Few thinkers have more deeply probed the currents of modernity than Philip Rieff, a professor of sociology emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. His The Triumph of the Therapeutic (reviewed in my “Reedings” #91) is perhaps the finest analysis of one of the most profound cultural shifts in the 20th century: from objective faith and reason to subjective experience and emotion. This became evident in Christian circles, where personal experience dislodged creedal affirmation. “Religious man was born to be saved,” Rieff said, whereas “psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when ‘I believe/ the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to ‘one feels,’ the caveat of the therapeutic” (pp. 24-25). Within the Christian tradition, this trend solidified as early in 1857, when Archbishop Temple, favorably echoing the thought of F.D.E. Schleiermacher, said: ‘”Our theology has been cast in a scholastic mould, all based on logic. We are in need of…a theology based on psychology'” (pp. 41-42). Today’s “therapeutic gospel” has deep cultural roots in liberal theology and cannot, perhaps, be severed from it.
In My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, c. 2006), the first volume of a trilogy entitled Sacred Order/Social Order, Rieff explores the fact that “cultures give readings of sacred order and ourselves somewhere in it.” Throughout human history, James Davison Hunter explains, in his helpful “Introduction,” all cultures have been “constituted by a system of moral demands that are underwritten by an authority that is vertical in its structure. …. These are not merely rules or norms or values, but rather doxa: truths acknowledged and experienced as commanding in character” (p. xix). First (pagan) and Second (Judeo-Christian) World Cultures, to use Rieffs categories, humbly aligned themselves with a higher, invisible Reality—the Sacred.
The modem (what Rieff labels “Third World”) culture shapers, working out the position espoused by Nietzsche’s Gay Science in 1882 (declaring that “God is dead”) have negated that ancient sacred order. Turning away from, indeed assailing, any transcendent realm, they have rigidly restricted themselves to things horizontal—material phenomena and human perspectives. Rather than reading Reality, they actively encourage illiteracy regarding it—e.g. idiosyncratic “reader responses” to “texts,” the venting of personal opinions, and the construction of virtual realities. Their relentless attacks upon the sacred are what Rieff calls “deathworks” that are both surreptitious and ubiquitous, shaping the arts and education, dominating movies and TV, journalism and fiction, law schools and courtrooms. As he says: “There are now armies of third world teachers, artists, therapists, etc., teaching the higher illiteracy” (p. 92).
Throughout the treatise, Rieff weighs the import of the raging culture war. This Kulturkampf “is between those who assert that there are no truths, only readings, that is, fictions (which assume the very ephemeral status of truth for negational purposes) and what is left of the second culture elites in the priesthood, rabbinate, and other teaching/directive elites dedicated to the proposition that the truths have been revealed and require constant rereading and application in the light of the particular historical circumstance in which we live. And that those commanding truths in their range are authoritative and remains so” (p. 17). He especially emphasizes that: “The guiding elites of our third world are virtuosi of de-creation, of fictions where once commanding truths were” (p. 4). In denying all religious and moral truths, they have established an effectually godless “anti-culture.” RiefFs analyses of influential artistic works (many of them reproduced in the text) are particularly insightful and persuasive. What was evident a century ago only in a few artists, such as James Joyce, Arnold Schoenberg and Pablo Picasso, and psychoanalysis such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung, now dominates the mass media and university classrooms, where postmodern gurus Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are routinely invoked.
One thing these elites, “in the world-affirming immanentism of their ‘value’ conventions,” will not acknowledge: any transcendent,”divine creator and his promised redemptive acts before whom and beside which there is nothing that means anything” (p. 58). Nietzsche folly understood this, propounding “a rationalism so radical that it empties itself, as God the Father was once thought to have emptied himself to become very man in the Son. Kenotic theory [pervasively evident in 20th century theologians who stress the humanity of Christ to the neglect of His deity] lives in the deadly therapeutic rationalism of the third culture. In that transferred kenosis, the human becomes not a god but an artist, a mad artist who is given an empty canvas, fills it with the likeness of panic and emptiness, and declares it his masterpiece” (p. 70).
Rieffs grandfather, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, “was appalled to discover not only in the remnant of his family in Chicago but in the Jewish community of the family’s Conservative synagogue … that the Jewish sense of commanding truth was all but destroyed. Those old traditions were treated as obsolete, replaced by the phrase that horrified my grandfather most: everyone is entitled to their own opinion” (p. 82). The nihilism of the Nazis flourished in Chicago! To Rieff, Auschwitz signifies “the first full and brutally clear arrival of our third world” (p. 83). But the death camps, both Nazi and Bolshevik, were, quite simply, the logical culmination of Hamlet’s ancient view that “there is nothing good or bad in any world except thinking makes it so. M. Descartes and his progeny have a lot to answer for” (p. 83).
