You turn on the radio for the weather report: “Sunny and warm today, with a high near 80. Light breeze out of the south at five miles per hour. Chance of rain less than ten percent.” Outside your window, you watch the winds rage and the rains pour. Which are you going to believe, your senses or government-backed science?
Coming away from the window, you pick a modern history textbook off the shelf, and you read that modern times are marked by progress. The past was a sewer of racism, sexism, bigotry, and ethnic oppression, but in the past 150 years, mankind has reached ever higher levels of technology, enlightenment, and humanity. You experience a brief moment of doubt: two world wars, terrifying dictatorships that killed hundreds of millions of people, the disappearance of all standards in the arts, manners, and morals, and an upsurge in prejudice and violence against your own dwindling minority of straight white Christian males. Which are you going to believe, the evidence you can see and hear all around you, or academics living off government subsidies?
You quickly shake off all doubts and pass the good news on to the children: Liberated from history, they—and not just individual men and women but the entire human race—“will rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.” The civilization of their ancestors, with all its racism and bigotry, is dying to be replaced by a higher civilization in which all distinctions of ethnicity, sex, and religion will disappear.
Credo quia absurdum, as Tertullian is supposed to have said but in fact did not: Christians are rarely as dumb as U.S. Weather Service climatologists or academic historians with government grants. Christians—and I am not speaking of social gospelers, Marxist Catholic bishops, or the Dr. Feelgoods that fleece their megachurch brethren in Texas, but of old-school believers—look with a jaundiced eye upon the limitless capacity of the human race for self-improvement. History culminated in the events of 2,000 years ago, and the human race can only progress by regressing to that reality.
Progress, nonetheless, is the American creed subscribed to with equal fervor by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. It took a great Republican legislator to give the theory of progress its most poignant expression:
Charleston was once the rage, uh huh
History has turned the page, uh huh
The miniskirt’s the current thing, uh huh
Teenybopper is our newborn king, uh huh
Salvatore Bono, though the protégé of A&R legend and wife-killer Phil Spector, was too residually Catholic to think that the basic reality of love and hate would ever vanish entirely from the scene:
Little girls still break their hearts, uh huh
And men still keep on marching off to war.
But as a budding Scientologist, Sonny Bono could not fail to believe in a march of progress that could not be arrested or resisted: “Electrically they keep a baseball score.”
In historical scholarship, this way of thinking leads inevitably to classification into periods, hermetically sealed compartments with no intercommunication. After the fall of Rome—or the Lombard invasion—came a Dark Age in which knowledge of the classics disappeared. And many centuries earlier, they say, some time between the death of Euripides and the establishment of the Alexandrian library, the music of Greek drama was entirely lost, and not just in the sense that musical manuscripts were either misplaced or never existed, but so completely lost as to be unintelligible to later generations. This seismic interruption in cultural transmission would have taken place in the lifetime of Aristotle, whose student Aristoxenus of Tarentum wrote the most influential works on ancient music.
To all of this I can only say in the words of a celebrated fictional detective, “Pfui!” Greeks in the first Christian century could still whistle all the airs of that infernal nonsense Euripides’ Orestes. After the terrible shocks of the sack of Rome in 410, the coups of Odovacer and Theoderic in the late fifth century, the reconquest of Italy by Justinian’s generals, and the Lombard invasion, there were still a few fairly learned men in Byzantine Italy: the poet and hymnodist Venantius Fortunatus or, later still, the Lombard Paulus Diaconus, a prodigy of learning at the savage and immoral court of Charlemagne.
Long before I had heard even the names of Venantius and Paulus, I wondered, as a boy, what it might have been like to be a semicivilized person in a barbaric age. Later, I was haunted by the thought of Ovid living among the uncouth Sarmatians on the Black Sea, of Boethius “biding his time among suspicious Goths,” and of Gennadius, the first patriarch of Constantinople under the Turks, keeping the faith as everything else in his world was being destroyed and corrupted. The examples of such men are a more relevant inspiration for us in these dark times than Cimon or Cato or George Washington or even Calvin Coolidge.
