Life in the time of the plague

By Eugène E.

There’s a memorable scene in Camus’s The Plague in which two doctors are conferring about the strange disease ravaging their town. The epidemic, of course, is plague, but most people in the Algerian seaside city of Oran are not yet ready to recognize it as such. Dr. Rieux, the narrator and the novel’s unsung hero, understands that it’s plague, but is not quite prepared to admit it, while his interlocutor, a seasoned doctor, is well past the denial phase and calls a spade a spade. With deft, vivid strokes, Camus shows how the population of Oran crumbles under the epidemic, physically as well as psychologically. Each stage of the city’s battle with the plague, from denial and disbelief to resignation and eventual delivery from the epidemic, is meticulously charted.

The novel’s profundity stems from its allegorical dimension. As the novel was written just after World War II, it has been all too tempting to interpret the plague as a symbol of the occupation of France by Nazi Germany or perhaps as a symbol of fascist ideology as such (which is exactly what was done by one Dutch writer in a superficial book that came out recently). Many great works of art tend to offer not one, but numerous interpretations (which also exposes them to charges of intellectual promiscuity), and every interpretation that is made runs the risk of revealing as much about the tastes and biases of the interpreter as it does about the work that is being interpreted. But then giving up interpretations of literary texts is tantamount to giving up literary analysis as such; and while I don’t pretend that my own interpretation of The Plague is so unique that it will circumvent the risk of betraying my own biases, whatever they are, the urgency imposed on us by recent events compels me to make the interpretation.

The plague in Camus’s novel is a hostile element that wreaks havoc with the environment in which it chooses to settle. It need not necessarily be fascist ideology; it can be any ideology that, like a python, coils around the body of its victim and constricts it. This is what the plague does in Camus’s Oran, and this is what ultraliberalism is doing to Western societies today. After all, ultraliberal policies also come with a body count (e.g., due to the crime and terrorist activity committed by those migrants from the third world who should have never been allowed to enter Western countries, but who were admitted regardless because welcoming them was perceived, for ideological reasons, as the right thing to do), and it’s a body count that continues to grow on a regular basis. Moreover, the long-term effects of ultraliberal policies are incalculable. As the impact that an invidious ideology (as symbolized by the plague) has on its victims is described poignantly in The Plague, the novel should be required reading for anyone trying to step back from the current state of affairs and cast a critical eye upon it.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has seen a massive spike in gun-related homicides this year in comparison to the same period in 2017. Locally, this has been discussed at length. What has been discussed far less, at least at the official level, is that these crimes seem largely to have been committed by black men, although the racial factor is actively downplayed. What does it mean? First, let’s make sure we understand what this doesn’t mean. It does not mean that acknowledging this reality is racist. It does not mean that all black men are gun-toting criminals. And it certainly does not mean that it is acceptable to stigmatize blacks, or produce sweeping generalizations about this or that group, particularly as the victims have also tended to be black. But it does mean that accusing whites of racism and discrimination (the raison d’être of groups such as Black Lives Matter) while violence continues to fester in the black community – accusing whites of systemic racism is not particularly constructive. It also means that if a certain group is overrepresented when it comes to violent crime, public policy should take that reality into account when it is formulated. For instance, is racial profiling efficient? I do not have sufficient information to answer this question; but if its efficacy can be demonstrated, then it should be an option. If it can be proved conclusively that racial profiling will make society safer, does it make sense to eschew it just because the ultraliberal ideology holds that it’s wrong?

These days it takes a Dr. Rieux to say that it doesn’t, and this hypothetical Dr. Rieux will have to confront the plague of modern times – ultraliberalism. Mention the possible benefits of racial profiling, for instance, and get ready to be hauled over the coals. Ultraliberals pursue an “ostrich policy”, choosing to bury their heads in the sand rather than question any items on their ideological checklist or accept anything that might offend their cherished sensibilities. To accomplish this, they might shift the blame or turn things upside down. For example, when confronted with the problem of gun violence in certain neighborhoods, ultraliberals are wont to explain it away by a lack of funding – these violent youths simply need more money thrown at them. It is not their fault that they grow up to become trigger-happy criminals; rather, it’s the corrosive nature of their environment that is responsible. A sensible explanation – but one that should lead us to ask why the nature of their environment is corrosive. Are there certain endogenous factors particular to the black community that give rise to this sort of corrosiveness? After all, the city is not seeing the same problems with, say, its Chinese diaspora. But don’t bother asking these questions – not only will you not get an answer, but you might also be called a racist for good measure. Opposition and dissent are not tolerated; like Camus’s plague, ultraliberalism is peremptory and unyielding. Like the plague, it doesn’t bother with reason; it simply crushes you.

