One day last autumn a stray clipping reminded me that the first news from abroad that startled me in England—where, six years ago, I fled from the optimism of the New York Times as I had fled from the comparably totalitarian bonism of Pravda 12 years earlier— was not some distant rumbling of Kremlin intrigue or American neoconservatism. It was an article in the Observer reporting on the spread of a germ that proved impervious to all antibiotics, called “methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteris,” or “Superstaph” for short. The novel phenomenon prompted Dr. Ken Harvey, director of microbiology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, to predict that in the not-too-distant future “we may look back on the antibiotic era as just a passing phase in the history of medicine, an era in which a great natural resource was squandered and where the bugs proved smarter than the scientists.” Permit mc to change the subject ever so slightly.

Here I am six years later. Even from the relative safety of a Paris hotel room, watching a nation leap into the slightly unpleasant beyond is frightening. Well after midnight, when the final results of the referendum on “European union” have been tabulated, it transpires that the actual number of real, honest-to-goodness Gadarene lemmings is statistically negligible, though decisive enough to swing the vote. To those who find the simile oblique, I say that on this Sunday in September another fig leaf of democracy is ripped off and woven into bureaucracy’s crown.

The juxtaposition is not mine. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton in October, Douglas Hurd says: “We want to roll back democ—-.” The foreign secretary misspeaks, of course, and duly corrects himself in the next sentence: “Bureaucracy.” Thus the last of the fig leaves, language, is being immodestly tugged at by an Old Etonian hand. Denmark, which voted to reject the Maastricht version of “European union” in its referendum by 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent, may simply be pushed. Britain may not even get the illusion of choosing to leap.

The illusion is increasingly a luxury, as anyone who listened to the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates later last autumn will agree. Heated medieval disputations about unspecified or imaginary policies, wholly lacking in scholiastic subtlety; heroic, collegiate, provincial braggadocio, largely unmitigated by Protestant pieties; doctrinal narrowmindedness, oblivious of the Catholic institution of the devil’s advocate; superstitious faith in the Optimum of Gotttfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, unattended by a knowledge of the multiplication tables or an ability to write “Leibniz” in chalk on a blackboard; add to these a Chinese mandarin’s sycophancy toward the people who matter and a Soviet official’s cynicism toward The People, who don’t, and one begins to realize that the illusion of choice, cultivated within our culture for the last five centuries, is now almost as dead as the corresponding reality it has at times managed to animate.

Not surprisingly, it is just such illusions that the master illusionists of the Kremlin have decided to bottle, as 75 years ago they found it useful to conserve in totalitarian aspic the aristocratic culture of old Russia. Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Chagall, Malevich—in music, poetry, and painting—for these, today, one must read Locke, Jefferson, Adam Smith, Margaret Thatcher, the United Nations, the American Enterprise Institute, the Lord Foundation, Whitehall, the New York Times, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But where Russian culture, as it was slowly consumed by the totalitarian state, left a memory by the likes of which world culture may still be measured without equivocation, the artificially sustained heritage of Western political thought will at best bring those who do not already have it a temporary freedom to shop. So toothless, inchoate, ambiguous, pliable, and irrelevant have the illusions of “democracy” become that they affect the course of history. East or West, only insofar as they help those in power to stay in power.

Recent political spectacles, such as the American presidential “election” (I apologize, but the quotation marks are to remind the reader of the surrealism of such moments as when President Bush announced that during his administration “44 countries have gone democratic, or was it 45?”) or the European “debate” over Maastricht (again I apologize), show that the West has consigned the illusions to oblivion. In this, too, one finds parallels with the past, because just when Russia’s totalitarian rulers began conserving the aristocratic culture of Europe’s century-long summer of 1815 for global propaganda purposes of their own, the West opened the floodgates to a wholesale philistinization of that culture—so that Prokofiev, for instance, who had fled what he called Bolshevisia in horror, returned in horror—of which the smug barbarism of the New York Times music critic who advised the Beethoven of the 20th century to try and write more like Beethoven is but a fleeting glimpse. And so it comes to pass that nowadays a third-rate functionary from the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada advising “Russia’s President” (here I am as unapologetic about the quotation marks as I would be if he were called “Russia’s Mderoaph” or “Most Democratically Elected Representative of All Progressive Humanity”) can spout free-market arcana or quote Lincoln marginalia in English as fluently as his elder brother used to quote Marx or Engels in Russian, while the President of the United States is no more ashamed of acting like a Tammany boss of a century ago than his running mate is ashamed of spelling like one.

There is more to this than some Orwellian foreboding that totalitarianism is destined to become the last custodian of democracy’s illusions, called politics, as it was the last custodian of the aristocratic illusions whose sum total is Western culture. There is also the dawning certainty that the underlying realities have been so twisted out of recognition, disfigured by time and warped through disuse, that never again will they rise to animate the illusions as they once did, most spectacularly during that centurylong European summer.

The illusions of which I speak were, after all, human inventions—no less than compassion, chastity or chivalry, the categorical imperative or the steam locomotive—of several epochs, notably the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. As any schoolboy with a mental age above that of a Presidential candidate knows, the American Dream in particular was the philosophical issue of those epochs. The schoolboy may even realize that its seminal illusions of liberty, equality, and fraternity began as ideas sketched on the back of an old envelope, rather in the manner of Da Vinci’s helicopter. One need not dwell on the original test flight of 1789. Just because some wing-flapping rascal of a flying machine does not fly should not mean that Newton’s Third Law is a mirage. Modern helicopters do fly.

