See, earlier, by Chilton Williamson: Easter And The Resurrection Of The West
R.R. Reno’s book Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West is a brilliant analysis with a disappointing conclusion. Reno, Editor of First Things Magazine, describes the development of a “postwar order” wherein both the mainstream Right and Left agreed that an “Open Society” was the highest good, necessary to prevent the return of “Strong Gods” like nationalism and traditional religion, which supposedly lead to totalitarianism. Reno's conclusion: we must turn back to the “Strong Gods” to recreate social solidarity. However, his preference may be unrealistic.
VDARE.com Editor Peter Brimelow was criticized for calling current immigration policy “Hitler’s revenge” in his 1995 book Alien Nation. Yet Reno proves that Brimelow was essentially correct. The World Wars I and II Reno writes, “evoked a powerful, American-led response that was anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist.” These imperatives “define[d] the postwar era.”
The wars were retconned: We ultimately fought against our own inner fascist. To ensure “Never Again,” Western intellectuals and politicians decided that we must attack the “closed society” of strong loyalties and accepted truths. As Reno describes their thinking:
We do so by relativizing them, putting them into their historical contexts, critiquing their xenophobic, patriarchal, cisgender, and racist legacies, and showing how they are products of a sociobiological process that produces in us a reptilian ‘tribal mind.’”
The book’s strongest point is Reno’s utterly engrossing survey of the various writers and intellectuals who advocated different facets of this principle of deconstruction. They include Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gianni Vattimo and others. Others have identified the “Frankfurt School” as the root of the West’s deconstruction, but Reno’s critique is even more systematic and philosophically grounded. One after the other, everything that is solid in the Western tradition was undermined, weakened, and ultimately pummeled into slime, a spirit of entropy we see in our politics, universities, and even our hideously ugly modern architecture.
Strikingly, Reno argues that free-market champions like Friedrich Hayek shared many of the core premises of the “Open Society” dogma. “They [Left and Right] are united in their pursuit of an open society, differing only in focus and emphasis,” Reno writes. “These projects–economic deregulation and cultural deregulation—are not at odds with each other.” Together, they form the “postwar consensus”—which Reno concedes arose for good reason.
Karl Popper’s “Open Society” became the ideal, in which metaphysical truth claims are denounced as implicitly totalitarian. Popper’s most influential follower: none other than financier George Soros, who has spent billions to spread this ideology through the Open Society Foundations.
Reno calls the Open Society ideal an attack on the “Strong Gods,” by which he means “objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unite societies.” Here, he sounds like Patrick J. Buchanan, who asked in a recent column “Who will fight for the Eurozone and EU?” “One of the Strong Gods that the nations of the West must overcome is the nation itself,” writes Reno. This is what VDARE.com calls the National Question, the question of whether Western nation-states can and should survive.
One is reminded of John Lennon’s Imagine and the promise of “nothing to kill or die for.”
While it’s easy to roll your eyes at such nihilism, the deconstructionists did capture an essential truth. “Violence,” writes Gianni Vattimo (cited by Reno), “ultimately draws from the need, the resolve, and the desire to reach up and be taken up into the first principle.” That’s true. Though Vattimo obviously means this as criticism, his quotation reminded me of Julius Evola’s Metaphysics of War, in which Evola essentially says the same thing, defending war’s “spiritual value” because it allows heroic individuals to realize the “law of a ‘more-than-life” and the warrior’s ultimate self-actualization via death in battle. After the World Wars, one can understand the desire by some to deconstruct the cult of heroism. To his credit, Reno does not strawman his subjects.
However, the desire to prevent the return of the “Strong Gods” has led to a problem: what Reno calls the
…fanaticism of our leadership class, whose hyper-moralistic sense of mission—either us or Hitler—prevents us from addressing our economic, demographic, cultural and political problems.
Thus, we end up with student radicals, Cultural Marxist vigilantes like the Southern Poverty Law Center, and endless calls by JournoFa to deplatform, censor, and financially strangle anyone who dissents from Open Society orthodoxy.
Indeed, even non-political movements are seen as posing a danger to the Open Society. Thus even the free-market “Right” is deeply uncomfortable with movements or institutions rooted in something other than economic self-interest.
As Reno writes: “As soon as we bond together to seek a common good or higher truth, we begin to forge institutions and movements to organize social life in accord with our convictions. These are non-market organizations that form the nucleus of the ‘monster state.'"
He argues that the “culture of freedom” encouraged by free market intellectuals like Hayek or Milton Friedman “paradoxically encourages the careful and minute management of culture” to prevent the emergence of “non-market organizations” based on faith or identity. If you doubt this, visit Left Twitter for five minutes.
Thus, “freedom” only exists within the confines of “mass culture.” Because of Derrida and others, transgression substitutes for culture. And, as Reno puts it, there is “a restless utopianism that is always looking for another boundary to overcome, as the present mania for transgenderism demonstrates.”
The push for “diversity,” which Reno notes was initially supposed to be simply a temporary compensatory measure, has now been redefined as a positive good according to the Supreme Court. (Judge Allison Burroughs recently called it “axiomatically” good in the recent case approving Harvard’s racial discriminatory policies.)
Reno perceptively writes that this was “foreordained” because colorblind justice limits what can and cannot be done. In contrast, “diversity” allows one to do anything to create a “world without walls.”
