Reclaiming civil society: from voluntary servitude to “parallel polis”


In an important article in the October issue of The Atlantic titled “The New Puritans,” Anne Applebaum eloquently tackles a growing illiberalism that has colonized much of civil society. It is dominated, Applebaum argues, by arbitrary censorship, “ritualized apologies” and “public sacrifices”. The ugly scenes to which it gives rise are not clearly American and do not belong to a truly free state or society. As Applebaum demonstrates, more and more cultural and civic institutions are succumbing to self-slavery, paying homage to the angry mob and to an ideological mindset that repudiates independent thought and any sense that our civilized heritage deserves to be preserved and supported. Applebaum insists genuine liberals have suffered most from the ideological mob, and she’s right – but it has a lot to do with the reality that bona fide conservatives have long been marginalized or simply kicked out of higher education. and the major elite. cultural and social institutions. With few exceptions, they operate largely within ghettos, however vigorous or effective they may be, over which the awakened have little control.

Beyond these conservative ghettos, an ascending revival angrily throws away free speech and the legitimacy of free intellectual debate and contention. In these circles, the diversity never means diversity of points of view. Certainly, this not-so-gentle totalitarianism coexists with a system of electoral and political contestation – with democracy, as it is more commonly called. But for how long ? The center clearly does not hold.

Formally, America remains a “free country” by the standards, say, used by Freedom House to classify such things, but with large and growing pockets of censorship and “to cancel culture” – the Orwellian mad desire to ‘erase from historical memory anyone who resists the tyrannical ideological nostrums of the present. A dictatorial “presentism”, as George F. Will called it, dominates almost all judgments about the historical past. It is strictly verboten empathetically put yourself in the shoes of historical figures confronted with choices and circumstances very different from our own. Abraham Lincoln, for example, should not have combated the grave evil of movable slavery and done all in his power to preserve the Union. Instead, he should have spent all of his time speaking out against white racism and white supremacy in an anachronistic display of awakened purity.

This is the surrealist logic that leads awakened ideologues to annul and repudiate men and women who were civic heroes. In this state of mind, the Founders must go, Lincoln must go and Winston Churchill must go; for Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King Jr. must also go – did he not feel the “promissory note” of freedom, equality and human dignity so evident in the great founding documents of our country? Shakespeare and the Western classics do not deserve their place in college curricula, which are no longer concerned with “the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s still wonderfully relevant formulation. It is ideological purity and racial and sexual quotas that count, reflecting a strange obsession with pigmentation in human skin and genitals (and the concomitant and paradoxical creation of an endless number of arbitrarily chosen “genders”). These new criteria of judgment are literally bizarre, far from the worlds of experience and common sense. Civic and moral nihilism, accompanied by angry fanaticism, is at the heart of awakened ideology and all of its works.

What is there to do? Conservative Christian man of letters Rod Dreher is undoubtedly right to invoke the great appeal of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel that honest men and women “do not live on lies!” as they face a new reign of overwhelming and degrading lies. It was a fitting moral and existential response to the old-fashioned totalitarianism that corrupted so many souls, and it remains a necessary response to a soft new totalitarianism that is eroding civil society in the United States and increasingly in other countries. other parts of the western world. But we also need to think and act politically in response to the new coercive nihilism and the reigning “culture of repudiation”, as Roger Scruton so suggestively called it.

Here I am inspired by Václav Benda, the Czech Catholic dissident from the period of his country’s Communist captivity who wrote with great luminosity and insight on the need to create a “parallel polis”. Benda was dealing with a full-fledged totalitarian state where oppression came from above and seemingly erased any possibility of a true civil society. As Benda wrote in the second of two famous essays on the parallel polis, the existential resistance to the suffocating ideological lie must (and already has) given rise to new, yet harassed and suppressed civic initiatives that go beyond the “natural or existential resistance of life to totalitarianism.” There must be a “deliberate expansion of the space in which the parallel polis can exist”. “The deadly winds of totalitarianism,” as Benda called them, will strike these initiatives with all their might – but new institutions and initiatives will emerge in response, and the forces of totalitarianism will gradually become demoralized as “new territory” is conquered by the forces of freedom and human dignity. So was Benda’s hope, a hope that proved to be justified in the annus mirabilis it was in 1989.

The analogy with our current situation is incorrect since our despotism comes largely, if not exclusively, from forces in civil society (and with angry Twitter crowds like sans culottes). But Substack’s rise as a source of independent journalism and intellectual resistance by leading voices to the independent right, center and left provides an imitable model of how to outsmart the forces of repression. (An honest, courageous and independent liberal like Bari Weiss helps lead the way.) New universities and mainstream schools are undoubtedly needed as accreditation agencies at all levels are committed to locking down the culture of repudiation and the new religion of diversity and inclusion (misnamed “equity”) in perpetuity. Groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, under the vigorous leadership of Johnny Burtka, now rightly see their role as providing education in citizenship, statesmanship, classical political economy, and education. Western classics which are now more or less ousted from traditional institutions of higher education. learning. Hillsdale College provides a practical model, as does its Barney Charter School initiative, which helps create and sustain independent classical academies. And the admirable efforts of the Heterodox Academy, founded by politically unclassifiable psychologist Jonathan Haidt in 2015 to champion the place of diversity of viewpoints and “constructive disagreement in higher education institutions”, are more important than ever.

The advocates and practitioners of the “parallel polish” that I propose must be clever because the forces of negation and cancellation will do what they can to thwart, discredit and abolish these new and necessary initiatives and institutions. If the nullifiers succeed in suppressing such an effort, new efforts must immediately begin in its place. Those of us who are committed to escaping and overcoming the new totalitarianism must also consciously define the new institutions as those which in principle reject an awakened, politically correct or ideological self-definition. We must keep Robert Conquest’s law in mind: institutions that are not explicitly non-progressive or anti-ideological will eventually become leftist and ideological.

Our goal should be to build a dynamic civil society, open to real debates and disputes. This parallel polish will show a way forward for all Americans – left, right and center – who want to live and breathe freely. The path of anti-awakening resistance is open to all patriots and independent thinkers who reject voluntary subjugation.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Excellence Fellowship at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He and more than 1,000 academics and concerned citizens recently made common cause in an open letter posted on RealClearPolitics. This article is part of an ongoing “Freedom and Justice for All” series.


About Author

Leave A Reply