What was manifest in Auschwitz, Rieff says, is equally evident in the world’s abortion mills! In one of Sigmund Freud’s prophetic letters, we read his “death sentence, casually uttered, upon sacred self: ‘Similarly birth, miscarriage, and menstruation are all connected with the lavatory via the word Abort (Abortus).’ How many things,” Rieff muses, “turn before my eyes into images of our flush-away third world” (p. 104). Rejecting “pro-choice” advocates’ denials, he insists: “The abortionist movement does bear comparison the Shoah [the Jewish Holocaust]. In these historic cases both Jews and ‘fetuses’ are what they represent, symbols of our second world God. It is as godterms that they are being sacrificed” (p. 105, ft. 31). The sacrilegious, barbarous essence of our world stands starkly revealed in these deathworks!
My Life among the Deathworks, says Hunter, “is stunning in its originality, breathtaking in its erudition and intellectual range, and astonishing in the brilliance of its insights into our historical moment” (p. xv). It is however “difficult, intentionally so,” because “Rieff wants the reader to work for the insight he has to offer; to read and then reread” (p. xvi). The book rather resembles Pascal’s Pensees—a collage of aphorisms and illustrations (many of them paintings) rather than a systematic development of a thesis. The book does, however, richly reward the reader’s persistence!
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In a very different (and more elementary) way Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2006) explores the same phenomena as Rief’s My Life among the Deathworks. Both books forthrightly uphold the sanctity of life, and William F, Buckley, Jr. says “Ponnuru’s book will be accepted almost immediately as the seminal statement on human life. The Party of Death is stunning as scholarship, ingenious in its construction, passionate—but never overbearing—in its convictions. It will be read for decades, and revered as the most complete and resourceful essay on great questions that divide America.”
Ponnuru (who once supported the “pro-choice” position) announces his theme in the book’s first sentence: “The party of death started with abortion, but its sickle has gone from threatening the unborn, to the elderly, to the disabled; it has swept from the maternity ward to the cloning laboratory to a generalized disregard for ‘inconvenient’ human life” (p. 1). He notes that the alleged pro-abortion “emanations and penumbras” discovered by Justice Harry Blackman and the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade are in fact more vividly seen in “our law, politics, and culture” (p. 2). Though the “party of death” is a cultural, not a political, phenomenon, the Democratic Party has increasingly become “the party of abortion on demand and embryo-killing research, and is on its way to becoming the party of assisted suicide and euthanasia. And it is the party of those for whom abortion has become a kind of religion” (p. 2). California Senator Barbara Boxer’s website, for example, proudly identifies her as the “‘Senate’s leading defender of a woman’s right to choose [abortion]'” (p. 35). She favors legislation that would force doctors (regardless of personal conscience) to perform abortions. She, along with senators Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Joe Lieberman, have worked for the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate any state or federal restrictions on taking the lives of unborn babies. They have opposed any restrictions on “partial birth” abortions. In 2004, folly three-fourths of the Democrats in Congress opposed legislation (Laci’s law) that identified the unborn child as a second victim of murder when both mother and child are killed. Individual Democrats may very well defend the sanctity of life, but the Party itself has taken a dogmatic and intensely intolerant position regarding a “woman’s right to choose.” The Democratic Party (personified by senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer) has virtually banished pro-life politicians from its leadership positions.
The legalization of abortion, in Roe v. Wade, in 1973, has decisively shaped our culture. That decision “has given rise to a radical challenge to human rights (radical because it denies the existence of human rights at their roots)” (p. 4). Ponnuru carefully examines Roe (as well as its companion and more far-reaching decision handed down on the same day. Doe v. Bolton) and refutes many popular misunderstandings regarding the legal status of the procedure. In fact the Court “has effectively forbidden any state from prohibiting abortion even in the final stages of pregnancy” (p. 10). Consequently, a seismic fault has divided the nation. The main difference between red and blue states is abortion. The real (if rarely mentioned) issue debated in Senate Judiciary committee hearings is abortion. Arguments about a variety of subjects are, more deeply, about abortion!
