10 August 2011

Pat Buchanan: a 'civilizational crisis' transcends partisanship

"I almost never write letters like this," Pat Buchanan writes in his begging letter on behalf of the National Humanities Institute, but he's driven by a sense of crisis. "We can no longer ignore that America is on a crash course with catastrophe. Nor can we continue to fool ourselves that our nation's decline will be arrested if we simply exchange one party for another in Washington, D.C." He admires some aspect of the Tea Party movement -- the "phenomenon has been quite refreshing and promising for the future," -- but realizes that "legitimate rebellions can be co-opted by the powers-that-be," i.e. the Republican party. Buchanan's begging letter confesses an abandonment of partisanship; his disgust with the Obama administration is no greater than his disgust with the recent Bush administration. "If the 2000s taught us anything," he asserts, "they taught us that our leadership class is disastrously ill-equipped to make wise decisions for America's future." Their ignorance of "history and human nature" transcends party lines. Buchanan perceives a civilizational crisis that "goes beyond economics" and "is not a partisan issue. Changing deck chairs on the good ship Political Class won't alter the vessel's course. Unfortunately, it matters little these days whether a candidate calls himself 'conservative.' For conservatism has been twisted by the political class to serve its own ends -- not vice versa."

What, then, can the National Humanities Institute do about this crisis? The institute is a think tank that publishes a scholarly journal and creates multimedia educational tools to promote "anti-utopian" traditional values. The guiding mind of the institute is a Swedish-American scholar named Claes G. Ryn, a major critic of Leo Strauss and the neocons who has an unusually large and enthusiastic following in China. Indeed, Buchanan emphasizes the extent to which the NHI promotes intercultural dialogue with China "in an effort to find common human ground on which both countries might build a peaceful and prosperous future." The guiding spirit of the institute, based on the frequency of references to him, is the early 20th century philosopher and literary critic Irving Babbitt, who promulgated a "New Humanism" which, based on an opposition to Rousseau's thought cited by Wikipedia, set the "anti-utopian" tone for the NHI.

The word "traditional" is a red flag for some readers, so let's try to clarify what the NHI is about. The institute declares its own objective as "the renewal of civilization."

The need for such a strategy should be obvious. Spreading self-indulgence, continued erosion of the family, moral and religious decay, rampant crime and drug abuse, falling standards of personal conduct, the decline of education and the arts, economic and financial irresponsibility and collapse, political opportunism and paralysis—these are just some of the signs that America is suffering a crisis of civilization.

Reflecting Buchanan's own latter-day opinion, the NHI is avowedly apolitical. "One of the great illusions of the present age is that politics holds the key to the future. Politics reflects general cultural trends that politicians have not themselves generated and that they can only marginally control or resist. " The institute wants to reach people in the schools, before the enter the political sphere. It also hopes to "speak to cultural elites -- our current and future teachers, professors, judges, lawyers, journalists, writers and artists ...If we want to save our nation we must influence, even rebuild, the opinion-shaping classes."

How do they intend to shape the opinion-shapers? By going back to "the traditional humanities," which, on the evidence of some of the NHI literature I've sampled, includes the Classical as well as the Biblical tradition. In a speech he gave in China, Ryn cites both traditions (as well as some Asian traditions) as confirming his view of human nature, which Buchanan condenses as "human beings are mixed, being both like the angels and like the beasts....keeping the beast at bay is the most important cultural, and therefore educational, task facing each generation." In Ryn's account, the West went wrong starting with Rousseau, who failed to acknowledge the beast in man and assumed that a reformed society would result in improved people. Ryn (and by extension the NHI) takes the opposite view from Marxism, at least as the latter was summarized by Terry Eagleton. While Marxists hope that perfecting institutions will liberate human nature so it can flourish benevolently, and "Enlightenment" rationalists assume that science can do likewise, "traditional humanism" argues that bad character will corrupt the best-laid institutions and abuse the advances of science, while placing a priority on cultivating moral character. In Buchanan's words, "To change our course, we must fortify and train what is highest in our natures."

Most of the articles available at the NHI website are intellectual rather than political, though from the titles it's obvious that there's plenty of anti-neocon polemics going on. I don't have time right now to delve deep enough to discover what the NHI considers "highest in our natures," but their project needn't be rejected out of hand. It should, however, be open to the possibility that the last word on the subject of morality hasn't yet been spoken. They should be invited to reconsider exactly what aspects of human activity are beastly and which are more "angelic." If the NHI is true to its mandate, it should not, for instance, offer an unconditional endorsement to capitalism in all its manifestations -- Buchanan himself is a well-known critic of unconditional free trade. Meanwhile, it shouldn't take a divine revelation to convince people that some of their impulses ought to be suppressed, and others cultivated. Disagreement still exists over which impulses are which, and as long as NHI doesn't consider the debate closed, they're welcome to it. They're not wrong about the need to educate people for responsible citizenship before partisanship possesses them, but they're not necessarily right about what they mean to teach. If we disagree, then it's up to us to propose our own alternatives instead of merely shouting them down.

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