Little Men, What Now?
(The Remnant, January 31, 2004, February 15, 2004)One of my favorite books as a teenager fascinated by history was a volume of pictures illustrating the horrors of the First World War. It was not the photos of heaps of cadavers in the trenches and no manís lands of northern France that most affected me, chilling as these admittedly were. Instead, the nightmarish consequences of that apocalyptic conflict seemed to come through much more clearly in a snapshot from warís end, one depicting a young married couple walking down a street in a large European city, the husband holding their little baby in his arms with its back to the camera. The eyes of both man and wife were those of souls in torment; two persons absolutely bewildered by their new, rapidly-changing environment, their place within it, and the ultimate destination to which they were hurrying with their precious, helpless cargo. Hence, the poignancy of the caption below: Little Man, What Now?
For a very long time, I frequently wondered whether this question was ever answered for them. But such dreamy speculation about anonymous individualsí problems has finally faded from my mind. For now, eighty-six years after that coupleís aimless passeggiata at the end of the Great War, I find myself daily posing much the same baffled query silently to each of my own children. Because, despite my having had a solid upbringing by devoted parents, an education far superior to anything that my ancestors would have dreamed possible, and a secure, life-time position at a major metropolitan university, I am all too conscious of having no earthly control whatsoever over the life that I am leading; of being a "little man" myself. And, just like my friends from 1918, I have my own helpless family caught in the undertow with me.
In one sense, this helplessness ought not to be a surprise, to me or to my fellow Catholics, who are in exactly the same wave-tossed boat that I am. After all, the situation that we face today is directly related to the disorienting conflict of 1914-1918, along with all the ideas that helped to give birth to it, and the inflations, depressions, second world conflagration, genocides, and global communist-technocratic-capitalist-pluralist-technological-ecclesiastical revolutions that followed in its train.
Nevertheless, despite the reality of these disorienting historical connections, I would venture to say that the majority of Catholics, especially conservative Catholics, actually continue to be surprised by our unenviable condition, and shocked by each new manifestation of our helplessness. Most of us still remain convinced that if we would only organize more efficiently to "do something", to "act vigorously", perhaps to vote and lobby more consistently, somehow or other we would soon escape from our present troubling, but surely aberrant and temporary cul-de-sac.
Why would we be tempted to indulge such optimism? It would be much more suitable to ask why we would not be. For we, like all our contemporaries, are repeatedly lulled into a state of false hopefulness by the seductive, though fraudulent, myth of enlightened modernity, which has long dominated western society, and is mediated, today, through the ideology of pluralism. This myth assures us that we are not poor little lambs who have lost our way, but a people more rational, civilized, free, and in control of our glorious destiny than any other in the past history of the world; a blessed race that is moving effectively towards the achievement of cherished Christian goals of world harmony, love, and peace to boot. The bulk of us take most or all of this background myth for granted as unconsciously as we accept the poisoned air that we breathe and the artificial foods that we eat. It is because we do so that we continue to be surprised by each specific, negative historical development which this supposedly enlightened modernity engenders, and the fact that its fangs are locked firmly in our ever more lacerated flesh. As conscious or unconscious "foot soldiers of the Zeitgeist", we walk in circles on the sidewalk alongside my friends from the book of Great War photos, and even more befuddled than they ever were.
For at least they knew that they were going nowhere fast. Insofar as we Catholics are enthralled to the myth of living in a truly rational and free society, we act as though we are fully conscious of our goal, as though Oz really does lie ahead of us, as if the slogans of world harmony on the seemingly Christian banners flying over its battlements actually do have an orthodox religious meaning. In acting so, we contribute to the general failure to realize that the logical, historical development of Protestant and Enlightenment principles has constructed for modern man an Emerald City narrower and much more inescapable than any enclosure built for a mere flock of sheep in Tudor England. We help to foster a blindness to the thoroughgoing, irrational, "pragmatic" materialism which rules our Enclosure Extraordinaire, renders it oblivious to many basic psychological necessities of a fully human existence, and creates barriers to the growth of mind and spirit that make a mockery of everything that was good in Classical and Christian civilization.