Ironically, the most fervent supporters of abortion rights rarely use the word! In this area euphemisms abound! In fact: “Abortion-on-demand has been made possible by the verbal redescription of human beings as though they were something else: ‘products of conception,’ ‘protoplasm,’ ‘a few cells,’ ‘potential life.’ The abortionist does not suck out the baby’s brains; the abortion provider evacuates the cranial contents of the fetus or, even better, ‘reduce[s] the fetal calvarium'” (p. 56). “One abortionist testified that his goal was to ‘safely and efficiently empty the uterine cavity, rendering the woman unpregnant'” (p. 61). Rather than discuss “partial birth abortion,” its defenders insist on calling it a “D&X or Intact D&E because these terms convey no information to most people” (p. 45).
Abortion rights advocates also lie, routinely and deliberately. Contrary to the wildly inflated statistics regarding the thousands of women endangered by illegal abortions cited by pro-abortionists like Bernard Nathanson (who later admitted they simply made up numbers), in 1972 there were only 41 women who died undergoing illegal abortions, while 24 died that year as a result of legal abortions. When Congress, in the 1990s, began to pass legislation banning partial birth abortions. Planned Parenthood declared that the procedure was “extremely rare,” involving only 500-600 cases per year (arbitrarily reduced by the Los Angeles Times to 200!). Before long, however, a reporter discovered one New Jersey clinic that “performed 1,500 partial-birth abortions per year” (p. 47). NAROL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood routinely manufacture “facts” to sustain their propaganda.
History professors aided the cause when 400 of the nation’s distinguished scholars signed on to an influential brief submitted to the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. They “claimed that Americans had recognized the right to choose abortion at the time of the Republic’s founding” (p. 106). Opposition to abortion, they asserted, was a relatively recent development! Taking the historians’ brief at face value, law professors (such as Harvard’s Laurence Tribe) and philosophers (such as Harvard’s Ronald Dworkin) promoted it as an accurate rendition of the past. But Ponnuru details, with painstaking patience, the perniciously erroneous nature of the historians’ brief. “The historians reached their false conclusions by mischaracterizing sources, misreporting facts, and supporting claims with citations that have no relevance to those claims. They ripped quotations out of context. They relied on discredited sources” (p. 116). In short: nothing dissuades abortion rights advocates from pursuing their agenda. Though I’ve focused exclusively on Ponnuru’s discussion of abortion, he also addresses, in Part II, farther aspects of the “bioethics of death,” involving mercy killing, embryonic stem cell research, the sale of body parts, and infanticide. He takes seriously the ethics and influence of Princeton’s notorious Professor Peter Singer, and shows how utilitarian positions such as his now shape Holland’s “health care” system, where growing numbers of children and adults are euthanized when found unworthy of life.
In Part III, “Life and the Parties,” Ponnuru examines the party of death’s public face. He shows how energetically the media, following the lead of the New York Times, with its “tone of contempt” for pro-life folks, seek to advance what philosopher Ronald Dworkin has identified and lauded as “choices for death.” One judicious study concluded that “97 percent of media elites” support abortion rights. Of the 217 reports on partial-birth abortion on the big three TV networks, only 18 accurately depicted the procedure.
Despite, this, however, Ponnuru shows that the tide may be turning in pro-life directions. Statistical studies show a decline in support for abortion. Even Democratic leaders seem to be re-thinking their party’s stance, wondering if it has contributed to their steady loss of power during the past 30 years. If so. The Party of Death must be saluted as one of the best accounts of substantial reasons for that change.
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That Roger Kimball is one of the nation’s premier culture-critics is evident in a collection of his essays: Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, c. 2000). The book’s title, he says, comes from “Hannah Arendt’s description of totalitarianism as a sort of ‘experiment against reality’—one that, among other things, encouraged people to believe that ‘everything was possible and nothing was true.'” Furthermore, “what Arendt called a ‘mixture of gullibility and cynicism'” seems amply evident, indeed triumphant, in today’s “postmodern” culture. That “nothing is true” is one of the main planks of postmodernism. (The English philosopher Roger Scruton has aptly countered: “The man who tells you truth does not exist is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”) But postmodern thinkers, following the lead of Friedrich Nietzsche, cheerfully ignore the logical contradiction at the heart of their rhetoric and insist that “truth” is pretty much whatever one wants it to be.