And so did the illusions of the Age of Reason, eventually lifting their corresponding realities above the millennial plateau of slavery. Even England, whose protracted isolation had enabled it to anticipate many of these practical innovations by a few hundred years—rather as North America, similarly sheltered by the Atlantic, proved itself the most suitable ground for their perpetuation— half-bowed before the genius of the philosophes as it had half-bowed to Luther. Much of the rest of the civilized world, however, did not have the blessing of shelter, offered by channel and ocean much the way Yugoslavia’s mountains offered protection against Stalin’s armor. Consequently, it was the Anglo-Saxon world, rather than Luther’s native Germany or Voltaire’s native France, that became the custodian of both the living practice of civic evolution (see Burke’s Reflections) and the revolutionary genius of social reform (see Goethe’s Faust).

Then a funny thing happened. Not only did no one say “Look, fellows, this here machine only flies in warm weather!” (or, for example, “This form of democracy is going to collapse as soon as somebody invents something better than gunpowder, not to mention a weapon of mass coercion!”), but all research was summarily discontinued. The illusions, corroborated as they were or seemed to be by the realities of the century-long summer, became the West’s axiom, gospel, and code. If science had followed suit and ended in Newton, that fabulous, gentle summer would have continued forever.

But science, whose own domain had been shaped by the sociopolitical innovations of which I speak, did not shut down the laboratory and the study once Wilbur Wright’s flying machine flew 852 feet in 59 seconds or once Alexander Fleming was knighted for the discovery of penicillin. The republic of science, after all, was sheltered by talent and knowledge, natural obstacles even more insuperable than oceans or mountains. No people on Earth was better suited to curate the Anglo-Saxon tradition of freedom and the Continental passion for reform than the natural philosophers who inhabit it. And curate them they did—while the rest of the world sat still, clinging to 300-year-old illusions about liberty, equality, and fraternity that in practice had long ago become irrelevant platitudes.

Unmodified, unverified, undoubted, these antediluvian relics of the Age of Reason were less and less relevant in a world where a bombing plane cost the equivalent of 800 pairs of silk stockings, a world where new means of mass communication and new weapons of mass coercion were rapidly reducing man to the level of a biological cell. Enlarging the individual, by increasing his capacity for self-defense against the encroachments of tyranny, had been the aim of civilization since the Magna Carta. The noble illusions of the French philosophes advanced that aim. The reversal of that progress, which John Stuart Mill found the intellectual courage to anticipate during the balmiest days of that fabulous summer, was accomplished in a few decades.

Why? Because, as Mill observed with his own eyes, no sooner were the innovations of the philosophes consolidated into a dogma than the West began to marginalize or persecute those who would challenge or rebel against it, forgetting that the dynamic essence of the dogma was challenge or rebellion. Thus Darwin, who challenged the biblical account of Creation, has not been challenged for a century. Thus political correctness, now for the first time shamelessly called by its own name yet no different from the age-old, ostensibly benign “accepted truth” unmasked by Mill. Thus Maastricht, unabashedly substituting bureaucracy for democracy.

Ecce the human cell. Tyranny was its contagion. Once upon a time Anglo-Saxon tradition made it resistant to lawlessness, teaching it to defend its whims against the caprices of tyrants. Then Continental paradox gave it further immunity, teaching it to rebel against tyranny, no less useful than the earlier gift. But then it stopped learning, experimenting, thinking—while the aggressive infection became ever more aggressive, selective, sophisticated. Small wonder that the cell is bound to end up as a specimen in totalitarianism’s experimental ward. Nobody has taught it to withstand the new tyrannies of the bureaucracy, the media, the university, the corporation. How can it withstand nuclear blackmail or produce a leader who can spell “Leibniz”?

In 1960, 13 percent of staphylococcus infections were resistant to penicillin. In 1988, two years after the Observer article, the figure was 91 percent. If immunologists had stopped updating their research in 1960, it is quite likely that by 1993 medicine would be back where it was before Fleming. But the social, political, and cultural immunologists of the West did stop all such research long ago. Oh, sure, one can point to loners like Tito Perlini, one can quote from Husserl’s Krisis der europdischen Wissenschaften, one can object that freethinkers are still being born. The Voltaires of today, however, have no social eminences to which they can rise outside the established hierarchies of the bureaucracy, the media, the university, the corporation—the very structures, in other words, whose effect on “democracy” and the individual they are expected to examine, study, or modify. No less than the average denizen of modern society. East or West, they are simply inaudible constituents of the uniform cell structure of mankind.

The result is that Russia’s “Acting Prime Minister” may now free reporters from Krasnaia zvezda, as he did last October, that in 1993 the military budget will again increase considerably—confident that no Western newspaper would print the news because its editors and readers alike can no longer understand how such a thing is possible or where it would fit if it were. Why, Russia’s “Acting Prime Minister” can probably even recite Patrick Henry’s address to the Virginia convention.

The result? Well, the one result that happens to matter more than who the President of the United States is or what Douglas Hurd thinks of “European union” is that the greatest natural resource of the West, its antibiotic heritage of democracy, has finally been squandered. As to whether the totalitarian bug that now becomes dominant is of the Moscow, the Peking, the Baghdad, or the Maastricht strain, this can only be established by a postmortem examination—a gruesome procedure for which, to add insult to injury, the West is unlikely to have either the requisite skills or the specialist knowledge.