One of the inhuman limiting factors most noticeable to me inside our Enclosure is its subjection of all philosophical/theological attempts to answer the question "little man, what now?" to a seemingly iron-clad Law of Impotence. This directive stipulates that proponents of serious probing of fundamental human problems follow the commands and tickle the fancies of the very people whom they claim that they seek to guide; those most likely to be unconsciously enslaved by the modern myth. Would-be educators obeying such guidelines find themselves committed not to instruction but to the entertainment business instead, since perpetual revel is contemporary manís meat and drink, the tool that has been used to turn his attention away from the horror of his meaningless existence. Intellectual diversion requires production of the hopelessly repetitive and oversimplified pamphlets and spectacles which the task of professional amusement mandates. The often sizeable amount of money needed to support these games then condemns the "teacher" to pass whatever time is left over to him from mental titillation to the drudgery of fund raising. Fund raising projects can indeed attract the money essential for paying the costs of past bread and circuses, but only by promising yet another round of similar dumbed-down hootenannies for the year to come. These projects frequently adopt the formerly reproved tactics and arguments of opponents who have proven themselves to be more effective at raking in heaps of gold and silver than their critics. The end result, catalogued by sociologists from the time of Max Weberís critique of the German Social Democratic Party onwards, is that thinkers are sucked into an ever-deepening whirlpool of meaningless bustle that renders them contradictory and pointless. Our question, "little man, what now?", ultimately gets no substantive response from them. "Cui bono?", or "why bother", could be suggested as the most suitable epitaph for their personal activity, as well as for the debilitating and ultimately silly causes that they come to serve.
Let us be clear that it is not the raising of the question of pragmatic and successful approach as such that constitutes the core problem of the contemporary Law of Impotence. Obviously, no one ever wants to be in the position of those preachers who St. Augustine tells us addressed congregations in North Africa in a language not a phrase of which their listeners understood. Its real crime is that it silences and eradicates all serious concern for content more thoroughly than any wet blanket thrown over human aspiration since the clash of philosophy and rhetoric was first painfully described by Plato in the 300ís B.C. The Law of Impotence achieves this butchery of substance all the more effectively by unjustifiably granting the nervous commotion that it promotes a doctorate in philosophy and theology, summa cum laude, with honors in arrogance. It successfully passes such hubbub off, not as the tour de force of mindless physical stamina that it is, but as the only truly fresh and exhilarating sign of intellectual and spiritual vitality in town. Why, there have never been so many e-mails, faxes, mission statements, fund raisers, conferences, and annual dinners! Indeed, it must be the veritable springtime of the intellect, what with all the appealing words that are being spoken in pursuit of the ultimate donation! Who but a worn-out pedant, poverty-stricken, bitter, and visionless at one and the same time, could ask for anything more?
And yet, once again, this mountain of verbiage disguises the fact that real dialogue leading to valid answers to a desperate human need of purpose and direction has been choked off by the Law of Impotence, exiled to Siberia for the crime of imprudence, divisiveness, and obstruction to the production of ever increasing quantities of bilge. So crushing has been the defeat of meaty discussion on our ferris wheel of empty futility that it seems as though there is no way out of its nauseating twirl except a cataclysm stopping the machinery and forcing consumers of intellectual entertainment to descend from it. Scripture warns us not to long too readily for such a Day of the Lord. I take that warning seriously, but must confess that the call of Nietzschean fantasies welcoming the swift destruction of whatever modern man has been seduced into cherishing is often hard to resist.
Some of the limitations of life inside the Enclosure have become much more palpable to me personally as a consequence of the apparently inexorable progress of contemporary globalization. Like many traditional-minded persons, I detest the various cultural side-effects of this particular type of world unification: the destruction of all religious belief that stands in the way of materialist pluralism; the construction of a planet-wide, homogenized way of life built upon the model of the American Empire; the decline of languages which have been used through history to express the deepest thoughts and aspirations of our common human heritage; the creation of radio stations that blare out and complete the same goofy song as one moves down the street past pizzeria, Korean deli, Tandoori Palace, Eifel Tower, Taj Mahal, foreign military base, and opium den. None of the supposed benefits of world-wide pluralism seems capable of answering the question "what now?" with anything other than the offer of a table, a napkin, and a still more hefty and efficiently distributed ration of over-salted and over-sweetened pottage.