No amount of statistics will convince ultraliberals that they are wrong. In Camus’s opus, the plague first decimates Oran’s rat population before upgrading to the human species. Even so, as an increasing number of the town’s residents succumb to buboes and an eventual death, the medical establishment of Oran, with the exception of a few solitary courageous voices, continues to deny that the city is afflicted with plague. For them, there’s either no problem or the problem has a name that is decidedly not plague. In the meantime, the death toll continues to mount. Likewise, the authorities take a similar approach to the problem of gun violence in Toronto. It’s a complex problem, to be sure, but we will never begin working towards a workable solution until we can at least muster the courage to acknowledge reality as it is and not as some ideologues wish it to be. Alas, like any ideology with a totalitarian bent, ultraliberalism seeks to fashion reality after the dictates of its agenda rather than after the truth. As the city struggles to address the spurt of violence, there’s been a lot of talk about various social initiatives, proposed meetings with “stakeholders”, and even discussions of the possibly cyclical nature of homicides in Toronto – as one social scientist has proceeded to explain, instead of jumping to conclusions, we should be mindful of patterns. Peaks and troughs, that kind of thing, you see. In the meantime, people continue to get shot and killed.

There have been two major “death sprees” in Toronto this year, a city that until recently had been spared this ugly side of modern society. In the first attack, a van drove into a crowd in the north of the city; in the second, a lone shooter opened fire on people enjoying a Sunday night out along a busy strip in the city’s Greek neighborhood. Terrorism does not appear to have been a factor in either attack, but this does not invalidate the argument that the whole notion of “Toronto the Good”, as the city was once called, has been laid to rest. A society in which such attacks are possible is a broken society, but that, too, cannot be admitted.

As I write these very lines, the authorities in Sweden are looking into what looks like a coordinated series of acts involving the destruction of as many as eighty vehicles, which were set on fire last night across Sweden. This has been blamed on “roaming gangs” in the country’s less privileged neighborhoods. Who are these itinerant hoodlums? Local authorities are timid when it comes to this sort of disclosure, but others are less hesitant. An article in The Telegraph, hardly a bastion of the far right, discusses the abscesses that are the Swedish neighborhoods populated by immigrants from the third world( “Shadow societies, mafia courts, and gangland killings and conundrums like how to handle adult refugees who turn up with a child bride in tow” – there it is, the price of multicivilizationalism and an immigration policy gone wrong. But this will not be recognized: Swedish media rarely mention the civilizational component when reporting on local crime, and the Swedish prime minister reacted to the vandalized cars by asking the perpetrators just “what the hell” they were doing. Well, that’s one way to react. I suppose we should be glad that it was property they were setting on fire, and not people. But then the plague is insatiable; it never stops of its own accord unless it’s fought and viciously resisted.

In the novel, as it becomes clear that the plague is here to stay and as Oran undergoes a blockade (the city has been shut off from the outside world to prevent contagion), Camus paints a confused city that is slowly drowning in lassitude. The people of Oran have lost the ability to make choices and value-based judgments (“Autrement dit, ils ne choisissaient plus rien. La peste avait supprimé les jugements de valeur.”), so much that they no longer even bother to take proper care of themselves. They now accept everything wholesale (“On acceptait tout en bloc”). People who accept everything wholesale cannot be free.

Ultraliberal thought has had the same effect on us. We have turned into discombobulated sleepwalkers whose faculties of making choices and adjudicating values have been severely impaired. We no longer seem to be in touch with our destinies; we know neither who we are nor where we are going, eager as we are to submit to a hippie agenda that seeks to negate all differences, erase geographic borders, and do away with all moral precepts, all in order to create a homogenized group of pill-popping consumers without any sense of identity or the wholeness that one gets with a sense of identity. Western civilization – the European man and all the traditions he’s spawned – must fade into oblivion; in its place, everything that is non-European, untraditional, and unconventional must be feted and greeted with open arms, regardless of how silly, misguided, or dangerous it might be. It’s not enough that North America has embraced this global rainbow state; so has Europe, and so must the rest of the world. The plague is going global.

