Deal W. Hudson
Two books read together can unexpectedly illuminate one another. That was my experience reading Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West and a scholarly book written for public consumption-The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, by Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago.
There’s much in the Buchanan book I agree with, especially the harrowing analysis of the impact of abortion and birth control on Western nations. But there was a bothersome undertone that I couldn’t quite figure out. Then I read Lilla’s chapter on the political philosopher Carl Schmitt. Schmitt (1888-1985) was one of the leading political and legal theorists of the Nazi Party in its early stages.
Rather than being treated like a leper for his Nazism, Schmitt and his books gained a following in the decades following World War II-including some ardent admirers among postmodern theorists.
Why would the most radically chic of leftwing thinkers, who pride themselves on obeying the canons of political correctness, admit to an appreciation for the “crown jurist” of the Nazi Party? It’s Schmitt’s understanding of politics that attracts them. His 1927 essay, “The Concept of the Political” states, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” In other words, politics is about power, pure and simple…getting and maintaining power over those you consider enemies.
Postmodern thinkers with their rejection of rationality and objectivity, with their reduction of value to class, gender, and ethnic interests, treat politics as just the kind of battlefield that Schmitt describes. Politics is not a fundamentally humanistic enterprise where men and women, in spite of their own interests and passions, submit themselves to a democratic process in hopes of reaching a common good.
Now I am NOT calling Pat Buchanan a Nazi. Everyone knows Buchanan is a good and decent man, and he has done this country a service over the years by his vigorous defense of unpopular causes. But in The Death of the West, Buchanan has started to sound much like the revolutionary theorists he calls his enemies.
“Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are,” Schmitt writes. Buchanan would agree. His book is a rallying cry to take up arms against the enemies of the West by learning from the enemy’s tactics. As Buchanan says, “Once an ideology takes hold of a society, only a superior force or superior ideology can exorcise it.”
The trouble is that the Christian faith Buchanan touts as a remedy is neither an ideology nor a force. I suspect Buchanan’s dilemma is that he wants his faith to provide both.
Those who see the opposition as “enemy” will join Buchanan’s army of right-minded, God-fearing defenders of the faith and the Western tradition. Those who don’t, well, they’re the enemy too.
What keeps me from joining his army is the belief that politics is not just an irrational struggle between people of bad will. I have had too many experiences with people of profoundly different values who have taught me much. My three most influential teachers were men who embraced the political left and were, or would be, dumbfounded by my adult choice of the Catholic faith.
All the battles that Buchanan describes are real and potentially decisive for our culture. But I don’t believe that adopting the political assumptions and tactics of the other side is going to redeem the day.