Why Western Civilization Needs Heroes

Why Western Civilization Needs Heroes

A new book argues that a lack of cultural confidence destroying society, and if we want to save ourselves we need start believing in heroism again.
Louis Markos
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Every student in America knows about the Holocaust. That is as it should be. But I would be surprised if more than 1 percent of students knows about the horrors of the Soviet Gulag, or the reeducation camps of Mao’s China, or the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or even the slaughters perpetrated by Castro and (yes) Che Guevera.

They have heard, courtesy of A Tale of Two Cities, about Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and the guillotining of aristocrats, but they do not know that the French Revolution is the mother of all socialist revolutions, that it set out to remake man, religion, and society (with bloody results), and that it included the decimation of the Catholic Church and the murder of innocent nuns—who were guillotined alongside the aristos.

What is the message here? That atrocities only occur on the Right side of the political spectrum, never on the Left. Yet even here there is an irony. Are students ever taught that Nazism is short for “national socialism?” That Hitler is inconceivable without Marx? That Nazism is just as firmly grounded in atheist utopianism as communism and that it uses the same methods for squashing all dissent, contorting the truth to fit anti-humanistic ideologies, and enforcing mindless conformity to the Party?

They are taught, rightly, to celebrate the abolition of the slave trade in England and of slavery in the American South, together with the triumph of Civil Rights in the 1960s—the only legitimate claim to fame of the far-Left platform in America—but are they taught that all three of these great liberation movements were informed, undergirded, and energized by Christianity?

The Unholy Left

In The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, Michael Walsh concedes that the far-Left (what he calls the “Unholy Left”) played a role in winning equal rights for American blacks, but not to the extent that they claim. “The civil rights movement,” he reminds us, “was largely a story of the center of American politics: The old liberals for whom the New Left had nothing but contempt united with boring Republicans to defang racist Southern Democrats.” As for the other initiatives and programs of the Unholy Left, they have all failed or are failing.

‘The civil rights movement was largely a story of the center of American politics: The old liberals for whom the New Left had nothing but contempt united with boring Republicans to defang racist Southern Democrats.’

The leftist agenda has not delivered on its promises to the poor and dispossessed—it has, in fact, made things far worse, creating a perpetually dependent underclass on which it can count for votes. This will not be news to those who have been able to step back and see through political and media smokescreens. What Walsh, a journalist, author, political and cultural commentator, and former classical music critic of Time magazine, provides for those already aware of these failures is a firm grasp of the historical origins of the Unholy Left.

Naturally, he finds those origins in the writings of Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche, but he does not stop there. Rather than turn his gaze to the usual suspects, Walsh shows how the social-political-economic theories of these founding fathers of modern materialism were filtered through the literary, academic, and cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School to reach and influence a wide American audience who should have known better—and would have, had it all not come disguised in the fashionable guise of European nihilism.

Referencing the work of Frankfurters Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Antonio Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, Georg Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, and Wilhelm Reich, Walsh exposes the anti-capitalist, pro-Marxist bias of all of these thinkers as well as their shared contempt for such central “bourgeois” values as patriotism, religion, marriage, family, sexual morality, tradition, as well as the celebration of beauty, truth, and heroism.

A Lack Of Cultural Self Confidence

How were these self-proclaimed critics and prophets able to convince the American public to embrace theories that violate not only their core beliefs but common sense? By using our weaknesses to deceive and delude us. What exactly are those weaknesses? “Chief among the weaknesses of Western man today are his fundamental lack of cultural self-confidence, his willingness to open his ears to the siren song of nihilism, a juvenile eagerness to believe the worst about himself and his society and to relish, on some level, his own prospective destruction,” Walsh writes.

How were these self-proclaimed critics and prophets able to convince the American public to embrace theories that violate not only their core beliefs but common sense?

Without descending into psychological analysis—or into any of the social sciences—Walsh wrestles honestly with our shared American inferiority complex and our hankering after respectable European angst and cynicism. Unfortunately, this weakness is exacerbated by one of our most appealing strengths: a love for the underdog that, alas, impels us to take to our national bosom strangers who despise everything we stand for.

