the imaginative conservative logo

american dark ageA huge “thank you” to the members of APL for inviting me to speak this morning. A special thanks to Mike Federici for chairing and to the other panel members. I’ve been corresponding with Dan McCarthy and Mike Church for several years now, but this is the first time we’ve ever actually encountered one another in person. A true honor.

One of the parlor games Winston Elliott and I like to play is: where are we in history? Is this a rise? Is this a fall? Or, is it somehow, somewhere in between? Or, more likely, is it some combination of a variety of things: up, down, above, below, next to…

It was T.S. Eliot in the 1940s and Eric Voegelin in the 1950s who taught us that a people might very well be advancing in many areas of society while decaying in others.As Eliot declared, a society at the very beginnings of a dark age might appear exactly as its opposite–that is, as a period of astounding growth in creativity. This, he explained, is logical, as a loosening of the past and of traditions might very well unleash the most imaginative forces in a society.

Voegelin famously argued in his University of Chicago Walgreen lectures that the West had been rising just as dramatically in the perfection of its technology as it was declining in its notions of morality.

As any economist can show, the standard of living and longevity of the average person have been advancing so rapidly since 1800 that the graphed line of life from the beginnings of recorded history seem to be a very consistent but diffident line, barely registering at all. For the sake of history, I’ll leave out the 900-year old patriarchs and the “sons of god who married the daughters of man” in Genesis. Suffice it to remark: Looking at the advance in longevity since 1800 is akin watching a man successfully scale Pike’s Peak.

So, where are we in our cycles of history? I suggest, without enough humility or diffidence, that we as an American people have been in a dark age, morally, ethically, and constitutionally since about 1801. The American founding was not a founding from the perspective of western history. It was an ending, a culmination of so many brilliant and glorious things that had come before it.

The last true “greats” of western society were George Washington, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and a number of other eighteenth-century men. Since then, we who believe in natural law and right reason have fought only rearguard actions with minor victories here and there. Russell Kirk was correct–if not from a marketing perspective–to call his dissertation, the Conservatives’ Rout.

Or, perhaps even better, G.K. Chesterton understood that

For the end of the world was long ago
And all we dwell today
As children of some second birth
Like a strange people left on earth
After a Judgement Day.

Our Failure

Whatever the cause or the reason, we Americans have never been able to live up to what the founders gave us; we have proven unworthy of republicanism and its many demands upon a just public and private life. The founders believed we needed virtue, and, in this, we’ve been sorely lacking. A lack of virtue, though, is not enough to cause the loss of the West. A number of vital factors–or, for lack of a better term (at least of this writing), “forces”–are at work exacerbating our problems.

Let me list three and offer two results.

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville understood the first factor better than any other person of his age. The move toward democracy and radical egalitarianism–what de Tocqueville very metahistorically referred to as a “providential fact”–habituated the peoples and persons of the West to a conformist, grey, tapioca-type pudding, unwilling to assert the will for good or resist that which is evil. Indeed, we might no longer be able even even understand what is good and what is evil, having lost the habit and virtue of prudence.

The government (for it is the only agent capable of enforcing such a thing; other institutions can breed conformity but not equality):

every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits. After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Add to his, factor number two: the rise of nationalism in many forms in the late nineteenth century–the exclusive promotion of a particular people over all others, thus rendering the general and liberal (in the best sense) of the human person null and void. That solid American classical liberal, E.L. Godkin, understood the problem well in 1900:

“We hear no more of natural rights, but of inferior races, whose part it is to submit to the government of those whom God has made their superiors. The old fallacy of divine right has once more asserted its ruinous power, and before it is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale.”

Horribly, the prophecies of Godkin have proven all too true. Almost every country in the western world has experienced this process of nationalism–with its permanent bureaucracy to ensure the steady flow of revenue; the centralized military, paid through the mechanism of the swarms of officers; and an educational system to render the citizens effete, malleable, and, when the need arises, inhumane. Strangely, only empires in the West (needing to embrace a more cosmopolitan view of the world for practical reasons) have avoided the worst excesses of nationalism. They, of course, have their own problems and have, as often as not, contributed to the problems of the world as well. But, that’s a different story. The U.S. has never had imperial longings. . . oh, wait. Scratch that.

Factor number 3: the rise of ideologies, especially with the destruction of the old world in 1914. Fascism, national socialism, and communism provided enticing absolutes for many persons and peoples while the Western liberal powers swirled around the abyss of unmeaning and self-infatuation.

