, and you’ve got no money to pay for a room. I’m truly sorry, but we can’t give you any further assistance here.”
Europa then corrects the receptionist. She is not a refugee, she says, but an exile who is trying to return to where her home ought to be. Further, she says, she has something more important than money and something that is desperately lacking: “I have a soul.”
Can the soul of Europe be restored?
It may be that the idea of Europe has run its course. George Steiner, the eminent scholar and polyglot, in a lecture contained in the book with an introduction by Rob Rieman, The Idea of Europe, says that is “a distinct possibility.” But he clearly hopes not. Steiner says that the “genius of Europe is what William Blake called ‘the holiness of the minute particular.’ It is that of linguistic, cultural, social diversity, of a prodigal mosaic which often makes trivial distance, twenty kilometers apart, a division between worlds. In contrast to the awesome monotony of America which extends from western New Jersey to the mountains of California, in contrast to that lust for sameness which is both the strength and vacancy of so much American existence, the splintered, often absurdly divisive map of European spirit and its inheritance, has been inexhaustibly fertile.”
Steiner imagines that “Europe may have the imperative privilege of hammering out, of enacting a secular humanism. If it can purge itself of its own dark heritage…. It may be that in ways as yet very difficult to make out, Europe will generate a counter-industrial revolution even as it generated the industrial revolution itself.”
I think back to Paul Goodman today as the United States appears either willfully, or by the randomness of history, to be turning away from its role as a great power. And I can’t help but think this might be a good thing in the long run. Or maybe not. Who knows what rough beast is waiting to be born? I also often wonder if we children of the 1960s might just have wound up on the losing side of the culture wars.
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