Had the Frankfurters, or their heirs in the Unholy Left, come out clearly and said what they believed and sought, the mass of Americans would have rejected their nihilistic hatred of our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian heritage and their resentment-driven desire for payback. But they were far more subtle than that. Thus, Gramsci and Lukács, knowing that economic Marxism had failed, substituted it with a cultural Marxism that they infused into the American bloodstream through the media and the academies.

Through critical theory, rather than Soviet five-year plans or Maoist purges, the Frankfurt School taught the last several generations of American college students “that there is no received tenet of civilization that should not either be questioned (the slogan ‘question authority’ originated with the Frankfurt School) or attacked,” Walsh observes. Everything is up for grabs—including, and especially, human sexuality.

Gramsci and Lukács, knowing that economic Marxism had failed, substituted it with a cultural Marxism that they infused into the American bloodstream through the media and the academies.

“On the Unholy Left,” writes Walsh with reference to sex guru Reich, “there is no idea too stupid to try, no institution unworthy of attack, no theory not worth implementing without care for its results, no matter what the practical cost. Intentions are everything, results are nothing. Results are an illusion; theory is what counts, because theory can be debated endlessly within the safe harbor of academe.” Yet here there is an irony that exposes the true hypocrisy and viciousness at the core of the Frankfurt School.

The Unholy Left has pushed through its poisonous ideas by championing freedom of speech. The minute they achieve their goals, however, they deny that freedom to any who would oppose them. Walsh locates the origin of this in Marcuse’s theory of “repressive tolerance,” and then traces its full manifestation in the rise of political correctness: a truly demonic force that both silences and scapegoats the traditional values that built our country by labeling those who hold them as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. By “declaring whole swatches of argumentation invalid, the Unholy Left seeks to erect a Devil’s Pleasure Palace around itself, a world of illusion peopled with fake monsters and hallucinatory apparitions, an anti-fun-house of horrors whose only purpose, directly antithetical to the United States Constitution, is to stifle opposition and debate,” he writes.

The Sole True Medium Of Truth

How is one to fight such an insidious attack on the soul of America? Without discounting the political arena, Walsh directs our attention to the arts—both literature (Milton’s Paradise Lost; Goethe’s Faust; Mann’s Magic Mountain) and opera (Schubert’s Devil’s Pleasure Palace; Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Parsifal; Mozart’s Magic Flute and Don Giovanni—where he discerns a concept of heroism that can stand strong against the lies, cynicism, and anti-humanism of the Frankfurt School.

Walsh makes it clear that the arts are neither a diversion from reality nor a tool for propaganda.

First, Walsh makes it clear that the arts are neither a diversion from reality nor a tool for propaganda. “[F]ar from being mere imitations of deeper truths, art is born deep in the unconscious and shaped according to historical principles of structure and expression, and is God’s way of leading humanity to a deeper understanding of its own essential nature and potential, and of its own fate,” he writes. Indeed, he notes art “is the gift from God, the sole true medium of truth.”

Although Walsh identifies his analysis as “explicitly Christian” and himself as a Catholic, he is able to universalize his argument by grounding it in Paradise Lost rather than Genesis. Even those who do not believe literally in Genesis’s account of creation and the Fall will generally recognize the human truths embodied in Milton’s great epic, a work, Walsh reminds us, that “was once a fixture of the American household, not only a work of art but also a volume of moral instruction.”

What Walsh finds in the heroes of literature and opera is a kind of individualism that the Unholy Left both hates and dismisses as an illusion. Heroism shatters the proletarian anthill that the heirs of the Frankfurt School would build. It also champions free will over Marxian determinism and a certainty that there are real standards of goodness, truth, and beauty for which one should be willing to die. The Unholy Left are lovers of death, yet they are unwilling to risk their lives for anything. As Walsh observes, “The only thing they are willing to fight for (other than ‘the Fight’ itself) is their own survival, even as they declare it to be utterly meaningless.”