I have tried to do my very, very modest part to fight the haughty but flawed claims of pluralist globalism through the Roman Forum, the Catholic organization that I direct, but have found any ability to do so severely limited by the current financial crunch. Thus, to my dismay, I find that I myself am completely dependent upon a revival of the very global materialist march that I loathe in order to fuel the donations that will enable me to continue to battle against it. In short, my own thought and practice would appear to have been thrown into desperate contradiction to one another, requiring a return to the intellectual drawing board for correction. I sit before that drawing board at this very moment, using the present article as a plaintive call to my muse for inspiration regarding what to do with my floundering ship: how to navigate it successfully, while actually aiming it somewhere definitive; and how to save its captain from that destructive Nietzscheanism which would welcome an Armageddon that could, unfortunately, crush whatever good remains alive in our world along with its overbearing, hypocritical evil.
Ironically, the supposed movers and shakers of our Global Fatherland are themselves skipping in circles down the Yellow Brick Road to nowhere alongside my fellow Catholics and me. They are there in the strange capacity of both manipulators and slaves of the myth and perpetual pointless motion which they, poor dears, have deprived themselves of all means of criticizing and evading. The American Government, the European Union, the United Nations, Church authorities, the educational establishment, powerful Neo-Conservatives, Liberalsóall of them honestly seem to think that they are "in control"; that they are effectively guiding events down a crystal clear and desirable direction, even as they are caught up in the self-deceptions and emptiness of the fraud to which they subscribe. Bush proposes, but logic disposes. "Leaders" are themselves led down pathways carrying their plans and reputations onto the rubbish heap of history, while the blindness of their "vision" is placed daily before the publicís eye.
This at least has the merit of providing potentially rebellious helots in hell house a few bitter belly laughs. One of these was recently offered by General Tommy Franks in an interview in Cigar Aficionado, wherein he explained that the freedom for which we are now fighting an international war against terrorism is one that will secure for us the ability "to go to a mall anywhere in this country" and to "sit in one of the movie theaters that exist in that mall". Now, here lies a meaty response to the query "little man, what now?": the gift of a shopping spree and a double feature in Nowhere Land Are Us. If my small, anonymous, Great War family came from a traditional Catholic European background, nothing could have rendered its depression more permanent, nor its own Nietzschean temptation more irresistible.
Life in the Enclosure Extraordinaire is indeed pathetic, and pathetic in a way that men of the old, flawed, deceased, Christian Era never experienced. But going nowhere on a pluralist treadmill was a phenomenon which was not unknown to the pre-Christian, pagan world. Ancients, both of the Amarna Era, at the time of the international New Egyptian Empire, as well as those living in the Hellenistic culture emerging out of the mixing of peoples and practices stimulated by Alexander the Great and continuing through the Roman centuries, were very much accustomed to the strait jacket pluralism imposed. They experienced the way in which the creation of "harmony" in their multi-cultural prisons dictated submission to a unifying pluralist religion requiring the worship of the very system and authorities that chained them down, restraining serious intellectual and spiritual questioning and traditional commitments as it made its progress. All that was lacking to the ancient experience of limitation of human aspiration to the demands of the political status quo was the skillful use of advanced technology and the Christian message of global love and peace in its service.
Ancient photographers could have snapped many shots of "little men" conscious of the uncertainty of their destination, or baffled as to what they might still manage to do under very trying circumstances to reach a known and fervently treasured goal. Their cameras could also have offered us rather edifying photos of certain ancient leaders, fathers of their people, who were utterly bewildered over where and how they were supposed to steer themselves and their charges. The confused Greek from Delos who stares miserably at us from his bust in a museum in Athens; the pious Jews who could not accept the demands of multicultural, Hellenistic, Seleucid state worship, and waited peacefully on the Sabbath for their inevitable defeat and destruction; the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, meditating miserably upon the ant-like scrambling of men in battle formation, or the death and distintegration that lay behind the preparation of a sumptuous imperial banquet, all shared this in common: their realization that something in their world was dreadfully inadequate, that they were not "in control" of their destiny, and that no mere repetition of the word "democracy", full participation in the elective process, and stimulation of Happy Holiday spending was going to place the reins of life securely in their hands.
