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weaponization of politics

At the beginning of his epic poem, “The Ballad of the White Horse,” one of the two greatest Christian apologists of the previous century speculatively proclaimed:

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.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton understood much about creation and its eventual demise, even before the outbreak of the war to end all wars in 1914.

Without getting into any theology (I really don’t know what my pre- or post-millennial views are, as I don’t quite understand the distinctions, even though countless students have kindly tried to explain the various views on these things to me), I think it’s worth considering where we are in history: in a stagnate period, a period of ascension, or a period of decline. Or, perhaps, a semblance of all three things might be happening, depending on what area of society we’re analyzing.

A few weeks ago, I offered here the possibility that we might be somewhere at the beginning of a massive decline.

In terms of education, I don’t really think there’s much of a debate. Whether society embraces the liberal arts or not has been a standard way of identifying whether we’re in ascension or decline in the western tradition. When society embraces the liberal arts, we tend to be in a rise, or, at the very least, we’re taught to tolerate stagnation with stoic resignation; when society rejects the seven liberal arts, we tend to fall into darkness.

The liberal arts, of course, remain almost completely misunderstood, neglected, and rejected—going on thirteen decades now. They’re not dead, but, frankly, they’re probably close to the grave. Colleges such as St. Johns, the University of St. Thomas, and Thomas Aquinas have sustained much.  In every way, though, they fight the most difficult of battles.

The wonderfully perplexing thing for many of us, though, is the incredible advance of technology in the same time period as we have experienced moral, educational, and cultural decline. How can we account for a decline in civilization and morals when we have such a dramatic rise in technology, wealth (by any standard, the last two hundred years have been gloriously healthy in terms of wealth production), and overall western standards of living, health, and longevity? Certainly, such a profound acceleration in material output should give us pause before declaring the modern and post-modern, or post-post-modern era, a dark age.

There might be some alternate explanations, though, for the advance in one area and the decline in another.  Eric Voegelin, for example, thought it was quite possible, however, for morals and educational standards to decline while technological prowess advanced significantly. T.S. Eliot, in a similar manner, argued that the greatest successes of a culture might come at the initial stages of a dark age, as the loosening of tradition and of the restraints of morality might very well release artistry and originality for a few generations. Christopher Dawson argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition had so ingrained itself in the western mind that western civilization might linger for generations simply because of the powerful cultural heritage that built it. Eventually, though, the inheritance will fail, as some generation will question the forms that have lost essence, finally recognizing them as hollow and futile gestures, rejecting them whole-cloth.

Weaponization of Politics

One of the greatest problems of the last century and a half, or perhaps, the last two centuries, in the relatively free parts of the world has been the decline of serious and sustained discourse, a result of the tyranny and imperialism of politics.

Just imagine for a moment, the serious kind of dialogue that was seen in the first and second Continental Congresses all the way through the 1850s. Granted, there were horrors, too, such as the caning of Senator Sumner. But, the level of oration and debate proved, on average, extremely high.

Yet, as de Tocqueville noted as early as the 1830s, democracy and the soft despotism likely to arise in a democracy would prove its own undoing. The following passage from the conclusion of de Tocqueville’s volume II of Democracy in America are worth repeating at length:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?


Thus it 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.

De Tocqueville’s fears have proven true, but even he could not imagine how emergent ideologies would weaponize the destructive tendencies inherent in democracy. For World War I and the loss of traditional Europe introduced propaganda into the world with a vengeance. Throughout the nineteenth century, ideas became simplified in the narrowly complex worlds of Darwin, Marx, Spencer, and Freud.

With these great intellects dismantling the Socratic western project in the intellectual world, many other falls were sure to follow. The most dramatic fall came in politics. By the 1930s, for example, simple colors had come to represent entire visions of the world: pink for socialist; brown for National Socialist; blue for liberal; red for communist, etc.

In a series of letters written in 1946, Christopher Dawson complained:

“One has to face the fact that there has been a kind of slump in ideas during the past 10 years.”

“There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such.”

“Politics seems to be swamping everything and the non-political writer becomes increasingly uprooted and helpless.”

The world “won’t improve without new blood and new ideas and I don’t see at present where these are to be found.”

By its very nature, the realm of politics is expansive, demeaning, and imperial. Exacerbated by the intolerance and inhumanity of ideologies, politics in the western world replaced the culture and theology as fundamental ways of thinking.

Now, in the second decade of the twentieth-first century, we only have to look at those labeled as “conservative,” for example, to see how far such a noble thing has fallen.  Recently, TIME magazine listed the ten most prominent “right-thinking” people in the U.S.  I must confess, I’d only heard of half of these persons, and the half I did recognize I would not label as the most prominent conservatives–at least not if conservatism is to mean any thing.