‘The only thing they are willing to fight for is their own survival, even as they declare it to be utterly meaningless.’

The great tales of heroism also embody a central truth about man that the Unholy Left particularly hates: that we were made male and female and that “the pansexuality of today . . . cannot replace this naturally primal force: the union of opposites into a harmonious, generative whole.” In literature, and particularly opera, this manifests itself in the guise of the eternal feminine, the redemptive woman who guides and saves the hero, often laying down her life for him, as Gretchen does for Goethe’s Faust. This “sexually anti-egalitarian concept that feminists of both sexes today would regard as laughable,” explains Walsh, “is one of the organizing principles of the cosmos.”

Not all of us will be heroes—like the eternal feminine, heroism is of its very nature anti-egalitarian—but we can all participate through the arts in that heroism and hearken to its call. Such is the true spirit of man, a spirit that has long animated our country and that the Unholy Left is powerless to totally eradicate.

“The goal of the Frankfurt School was, at root, to turn Americans into Central Europeans, to undermine the core self-perception of America—free individuals before God—and replace it with a Central European dependence on and worship of the God-State as embodiment of the General Will, History, Social Justice, Diversity, or whatever divinized chimera represents Utopia at the moment,” writes Walsh. We have only to remember who we are to throw off the illusions they have heaped upon us and our culture.

Renewing Heroism

Walsh’s call for a renewed heroism is a welcome and necessary one and his perceptive analysis of how the poison of critical theory has corrupted our sense of ourselves, not only as Americans but as fallen creatures made in the image of God, is spot on. But the overall organization is a bit haphazard—though always thrilling to read—and the book could use some clearer definitions of the key tenets of the Frankfurt School and a few more choice examples of how critical theory works in practice. His heavy use of opera, though instructive, also tends at times to dilute the central message of the book.

Walsh’s idiosyncratic reading of the Fall does not take away from the goodness, truth, and beauty that all but leap off the pages of his powerfully written and passionately argued book.

But the one aspect of The Devil’s Pleasure Palace that was both troubling and confusing was Walsh’s reading of the Fall. First, he insists that Adam and Eve did not have sex until after they fell. This not only goes against the Genesis account—where we are commanded to be fruitful and multiply before the Fall and where Eve’s curse is not to have children but to bear them in increased pain—but against Paradise Lost. Indeed, Milton goes to great lengths to make it absolutely clear (see book IV, lines 736-775) that Adam and Eve had sex before they tasted of the forbidden fruit.

Second, Walsh works too hard to present the Fall as a good thing in itself, rather than as something that God brought good out of. “We know [when reading Paradise Lost] that Eve will fail the test—not out of any innate female weakness, but from her sympathetic heart and insatiable curiosity, both quintessentially human traits; she is truly humanity’s Mother,” he writes. It seems highly unlikely that Milton would agree with this reading of Eve’s motives in eating the fruit. Rather, perhaps Walsh falls prey to a quintessentially American temptation: to allow individuality to descend into individualism and to ascribe to a radical notion of free will that, to borrow a cogent metaphor from C. S. Lewis’s Problem of Pain, insists that we are nouns rather than adjectives.

Still, Walsh’s idiosyncratic reading of the Fall does not take away from the goodness, truth, and beauty that all but leap off the pages of his powerfully written and passionately argued book. If you are a Christian and defender of our religious and literary tradition, it’s hard not to cheer out loud when you read these words: “The story [of Jesus], infinitely refracted, infinitely recursive, goes on. We keep telling it because we need to, to keep the forces of Hell at bay. Hell has no need for heroes; God does. That we keep providing them is one of the surest proofs of his existence.”

What Walsh has done here is no small accomplishment. He set out to write a book about the need for heroes, and created a work that is, in and of itself, an heroic act of truth telling.

Photo Mark Hemingway / The Federalist
Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include “Apologetics for the 21st Century,” “On the Shoulders of Hobbits,” and “Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis.”

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