In the end, things work out for the city of Oran, though they certainly don’t work out for all of its denizens. The plague is defeated, and the reader is treated to an orgiastic picture of the celebrations that follow the city’s liberation from the epidemic. Not everyone’s celebrating, however: the long-suffering Dr. Rieux is far more reticent. He knows that the plague never disappears forever; it only retreats. Sooner or later, it rears its ugly head again. Dr. Rieux is wiser than the other inhabitants of Oran, and so he knows that such are the ulcerations that accompany the human condition, and that there’s little to be done about it except for do one’s duty and hope for the best. But “the plague” will never be completely eradicated; it’s in our bloodstream. We are always at risk of getting reinfected, always at risk of getting the plague. The city of Oran is ultimately spared. Will our civilization be spared as well?

Meeting Eddy – a few words about ultraliberalism in literature

By Eugène E.

Why read good literature? For the increasing number of people shunning high-quality prose, the answer is easy enough: they simply don’t read. For others, it depends. The question itself is not of strictly academic interest. There’s no denying that literature is in crisis. Reading serious books has never been a mainstream habit to begin with, but the pace of our society and the variegated forms of entertainment that it offers have truly pushed literature towards obsoleteness. We’re getting to a point, if we’re not there already, where literature will become the preserve of escapists, diehard aesthetes, and the academe. At that point, Philip Roth’s prophecy about readers of literature becoming a sect will have been fulfilled.

Why would anyone read highbrow literature these days? Literature enthusiasts will give you a host of reasons. To varying degrees, all of them will come down to more or less the same thing – the power of literature to illumine the human condition, or something equally lofty. True enough. But why do we need the human condition to be illuminated for us – aside from the need to exercise those faculties that set us apart from the animal world, that is? According to my somewhat sloppy but workable definition, the human condition is the journey an individual undertakes from birth to death. Understanding the difference between good and bad will shape much of that journey; a sense of ethics is therefore indispensable. This is where literature comes to our aid. It not only tells us something about our world; by creating an ethical framework, it gives the reader a certain idea of how one is to live in this world. 

And indeed, such didactics was often a raison d’être of literature, particularly in countries where a strong literary tradition met a strict censorship. Tsarist Russia was a case in point. As the eminent scholar Yuri Lotman describes in one of his works, members of the Russian aristocracy of the early 19th century often relied on literature to inform their own comportment. A gesture that might strike the modern reader as a pose was actually an earnest attempt to imitate the actions of protagonists as described in the novels that were read. Readers applied to literature for ethical guidance, looking up to characters in novels to decide how they were to act (and react) in different situations. For example, the wives of some Decembrists – those who participated in the Decembrist Revolt against Nicholas I – accompanied their husbands to their exile in Siberia. Used to the imperial glitter of Saint Petersburg, these Decembrist wives may well have chosen to travel to hell. But, as Lotman shows, the women were inspired by literary examples. This was what a wife was supposed to do, after all. And so that’s what many wives did. Years later, Lenin was to praise Rakhmetov, a character in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done?, as the ideal revolutionary, an example to all those who wanted to steel themselves for the fight against the oppressors. And, on a personal note, I grew up wanting to emulate one of the three musketeers in Dumas’s novel of that name; leaving its peculiar historicity aside, the novel, along with a number of other books, gave me a sense of what was right and honorable, reaffirming the argument that arming youngsters with the right novels at a young age is generally not a bad idea.

What does today’s literature tell us about right and wrong? What literary heroes can we look up to today? Generalizations are unhelpful, but some trends are evident. One of these trends, possibly the most significant one, is the very ultraliberal effort to present the abnormal as the new normal. The ugly, the dysfunctional, and the pathological are equated with the beautiful, the healthy, and the normal. European civilization (“pale, male and stale”, as it is dismissively referred to by those who don’t know any better) is typically relegated to the latter; everything that is considered to have been oppressed by European civilization, to the former. Ultraliberals in literature need to celebrate what might invite sympathy and understanding, but certainly not admiration.