In Kimball’s judgment, Nietzsche, who famously declared that there are no facts, no truths, only interpretations, indwells (like a virus) “almost every destructive intellectual movement this century has witnessed” (p. 6). Today’s university professors dispense “what we might call Nietzscheanism for the masses, as squads of cozy nihilists parrot his ideas and attitudes. Nietzsche’s contention that truth is merely ‘a moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms,’ for example, has become a veritable mantra in comparative literature departments across the country” (p. 193). Determined to move “beyond good and evil,” Nietzsche defined “the good as that which enhances the feeling of life. If ‘to see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more,’ then violence and cruelty may have to be granted the patent of morality and enlisted in the aesthete’s palette of diversions. In more or less concentrated form, Nietzsche’s ideal is also modernity’s ideal. It is an ideal that subordinates morality to power in order to transform life into aesthetic spectacle. It promises freedom and exaltation. But as Novalis points out, it is really the ultimate attainment of the barbarian” (p. 213).
Kimball demonstrates, in essays dealing with significant 19th and 20th century poets (Eliot, Stevens, Auden), philosophers (Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault), and novelists (Spark, Musil) the various ways great thinkers have approached reality. For some, like T. S. Eliot, there was “a craving for reality” that was manifestly evident in great poetic works such as The Four Quartets. Eliot understood that culture and religion cannot be severed—'”if Christianity goes,’ he said, ‘the whole of our culture goes'” (p. 79). Contradicting one of the guiding premises of postmodernism, long before it was recognized as a movement, Eliot said: ‘”Man is man . .. because he can recognize supernatural realities, not because he can invent them'” (p. 81). There is an objective Reality, and we can know truths about it.
Eliot’s contemporary, Wallace Stevens, by contrast, was a “metaphysical claims adjuster.” A disciple of William James, he determined to believe whatever appealed to him, for all beliefs are fictions that he knows are fictions. ‘”The exquisite truth,’ wrote Stevens, ‘is to know that it is a fiction and you believe in it willingly'” (p. 90). Living by fictions, however, failed him, and in Stevens’ final published poem, “As You Leave the Room,” we read: ‘”I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life, / As a disbeliever in reality'” (p. 93). Indeed, as he elsewhere lamented: ‘”A fantastic effort has failed'” (p. 93). Significantly, in the final days of his life, he entered, through baptism, the Roman Catholic Church in 1955.
In John Stuart Mill we find the great champion of libertarianism and feminism, “indispensable elements in the intoxicating potion that constitutes Millian liberalism and that makes much of his thinking so contemporary” (p. 161). Yet, though Mill is generally portrayed as a champion of individual freedom, his On Liberty, Maurice Cowling said, is ‘”not so much a plea for individual freedom, as a means of ensuring that Christianity would be superseded by that form of liberal, rationalizing utilitarianism which went by the name of the Religion of Humanity'” (p. 166). Indeed, ‘”Mill, no less that Marx, Nietzsche, or Comte, claimed to replace Christianity by “something better” (p. 167).
Michel Foucault, arguably the most influential of recent postmodernists, was (like the Marquis de Sade, whom he lionized) fascinated with death. He “came to enjoy imagining ‘suicide festivals’ or ‘orgies’ in which sex and death would mingle in the ultimate anonymous encounter” (p. 240). To his admirers, “Foucault’s penchant for sadomasochistic sex was itself an indication of admirable ethical adventurousness” (p. 241). Following this penchant, he plunged into (at the age of 50) the gay bathhouse scene in San Francisco, unleashing his desire for ‘”the overwhelming, the unspeakable, the creepy, the stupefying, the ecstatic,’ embracing ‘a pure violence, a wordless gesture'” (p. 247). Whether or not he knew he was dying of AIDS cannot be demonstrated, but he clearly followed, in his final years, the “Faustian pact” he celebrated in volume one of his The History of Sexuality—willingly exchanging ‘”life in its entirety for sex itself, for the truth and the sovereignty of sex. Sex is worth dying for'” (p. 252). And die he did, in San Francisco, of AIDS, at the age of 57.
As a perfect antidote to Foucault et al., Kimball brings us, in his final chapter, to Josef Pieper, the great Thomistic philosopher, who urges an openness to (rather than experiments with) reality. Pieper, following the lead of Aquinas and Aristotle, says Kimball, has the answers profoundly lacking in postmodernism. “Cardinal Newman was right when he observed that, about many subjects, ‘to think correctly is to think like Aristotle'” (p 336). Or, Pieper would add, to think like Aquinas and know God!