With the exception of Mike Church, we only have to turn on “conservative” talk radio to see how low “conservatism” has fallen.  All I hear is anger, bitterness, and brutality toward the human person and lack of even a semblance of respect for those in opposition.  Further, I only hear promotion of war and American power.  And, of course, all delivered through sound bites.  Fox might be even worse.  Here, plastic people offer plastic ideas.  Commodified conservatism is really no conservatism at all.  Indeed, the very act of commodification must, by its very nature, undermine the very principles of conservatism.

Where does this leave us?  Not to dismiss the great work being promoted and explored in 2012 by many good minds and souls, things look rather bleak for the future of what TIME called “right thinking.”

And, I’m left with Chesterton’s own vision from a century ago.

I know that weeds shall grow in it

Faster than men can burn;

And though they scatter now and go,

In some far century, sad and slow,

I have a vision, and I know


The heathen shall return.

“They shall not come with warships,

They shall not waste with brands,

But books be all their eating,

And ink be on their hands.


“Not with the humour of hunters

Or savage skill in war,

But ordering all things with dead words,

Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,

And wheels of wind and star.


“They shall come mild as monkish clerks,

With many a scroll and pen;

And backward shall ye turn and gaze,

Desiring one of Alfred’s days,

When pagans still were men.”

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

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9 replies to this post
  1. Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
    Like a little word come I;
    For I go gathering Christian men
    From sunken paving and ford and fen,
    To die in a battle, God knows when,
    By God, but I know why.

    “And this is the word of Mary,
    The word of the world’s desire,
    ‘No more of comfort shall ye get,
    Save that the sky grows darker yet,
    And the sea rises higher.’

    Sometime's that's the best we get. But I'll quote Luther as well: "If the world were ending tomorrow, I would still plant apple trees." After all, says our good Alfred: "By God's death the stars still stand/ And the little apples grow."

    Whatever be the shape next stage our history may take, our duties remain the same. If Alfred can fight off Danes and translate Boethius and build roads and make national levies, I'll do my part by having a baby and trying to read The Consolatio without watching YouTube. Maybe tomorrow I can do better.

    Honestly, if we're going to have a renaissance of any kind, ours might be the day that we have little left to fall back to than trying to educate, in small little platoons, children who will do that work in their time. Ours might be a day of monastic transmission rather than recovery or pioneering thought. Other than teaching children, we can try to at least be more conscious of supporting the creation of new expression and transmission through patronizing venues of culture (art, music, theatre, and thought) through things as simple as subscriptions, ticket fees, etc.

    Eliot brings up that cultural invigoration often comes from a folk culture upward into a high culture (the best example would be French Cuisine: based entirely on, and continually inspired by, the menu of the Farm Kitchen). If the Folk Culture has been entirely degraded by Popular, mass-produced, top-down culture, there may be little left for the higher levels of Western Culture to draw upon. The East (Near and Far) presents one possible source of inspiration then, as do the minority/native cultures of America. In a practical dimension, the case for more immigration should be made in this regard as well.

  2. Brad,
    Many thanks for penning this incredibly timely and insightful article. I am in the midst of putting together some reflections about being involved in the working end of politics as we enter the foyer of a new dark age. If I can collect my disorganized thoughts and disordered soul long enough, I hope to put something together that's reasonably coherent. Thanks for the continued inspiration, my friend.

  3. Having read conservative material for the past 30 years or so, I concluded that the least helpful books and articles (and talk shows) are those which sing the song of decline, and there are many. Eventually all the negativity proved bad for my health. I didn't see the point of saying we are all doomed.

  4. A conductor friend of mine (conductor, that is, of two symphony orchestras) asked me as the new millennium was about to begin, what the three great themes of the 20th were. He wanted to give three major concerts that spoke to the themes. I told him, PROSPERITY, WAR, AND THE GROWTH OF THE SECULAR STATE. That the three were often interrelated is obvious. That the three did not produce optimism is less understood. Have you ever reflected upon the fact that the century did not give us one great writer or poet who was happy, optimistic, or progressive? Decline is more important to cope with than incline. Progressives don't have to prove anything, or look hard at reality, or humble themselves to the God of the Universe. But when they are in control, as they were during the entire century, they muck everything up. It's the optimists who are "unhelpful."

  5. I enjoy the many excellent essays here; this one is an example of that intellectual excellence. However, allow me one quibble: Mr. Birzer would have been better served to penetrate deeper by analyzing the question from the perspective that 'human history', since the Golgotha Event, has been in a condition of 'End Times' as our Evangelical friends might say. How then does that condition effect the drama of existence?

  6. Great essay…please, allow me one quibble: Mr. Brizer's penetration requires just a bit more depth in that his analysis of modernity might be grounded on the fact of the effects on man (the specie) of the Golgotha Event? How has the reality of the Word, the requirements/demands of God for salvation and immortality, existence in the 'End Times, stand in contrast to the sundry lusts proffered by the demonic and modernity's inclination to embrace a perverse/unnatural alienation?

  7. Thanks Brad, looking forward to the essays. I'm going to order some of Von Schelling's work related to God, freedom, and evil and hope to put something together on the relationship between man and God.

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