The Most Dangerous Reef

This, from Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind:

“Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia.”

Lilla applies his conclusion to a great many reactionary figures–Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and–going back a bit–Oswald Spengler–in an effort to explore and explain why the persistent desire to maintain at all cost the structures and principles of the past holds sway over so many intellectuals and members of the voting public.

John Banville’s review of Lilla’s book reveals it to be a tempered assessment of reactionary thought, but with more than one bristling passage.  “Hopes can be disappointed,” Lilla writes.  “Nostalgia is irrefutable.”  Funny, but not true.  Nostalgia can be obliterated the same way any falsehood can be:  with the facts.  You think living out in nature on a farm, the way we used to, would be just the best thing, ever?  No, Alphonse.  You just think you want to live there.  Let’s see how long you want to live there after you’ve wrung the necks of the chickens you’ll have for supper, or slaughtered the pigs whose flesh you’ll eat for your morning bacon.  My knowledge of these truths comes from my mother, a woman of unimpeachable character, but you needn’t take her word alone for it.  Harry Crews’s A Childhood:  The Biography of a Place will tell you the same things and more.

Lilla’s study is almost certainly too heavily weighted with observations from (and about) the intellectual class.  What’s missing is a broad commentary from the working class–the group Lilla says he’s most interested in examining.  The model for such a book was provided by Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their study of middle-class values a generation ago, Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life–a nostalgic reference, I know, but clearly a book which shows how such work can be done.

Had Lilla actually talked to the working class and the middle class, the sources of modern intellectualism itself, he wouldn’t have written sentences such as these:

“American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing”. This seemed a reasonable observation, especially to those of us who were in the US in the months before and after the election and witnessed, and felt, the levels of rage and resentment among many millions of voters – Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” – who felt themselves excluded by the liberal, well-heeled and, it should be emphasised, multiracial middle class, and plumped for Trump whether they liked him or not.”

The disaffected voters were not feeling merely “excluded” or displaced by the current social and political trends–temporary feelings.  They felt devalued and erased, even as they were having to pay more and more of their tax dollars to support the survival of the groups devaluing and erasing them–a deep, deep irony, considering that, three generations ago, the grandparents and parents of those voters marched and protested for the rights of African-Americans, migrant workers, and others so that they would not be devalued and, ultimately, erased.  Another nostalgic reference, to be sure, but that cannot be helped.  Truth doesn’t come to us only in the present.  It also comes to us from the past.

Because I know that the past contains every clear vision as well as every illusion we’ve ever had about ourselves as human beings, I cannot give The Shipwrecked Mind my full endorsement, at least not yet.  The way to find out what’s on the mind of the working class is to ask them.  The way to know about how the middle class feel is to live among them.  Lilla hasn’t done those things.  I can say, however, that within its actual limits–the examination of the reactionary mind, which includes those who wish to remove statues as well as those who wish to preserve them–Lilla’s book does much to illuminate a way of thinking that most political liberals (and many conservatives) simply do not understand, but need to.


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