We have seen and witnessed the vast destruction wrought by these three forces in the larger world: the mass grave has become the real symbol of the twentieth century. Indeed, historians will mostly likely remember the twentieth century as the “Age of Brutality” or the “Age of Destruction” or the “Age of the Holocaust” in the way we remember the 18th century as the “Age of Enlightenment” or the thirteenth century as the “High Middle Ages,” or the 5th Century BC of Greece as its “classical period.” Though I was born in the summer of love (admittedly, in Kansas, this didn’t mean quite the same thing as it meant in San Francisco), I am, as has been noted by others, a bit embarrassed to have been born in such a century of blood horrors and western impotence. What decent person wouldn’t be? But, here I am, nonetheless.

While such decay and destruction has been most comprehensive under the iron fist of totalitarian regimes, the so called “free west” has declined precipitously as well. We just happened to do it a bit more gradually and a with little bit more sweetness at home, if not always abroad. “It may be harder to resist a totalitarian state which relies on free milk and birth control clinics,” Christopher Dawson noted, “than one which relies on castor oil and concentration camps.”

The Weaponization of Politics

The confluence of radical egalitarianism and nationalism has been bad enough, but it seems incontrovertible that over the last 100 years the rise of the ideological regimes has infected the free West as well. Perhaps the best way to put it is that ideologies have weaponized the political realm, political ideas (or the lack thereof and narrowing of categories), and political realities.

From its beginning, politics as a field and as a realty has been imperial, invading the sovereignty of every sphere around it: economic, cultural, legal, theological, etc. Power has begat power, and little exists to challenge such tyrannical overtures.

Most importantly, we as Americans, having lost the republican verve of the founders, and we stand by timidly or without conviction. As the sweating, rotund, groping TSA agent, reeking of Old Spice, grabs at our most private parts, who among us resists? After all, don’t we all just want to get home? What support would we have in a TSA line if we did resist the government-funded and protected pervert? Armed men would appear out of nowhere ushering us into a private room, but not one owned by the good people of Hilton. As we are whisked away, the other passengers–all also wanting just to get home–might double check their belongings to relieve themselves of a three-ounce bottle of liquid and proceed as if nothing happened. Maybe, just maybe, some one might catch the incident on a videophone, but only a few conservatives and libertarians will give a hoot. Rest assured, “security theater” will continue with only the smallest of inconveniences.

But, this is not all. We live in a time that allows the president of either party to engage in war without any declaration of war. Indeed, war has been illegal since 1945, but that has stopped no would-be caesar. Not only is Congress as a body impotent, but it has turned over what remains of its slight manliness to the executive. Handing it the NDAA, the executive may now detain a U.S. citizen indefinitely. Common law rights, natural rights be damned.

We live in a time in which sellers of raw milk have their homes invaded at gunpoint.

We live in a time in which a myriad of public and private security/anti-terrorist agencies grow like viral infections. “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. . . .In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.” [source: Washington Post, Summer 2009].

We live in a time when sovereign state legislatures make declarations the U.S. Congress doesn’t respond, executive agencies–such as the BATF–do.

So, as a people, we have lost the ability to declare war and the ability to decide when and when not to secure ourselves. If anyone truly believes the government any longer exists to protect the rights and dignity and security of the American citizen, she or he is simply in a terribly sad state of ignorance or denial.

Let me turn to just one founding father, James Wilson, one of only six signers of the Declaration and the U.S. Constitution. At what would become the University of Pennsylvania, Wilson delivered a series of lectures about the American Revolution in 1791. “As a man is justified in defending, so he is justified in retaking, his property, or his peculiar relations, when from him they are unjustly taken and detained,” he stated in his lecture on Natural Rights.

What would the men of Lexington Green, pacing and debating for hours during a Massachusetts early spring night in 1775, state to the TSA agent most of you will encounter this afternoon? Did the citizens of Lexington watch their men bleed out on the village green at 4:30 in the morning so that we could look the other way as defending our rights as men and women becomes a matter of inconvenience rather than a sacred duty?

I would suggest–and rather forcefully–that as an American people–we are no longer worthy of the men of 1775 or 1776 or 1787 or 1791. We have turned the world they gave to us into a purgatorial emporium.

As Mercy Otis Warren put it so brilliantly, in 1805.

“If this should ever become the deplorable situation of the United States, let some unborn historian in a far distant day, detail the lapse, and hold up the contrast between a simple, virtuous, and free people, and a degenerate, servile race of beings, corrupted by wealth, effeminated by luxury, impoverished by licentiousness, and become the automatons of intoxicated ambition.”

We must remember, our current government has a long and illustrious history of the most profounds abuses. It is the government, after all, that forced Indian Removal from their traditional lands; created the first federal police force in 1850, with the express purpose of recapturing runaway black PERSONS; paid for the wars against the American Indians, often resulting in massacres, even against our most loyal allies, such as the Nez Perce; stole Indian children from their parents and forcibly Europeanized them in east coast schools; sponsored the segregation of the armed forces as well as Washington, D.C., and made–as its highest achievement- in the summer of 1945. According to estimates, the bomb over the Christian city of Nagasaki created winds of over six hundred miles per hour and a heat at close to 4,000 degrees fahrenheit. Somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 persons died either instantly or over the next two months from injuries sustained from the denotation of the Atomic bomb.  All made in America.