I recently came across a review of a new book, History of Violence, by the French writer Édouard Louis. This is the apparently autobiographical story of a homosexual Frenchman, Édouard, who is picked up by a Kabyle man in the streets of Paris. The two go to Édouard’s place, where they enjoy sexual congress; however, something goes wrong between the two men (Édouard’s phone goes missing, if memory serves), and Édouard ends up getting threatened and raped by his newly acquired partner. Reading the review, I could hardly believe my eyes: one could not have found a better caricature of modern European society if one had tried. Perhaps the review contained a mistake or, more likely, I may have misunderstood a thing or two. Yet leafing through a copy of the novel during a subsequent visit to a local bookstore, my incredulity was dispelled. The review was accurate, and I had misunderstood nothing.

Are these people, the Édouard Louises of the world, the heroes of today? If so, this helps explain the mess we’re in. What can one say of a society that exults in such literature (the reviews seem to be positive, for the most part)? The idea of a white European male getting violated by another male of North African origin somewhere in Paris is pregnant with symbolism; and the fact that the victim here is male only underscores the unhealthy state of European society. In a different age, European men sailed the world and created empires; today they’re being violated in their own homes. We’ve come a long way since then, as the appearance of this novel so amply demonstrates, though it’s safe to assume the writer had different intentions in mind.

The novel doesn’t show us a hero, for a man who lets himself get raped by another man and then writes a novel about it to fetishize his experience and attendant feelings is no hero. I don’t wish to make light of sexual violence, and that applies to those situations in which the victim is a male. It’s the mode and narrative in which the victim in question chooses to cast his experience that raises some questions. Louis’s novel does not even seem to be a form of protest along the lines of “look at what this son of a bitch did to me”. Au contraire, the reader is urged to embrace the exhibitionist aestheticism of Édouard’s experience. In a passage I seem to recall as I skimmed through the book, Édouard fulminates about the casual racism he sees in the police dealing with his complaint – they dared to identify the rapist as an “Arab male” or something to that effect, therefore highlighting the assailant’s ethnic origin and, in the victim’s view, manifesting xenophobic sentiment. How dare they! Here’s a homosexual who has just been assaulted by another man, and what’s troubling his mind at the moment? The fact that the police are not showing the politically correct attitude that, as the victim feels, is due to his assailant. If this is not perverse, I am not sure what is.

Édouard is no hero; what’s more, he’s not even an anti-hero. He belongs to a different category altogether. He’s a pathetic creature, a man of very small stature; and this smallness is a symptom of decay, a symbol of decadence. Certainly the small, pathetic man is nothing new in the history of European literature. There was Rousseau revealing (and, some might say, reveling in) his doubting, insecure self in the Confessions. There was Gogol’s hapless clerk in “The Overcoat”. There was the pathological aesthete in À Rebours, Huysman’s mono-character novel. There was Chekhov and his “little man”, a staple of many a short story. The list is rather long. But a wide chasm separates these writers from Édouard Louis and his confreres. The literary titans of yesteryear had to work with a set of standards; they were bound by a sense of decorum. They were generally not obscene; and when they chose to be obscene, they were still much more than just that. Rousseau was practically one of the founding fathers of a new literary genre. Gogol satirized the rigid hierarchy of tsarist Russia. Huysman’s À Rebours, an exercise in indulgence in itself, can be interpreted as a satire of decadence; at any rate, it is hardly a novel to help mold one’s ethical sensibilities. Finally, Chekhov, when he wasn’t brilliantly comical, depicted the harshness of his society as a call to reform. All of these writers were compelled to deal with a moral straitjacket imposed by society, whether they wanted to be swaddled in it or not. That straitjacket spawned inhibitions, but it also reinforced a sense of propriety. I cannot imagine any of these writers going through the kind of experience depicted by Édouard Louis, let alone making literature out of it.