Now, even questioning diversity “betrays who we are as a country,” in Barack Obama’s words, quoted by Reno. We are defined by the fact that there’s nothing which defines us.
Thus Reno points out that many Americans have a hard time making a moral justification why we are allowed to exclude any immigrants. “Open Borders are an emblem of an open society,” he writes. He notes that to politicians, diversity serves as the “firewall against resurgent racism and fascism.” Some even think, he says, that “after Auschwitz, the West does not deserve to endure,” and mass migration will be a “blessed deliverance from a cursed inheritance.”
Though Reno does not cite it, this is eerily reminiscent of the attitude of those who, in in Jean Raspail’s prophetic 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, welcomed an illegal alien invasion. (Equally prophetically, in Raspail’s telling, they included the Pope.)
So what does Reno suggest as an answer?
Curiously, he writes (in italics no less) that there is “a crisis of the postwar consensus, the weak gods of openness and weakening, not a crisis of liberalism, modernity, or the West.”
Yet how can that be? Early in the book, Reno admits the “relentless pursuit of openness, disenchantment, and weakening” was “implicit in liberalism” even before 1945. The effort to halt the post-New Deal liberal project and say “this far, but no further” is essentially what the American conservative movement has been trying and failing to do for sixty years now.
Reno repeatedly cites James Burnham’s Suicide of the West. He writes Burnham wanted the West to “recover a firm, principled self-confidence based on the superiority of its way of life.” He also argues that Burnham wanted something like “a call for reflection on the metaphysical foundations of a free society.”
But Burnham’s entire philosophy was thoroughly modernist and anti-metaphysical, positing that political analysis should be grounded in concrete power relations. In The Machiavellians, Burnham repeatedly urged readers to dismiss the “formal” arguments and uncover the “real” meaning. He went out of his way to mock the formal argument of Dante’s metaphysics-laden De Monarchia as “totally worthless.”
What Burnham called “taboos, magic, superstition, personified abstractions, myths, gods”—Reno’s “Strong Gods”—are necessary, in his view, because they work. He goes so far as to say Athens was “probably right” to condemn Socrates “from the point of view of survival.”
Indeed, Reno’s own First Things recently launched an extraordinarily clumsy and stupid attack [The Outsider, October 2019] by Matthew Rose, billed as “director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute,” on Burnham’s most distinguished follower, Sam Francis, precisely because Francis supposedly lacked a sense of the transcendent [Sam Francis, The Prophet, by Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, September 27, 2019].
So what does Reno want? Ultimately, he says, a concept of “home.” He lands an absolute gut punch when he recounts the story of a woman in France who observed that immigrants can “go home” whenever they feel like it, but if she loses France, there is nowhere to go.
How do we secure “home”? Reno argues for a renewed attachment to the concept of “we,” which “arises out of love, a ferocious power that seeks to rest in something greater than oneself” [excerpted at First Things—The Miracle of We, October 28, 2019]. In the book, Reno says he wants a “widespread revival of Christianity in the West,” and until that happens, an acknowledgement by unbelievers of the value of the “transcendent.”
Ren is not wrong about the social benefits of religion. But which religion? Assuming Christianity, which sect? Indeed, which faction in the Catholic Church, whose current Vicar of Christ may be prostrating himself before Third World idols from the Amazon [Not even Pope Francis can deny the Pachamama is a pagan idol, by Steven Mosher, LifeSite, October 28, 2019]?
The Pope certainly doesn’t want Western nations to secure their borders. Are we to be subjected to yet another effort to invent a meaningless “Judeo-Christian” heritage to keep the American project limping along?
Near the end of his book, Reno recounts how a black man in a church asked how “we”—meaning all Americans—could have treated black airmen so badly during World War II. Reno suggests that this man’s feeling he was “implicated in the racial injustices of white Americans” was the “fearsome gift of the Strong Gods” because it meant national unity. This unity will “forestall the dark gods who rise up from below.”
So, after a whole book about the problems of deconstructionism, open borders, multiculturalism, and so much more, we’re just left with vague hopes of inter-racial unity based on shared shame over America’s historic prejudice.
We’re also back where we started, being drafted to fight the “dark gods” that the postwar “Open Society” order was built to combat. Why?
Like the protagonists at the end of the 2012 horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, I personally would rather let these “dark gods” consume this evil order.
But this is a personal criticism, borne of my own skepticism that dying institutions can (or should) be saved. “That which is falling should also be pushed,” said Nietzsche, and post-New Deal liberalism, cowardly clergymen, and treasonous politicians are not worthy of patriots’ sacrifice. What is needed is a new spirit, new institutions, and new archetypes or “gods.”
Still, Reno’s book is overall so impressive I’m willing to entertain that he may speak from a deeper wisdom than I do. Reno is not insensitive to the rootlessness and frustration felt by so many young Americans, and his case is not made flippantly.
In a moving 2002 VDARE.com column, Chilton Williamson reminded us that through the Christian religion, the West avoided destruction and disintegration. “There is no parallel to this survival in the history of mankind,” he wrote.
The West has resurrected before. Perhaps, if enough people study Reno’s observations and think, act, and pray accordingly, it can resurrect again.
James Kirkpatrick [Email him] is a Beltway veteran and a refugee from Conservatism Inc.