And, back in America–if you were of Japanese or Korean ancestry–you got the opportunity to spend the war in a concentration camp in the middle of an Idaho desert, courtesy of Executive Order 9066 and U.S. taxpaying money (but, not to worry, the confiscation of Japanese American property almost allowed the U.S. to break even; Henry VIII had been a great exemplar for American presidents).

With so many black helicopters and newly-built bases across the world and in the most deserted parts of America, who knows what beauties are being made as we gather “here in this place where new light is steaming.” My guess is not one single thing that will actually benefit the American people, but we can be certain it will protect the existence of the U.S. government.

As of 2012, we are most likely a doomed people. But, this begs certain questions. As conservatives and libertarians, our role in a new Dark Age is very, very different than what it is in a time of humanism and ascent. And, I believe we must ponder these things and do so very quickly.

Hope in this American Dark Age?

If we are preservers, what it is we must preserve? How are we to do it? Are we to embrace and sanctify the things of this world–especially in terms of technology? I would suggest yes. Just as St. Paul baptized the classical culture at Mars’ Hill and T.S. Eliot baptized the forms of modernism, we must do the same with the technology and world around us.

There are examples of incredible work being done all around us. In his integrity, purpose, and intelligence, Mike Church puts every other conservative talk show host to shame. Winston Elliott has spent a considerable amount of his not inconsiderable time, talent, and treasure into making the internet a place of real, meaningful, deep, and abiding discussion. Mark Kalthoff and Richard Gamble bring the most exacting standards to the class room, day in and day out, with their dedication to the liberal arts in word and deed. Dan McCarthy, Scott Richert, and Carl Olson provide us with print media at the highest quality. In the classical liberal and libertarian world, Jim Otteson, Larry Reed, Steve Horwitz, Sarah Skwire, Aeon Skoble, and Ed Lopez advance the best principles; the same is true with Patrick Deneen, Gary Gregg, Nathan Schlueter, and others in the conservative realm. For young people who love the art of writing, Laurel Good, Julie Robison, Sharon Pelletier, Kat Timpf, Chase Purdy, and others excel.

All around us, goodness, truth, and beauty try to break in. So many forces long for the destruction of these things, however, as their success would break the power of those who will do anything to maintain it, even preventing an organic future in favor of a mechanized and brutal one.

For those of us who love human dignity and the witness provided by our grandmothers and grandfathers–those who justly deserve our respect–there is much to do. As long as the lights stay on, we who embrace the highest things must learn to use the technology of the internet, and the ebook, and so many others appearing so quickly in service of the Word. If successful, we can off the triumph of the totalist dark age for centuries to come.

[Dear Imaginative Conservative reader, this is the presentation I was privileged to deliver at the APL annual meeting in Baltimore, Sunday morning, June 17, 2012. If you get the chance to read this, you’ll notice a lot of thoughts that I’ve already started developing in a variety of other posts at The Imaginative Conservative. Sorry for the redundancies! As it turned out, our own wonderful Mike Church and American Conservative editor extraordinaire Dan McCarthy (the H.L. Mencken of our generation) were also on the panel. Political theorist Mike Federici, author of one of the best books on Eric Voegelin and a truly witty man, chaired the session. We went about two hours and discussed everything from a new Dark Age to great examples of hope to “Infoborgs” (yes, this term is new to me). In the audience were a number of special friends–Winston and Barbara Elliott, Mark Kalthoff, Richard Gamble, Julie Robison, and, my old mentor, Leonard Liggio. My oldest two daughters, Gretchen and Maria Grace sat peacefully through their father’s bloviations. The title of the panel was “The Problem of Disconnectedness.” Embarrassingly, I’m not even sure what this means, but I have a feeling I didn’t answer the question or really address the problem.]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. Speeches and essays of this quality are sadly missed by the majority of the American public. Such a tragedy. Sadly, ideas of this nature are above the understanding of our students in this society. This is not their fault, but the fault of the education system today. Continue forward great scholars. If you reach one more person each day the enlightenment may yet come.

  2. Perhaps it is that conservatives suffer excessively from depression. Not a Dark Age but a dark lens through which to view the world.

  3. Anon, not sure what you mean, but if I get your drift, you might be right. I've been diagnosed by a professional that half of my brain is missing. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Brad, I think it was the poet Chatterton who suffered head injuries while speed-skating. People said that, before, he had the finest mind at Oxford and afterward he was merely one of the two finest minds at Oxford. Many thanks for this fine series.

Leave a Reply