At the age of 12, I wasted time in class inventing a history of our solar system in which a great civilization had once flourished on the planet Athena, only to be blown up by nuclear missiles into the smithereens that now make up the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Of course I was extrapolating from what I could already see was the death of our own civilization, and I wonder if Plato, possibly, had something similar on his mind when he dreamed up the lost continent of Atlantis. Only a genius could have foreseen the eclipse of Athens two generations before Philip and Alexander subjugated Greece, but any child with his wits about him should have been able to smell the cultural death in the popular culture of the 50’s and 60’s.
One did not have to read
Oswald Spengler or even James Burnham to know, by the early 1960’s, that 3,000 years of civilization had come to an end in a generation that watched too much television (before going on to smoke too much dope and pop too many pills) to know what was happening to them. I had reached that conclusion before I turned 20, though I did not try to reconcile adolescent smugness over the end of all that with a growing devotion to the classics that was the only force strong enough to keep me from hitting the bars before noon.
Little did I know that this apocalyptic vision was old hat before I was born. Surrealists, communists, and Dadaists did not merely embrace the death of meaning and civility; they positively exulted in the death of the West and everything Western. They hated Christianity, especially the Catholic Church; they hated Europe, France in particular; they hated the classics; they hated white people. By contrast they celebrated Asian religion and African culture. Decades before the active phase of the war against the West took on the slogans of anticolonialism, minority rights, and multiculturalism, Western intellectuals were full to the brim with self-loathing. The origins of the disease lie in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but it was only in the later 20th century that it became pandemic, first in the educated classes, and then among anyone who went to school or owned a television set. Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were pioneers in Western self-hatred, which must be why they are so much admired by conservative intellectuals in our own time.
If you think any of this is overstated, just go to the library and look at the artistic masterpieces of Jacob Epstein and Andy Warhol, and, as you are reading the wit and wisdom of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, explaining the evils of Western culture, listen to some light background music from Ornette Coleman playing “between the notes” on his plastic saxophone. This was all decades ago, in the period that conservatives still celebrate as a high point of our culture, the time when “the Greatest Generation” was still ruling the planet, back before every imaginable ethnic, religious, and erotic minority had whined its way into the national consciousness.
Back in 1960, it is true, there were still old men to look up to, and even today there are a few people who can write a decent sentence or compose a song worth hearing, but to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, the march of progress has been a steady and, in recent years, precipitous advance into the slough from which few will escape. A half-civilized American today is like the Greeks of Poseidonia (Paestum) described by Aristoxenus, when he tried to explain to his contemporaries what it was like to preserve classical standards in music. Such people play and listen to the classics, he said, much as the barbarized Poseidonian Greeks, who after centuries in Southern Italy had lost most of their Hellenic culture. They gather once per year in a festival to mourn their loss. Their plight is the subject of one of the moving poems of Konstantinos Kabaphes, reflecting on his own plight as a civilized Greek over 2,000 years later.
And they had the habit, at the end of the festival
To tell the story of their ancient customs
And to repeat their Greek names
That only a few still understood
And the festival ended on a melancholy note
Because they remembered that they too were Greeks.
The Greeks of Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) were overwhelmed by their less-civilized Etruscan and Italian neighbors who vastly outnumbered them, though even in the time of Cicero and Vergil the Hellenic communities on the Bay of Naples were centers of Hellenic culture and philosophy. The Greek held on against impossible odds. What possible excuse can West-European-Americans make for allowing their country to be overwhelmed by wave after wave of increasingly alien immigrants who do not share their language, culture, or even, in the case of non-Christian immigrants, their religion? Juvenal famously denounced Middle Eastern immigrants to Italy, complaining that the Orontes had emptied into the Tiber, but the Hellenized Syrians and Latinized Spaniards and Celts who came to Rome looking for opportunities quickly blended into the landscape; others, like the Jews, maintained their own traditions without challenging the dominant Romanitas. Trajan did not set up Hispanic-studies programs in Rome, and Septimius Severus did not impose affirmative action for the worshipers of Moloch and Astarte, and the great Balkan thug-emperors were content to rule over a Greco-Roman civilization without giving privileges to ancestral Illyrian or Pannonian customs.
