The Long View 2006-02-10: A Culture Worth Dying For

My philosophical disagreement with libertarians is that government, as such, is good. My aesthetic disagreement with libertarians is that they so often end up embracing perversity because it shocks the rubes.

A Culture Worth Dying For

On February 8, the New York Times ran a front-page story that recounted how the recent worldwide outbreak of violence occasioned by the Danish cartoons of Mohammed was orchestrated by Muslim imams in the West and by the governments of some Muslim countries. The story quotes Sari Hanafi, an associate professor at American University, as saying the demonstrations:

started as a visceral reaction – and of course they were offended – and then you had regimes taking advantage saying, “Look, this is the democracy they’re talking about.”

The message was that, if blasphemy is democracy, then democracy is not worth having.

Regarding this Islamist attack on the West, the necessary efforts are being made to unravel the falsehoods and misdirections that have gone into the campaign. For instance, the images that caused the most outrage were not those published by the Jyllen-Posten, but were crude works, some of which had been in circulation on the Internet for a long time. We must uncover the details of how this assault on the West was organized. Something else we must consider, however, if why the lies had force.

The fact is that if democracy meant nothing else than that blasphemy could be freely circulated, or that pornography was always available at the touch of a button, or that Michael Moore got to make as many tendentious films as he wanted, then democracy would not be worth having; certainly it would not be worth dying for. The fact is that we put up with these annoyances because they are necessary frictions. We have freedom of the press and contested elections because, on the whole and over the long run, they produce good government and the improvement of the human estate. They produce virtue. The lethal danger that postmodernism and libertarianism pose for the West is their embrace of the transgressive. Their mixture makes Western society repulsive abroad and, in the long run, causes the freedoms on which they depend to become a matter of indifference at home.

While the poster-attack was going on, a similarly artificial (if less grievous) campaign was underway in connection with the Ang Lee’s film, Broke Back Mountain. This is another case where everything you know is not exactly true. I gather from the better reviews that the film is not really a gay-commercial; it’s not even about cowboys (well, the protagonists are not cowboys when they meet). In the normal course of events, the film would have had limited and uneventful life in art houses; the DVD sales might even have allowed the film to break even. The hoax consists of the immediate, rapturous critical acclaim the film received; not because of it merits, but because influential critics decided to adopt the film as an icon for their own cultural agenda. There came a point when the number of award nominations that this film received became ridiculous. The only element that lacked in this “controversy” was the steady refusal of the cultural right to be provoked.

If you listen to National Public Radio, you can hear these two locomotives whistling toward a collision. At the top of the hour, there might be a paid commercial (a fixture of non-commercial radio these days) for Broke Back Mountain. Then there will be a report from the Middle East about a riot opposing freedom of artistic of expression. The implicit bet that the cultural left has made is that the latter will so enrage the people that they will embrace the former. (Again, I’m not speaking of the movie itself, but of its legend.) On the global level, this hope is delusional. Domestically, it is very ill-advised. It is a variation on a tactic that progressives have used for over a century, the threat “It’s us or them.” Whenever that threat is issued, the people always, always choose them.

Hard cases are necessary to the defense of civil liberties. Yes, we do have to defend the tenure rights of Stalinist political-science professors who say that it’s too bad Osama bin Laden did not have more planes at his disposal on 911. Yes, we do have to defend the right of Nazis to assemble in public parks, even if we know the police department will have to pay its officers overtime to prevent a mob from stoning the demonstrators. However, we are very close to forgetting that cultures do not live on the hard cases. Societies flourish on the ideas and works that are available at the nourishing center. If we must defend the right of the Jyllen-Posten to publish those cartoons, and we must, we are not defending the cartoons themselves, or the book and film versions of The Da Vinci Code, or The Last Temptation of Christ. We are defending Inherit the Wind (it falsified the history of the Scopes trial, but a fine picture nonetheless) and A Man for All Seasons. And here is the point: only if the norm of the culture consists of works like the latter will the liminal cases be defended. A society whose only ideal is transgression will be unable to defend its borders, either metaphorically or physically.

There is a long review on my website of a novel called The Domination. It’s about a world that was once like ours, but where history went terribly wrong. By the end of the book, evil is completely and permanently triumphant. Some people escape to another solar system, however, where they establish a republic with a motto in bad Latin (“Ad Astra et Libertas”) and these ideals:

Here on Samothrace we have developed an exaggerated idea of what one person can do, perhaps. An entire solar system with less than a quarter-million in habitants will do that. We are on our own, on a frontier whose homeland has been eaten by time and history. And our heritage is one of belief in individual responsibility, the sacredness of choice, the human being as the embodiment of humanity.

“The sacredness of choice; the human being as the embodiment of humanity”: such inanity is worthy of Justice O’Connor. No wonder these people lost the whole world to the empire of darkness. Choice is necessary to viture, and if you kill a single man, you kill the whole world. However, choice is not the final good, and the value even of the whole of humanity is not self-generated. A society with no higher ideals than these cannot have a future.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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