How did those ancient "little men" and their guardians who were aware of their pathetic helplessness survive on a day-to-day basis? Many of them chose Internal Exile from their dominant governing myth, in order to inhabit private worlds of truly parochial orthodoxy closed to legitimate intellectual and spiritual development, or self-deluding, self-destructive historical thumb-sucking. Hence, the rigidity of much of Second Temple Judaism, which ultimately could not recognize the Messiah for whom it was waiting once He finally arrived. Hence, the nostalgic game playing of Hellenistic Spartans and Athenians, who accepted their practical political impotence, so long as they could maintain the privilege of making believe, within their Disneyland town walls, that they were still populating Classical Hellas. Alas!, we modern Catholics often do the same thing: some of us by trying to live our lives as though this were actually the 1950ís, now transformed into the traditionalist Decade for All Seasons; others, by sitting next to the waters of our contemporary American Babylon, strumming our harps and sighing for the return of that Constitution of 1787 which is said to have laid out the Garden of Earthly and Supernatural Delights, under whose shade trees one could safely recline and barbeque the fatted calf.
But let us now return to the immediate dilemma suggested at the beginning of this article. What indeed should I tell my own "little men", three young children as yet unaware of the turmoil of the era into which they were born? And what should I tell myself, their disoriented father, when I meditate on the fact that I certainly do not feel any more "empowered" than they are?
For me to treat my problem as one of complete, existential directionlessness would be misleading. I am, after all, a believer. Faith does not allow me to treat the question of ultimate destination as an open one. I know that I have no reason to abandon teaching my children, and reminding myself, of the revelation of my Savior, who never promised that the earthly realm was going to be the pleasure park that the Enlightenment and modern pluralism crack it up to be. Christís teaching also entails my transmitting to those under my charge certain quite practical, even if negative, directional signals. These include rejection of the vain pomps of the Law of Impotence, with its call to a useless activity producing still more mental schlock for Entertainment Alley, and the dead-end parochialism and nostalgia indulged in by ancient victims of Pluralism as well.
Moreover, I do have at my disposal another lesson handed down to us by distant, proto-pluralist societies. The eastern Mediterranean of the Amarna Era, and the entire Hellenistic-Roman imperial ecumene lived in an interdependence which, mutatis mutandis, was analogous to that created by modern globalism. Both saw their political and social orders destroyed, crushed due to the invasions of Sea Peoples, German tribes, and Arab Moslems, as well as through the ravages of disease, and the inevitable reaction of the human spirit to the prison-like environments in which it is caged. That which was disappeared. That which is, now, will, probably sooner than later, suffer the same fate, despite the fact that our constitutional, democratic system-in-perpetual-danger is regularly touted as being indestructible. The Founding Fathers of America and our current Intergalactic Fatherland have not built Thousand Year Reichs. In other words, this too shall pass. My children have a right to hope for the arrival of a new and improved Middle Ages, with Christ at the center of individual and social hearts.
So my stroll alongside my friends from 1918, as long as I escape the clutches of the modern myth, is not quite circular after all. Faith aims me to a supernatural destination, warns me against certain natural obstacles to that end, and ought to build in me that good humored acceptance of my own limitations which aids mightily in the struggle against cynicism. Historical precedent shows me that my warfare will not last forever, and that I should, perhaps, be on the lookout for "signs of the times" heralding its end.
It is on the more "practical" level of positive measures that we can take actively to assist the swifter approach of much desired change that my sense of helplessness remains all too strong. It is here that I am, at the moment at least, truly stymied, and very much still feel myself a "little man" using an article as a plaintive call not just to my muse but to all and sundry for advice. I am open to suggestions. In the meantime, the only "pragmatic" step that I can see myself taking is that of writing, channeling my psychologically-twisted Nietzschean drive down the path of destroying what other, anti-Christian men, cherish.
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