There is absolutely no historical parallel for what we have done to ourselves. Even the Ostrogoths, who conquered and ruled Italy for over a generation, did what they could to preserve the superior civilization of their subjects. We, on the other hand, who still rule the world, cannot apparently say no to the less than impressive leaders of the NAACP, MALDEF and LULAC, and the AJC. Minorities that have the will to grab what they want and degrade the majority they are subjugating deserve to win, because their victims refuse to fight or, if they do put up some show of resistance, are content to imitate the tactics of their oppressors. The solution of the Euro-American rights groups is not to defend—or even to study—their own cultural traditions, because they are no better educated than the uncouth aliens they hate and, in their personal lives, try to emulate. All they can do is to become one more whining minority, which is exactly what we do not need. Better to be beaten by Al Sharpton than to become Al Sharpton.
If we really begin to understand what we have done to ourselves, we can quit lying to each other and ourselves about moral rearmament, cultural revival, conservative minds, family values, and “what works in education.” With all that “conservative” rubbish out of the way, we can then ask ourselves the really important question that every serious human being has to ask in every generation: How are we going to live in this world?
For Christians, this has always been the question, since no culture is so Christian as not to offer countless distractions and temptations, some of them relatively harmless but others possibly fatal to a Christian life. Most of us find it easier to go along in order to get ahead, pretending that it really takes little effort to lead a decent life here in downtown Sodom or in the suburbs of Gomorrah. What was Lot thinking, I wonder, when he finally realized the kind of people he had picked for his neighbors? At the very least, believers today could learn to distinguish between baseball and money-lending, the movies of John Ford and the movies of the Cohen brothers, but for the most part they do not. Hardly a day goes by that some conservative does not ask me if I have read a current bestseller or watched a film that would have shocked Petronius or Oscar Wilde.
Noncombatants in the war between Heaven and Hell have a harder time than Christians making their way through the cultural minefields. They cannot tell a raven from a writing desk, much less a portable radio playing Haydn from an IED. Unlike Christians, they have neither an incontrovertible body of Scripture and tradition to tell them no, boys do not marry boys anywhere on this human planet, nor a community that embodies and enforces the tradition. They must be as heroic as Achilles—and as alienated from community and fellowship. Theirs is a hard road. I know, because I once walked it, and it leads all too often to the melancholy of the Poseidonians.
It is best to face the fact. An old-fashioned American—Christian or not—in these United States is far worse off than Greeks in Italy. Poseidonians had to watch their children grow up Italian, which is hardly the worst thing in the world, while we, if we do not take positive and dramatic steps to protect them, see our own sons and daughters turning, before our eyes, into savages or space aliens who, if they are sent to university, will side with the street savages against the forces of order paid to protect them.
It is still possible to opt out of this space-alien world, without dressing up in bonnets and frock coats or adoring an oil stain on the side of a building as an apparition of the Blessed Virgin. We cannot refuse to grapple with changing circumstances. Of course the beat goes on and on and on and on, but all of us are, in principle—and a few of us, in fact—capable of blocking out the drumbeat, and keeping a pace and rhythm not dictated by Phil Spector or Simon Cowell or Andrew Lloyd Weber or David Geffen or Rupert Murdoch.
I sometimes wonder, only half in jest, if we should not petition the United Nations to set up Tribal Homelands for that endangered subspecies of civilized European-American Christians.
We have reservations for Indians, where they are allowed to live by their own laws, and E.O. Wilson has called for the creation of vast nature preserves to safeguard ecological diversity. Why not pay some attention to preserving the cultural diversity of human groups that handed down to us skills and traditions that are valued even by the Rev. Al Sharpton: the logic and mathematics that made it possible to discover electricity and invent computers; the rule of law that enables parasites to be treated equally with their hosts; and habits of personal responsibility and self-restraint that have kept us from going on rampages to purge the world of the Sharptons and the millions of other “community organizers” who make their living off the hatred and envy they stir up.
If the cruel and unfeeling international community refuses to grant tribal homelands for civilized Christians, we shall just have to learn to mind our own business, think our own thoughts, read our own books, and, like Aristoxenus, listen to our own music. Once per year, we might even organize an annual pilgrimage to Paestum where, among the ruins of its ancient temples, we can celebrate what we have lost.