Writers such as Édouard Louis don’t invent anything new. Nor do they satirize the old. They can’t do satire, for satire requires levity. Levity is impossible here. That’s just the problem. These writers must be taken seriously, on their own terms; and the layout of an anything-goes society encourages them to pace the hallways of contemporary literature like strutting peacocks. These writers are moved to present a canvas populated by grotesque characters that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bosch painting, and they invite their audiences to participate in this bacchanalian orgy, in this rebellion against decency, in this revolt against aesthetics. They avidly capture and portray the carnival of freakishness that is modern society, which they then celebrate, demanding that this world be embraced by the rest of us. Those courageous (or foolish) enough to point out that the direction in which we’re beckoned is little more than a cul-de-sac are branded as fascists, reactionaries, and enemies of freedom.

History of Violence is Louis’s second novel. His debut one was En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule; the translated English title is The End of Eddy, which gets us rather close to It’s Me, Eddie, a famous (and, by all accounts, strongly autobiographical) novel by Eduard Limonov, Russia’s enfant terrible. The exhibitionistically inclined Limonov is no prude, and his famous work contains scenes that depict casual sex, among other things; but, as far as I know, even Limonov’s Eddie does not seem to have been subjected to anything carnal against his will, though his sexual exploration, in all the wrong places, brought him rather close. But then some four decades have passed since the publication of It’s Me, Eddie, and Édouard Louis’s Eddy attests to the kind of progress that has been made. Bearing in mind that literature is something of a mirror held up to society to admire itself, History of Violence is very much a novel for our epoch, an epoch that makes it possible for women to get sexually assaulted en masse by men of non-European origin in European cities, as was the case in Cologne during New Year’s Eve celebrations a few years ago, without much vigorous protest on the part of those who have welcomed these elements and allowed them to make themselves at home in their midst on European soil.

Where do we go from here? No one knows for sure. As a patient’s card describing a schizophrenic patient in a Fitzgerald novel says, “the prognosis must be reserved”. If works such as History of Violence are any guide, though, the prognosis that is being reserved here is not especially reassuring.

The rainbow funk

By Eugène E.

I am currently involved with a local company, a mid-sized Canadian-based business with a pronounced ultraliberal bias. In the spirit of the season last month, the company put together an event program to celebrate those who, in matters of love and sex, default to their own gender. Bankrolled by the enthusiasm and organizational talents of the HR department, the company’s internal communication system was agog with rainbow-friendly emojis and messages; there were thematically appropriate contests and “Pride breakfasts”; and “reply-all” e-mails discussed sensitive ways to join LGBTQ marches downtown that wouldn’t steal the spotlight from those who felt most marginalized. Finally, in what was supposed to be the culmination of the celebrations, an email from the HR department peremptorily announced that a group photo would be taken with all the company’s employees. To that end, each team at the company had been assigned one of the rainbow colors; the employees were requested to wear clothes whose color matched the assigned color of the team on the designated day.

One Christian employee sent a message to the HR department to explain that, as the initiative went against his values, he’d be unable to participate in the photo. He promptly received a reply from the most senior person in the HR department. It was explained him that participation in all such initiatives at the company was never mandatory and that he was free to do as he wished; he was simply requested not to do or say anything that could make others uncomfortable. In a bid to play up the company’s dedication to diversity, the HR executive also noted that the great thing about the company was that it counted voices from the far right as well as the far left on its payroll.

I’ve been made privy to the entire correspondence between the parties involved. The following observations can be made.

1. Although participation was indeed optional (the employees were not forced to pose for the group photo, made on the roof of the office building housing the company’s HQ, and indeed not everyone did), the original e-mail was a clearly formulated request. It’s what the corporate world, with its habitual disregard for linguistic elegance, refers to as an “ask”. There was nothing in the e-mail to suggest that this was merely an invitation issued to those employees who were enamoured with all things rainbow, and there were no disclaimers that made it clear that employees were free to opt out of the group photo. My own personal interaction with at least one employee of the company, who fretted that he did not own a single article of clothing in the color assigned to his team, only confirmed that the message did not make it altogether clear that participation in the group photo was strictly optional. I do not believe that there was any malicious intent behind it; the company’s bien pensants had simply assumed that all employees were ideologically on board. The inappropriateness of such an assumption is staggering.

2. The employee who informed the HR department of his unwillingness to participate was sticking his neck out. It is to the company’s credit that freedom of opinion and belief was upheld, and that the HR department clarified that those with alternative viewpoints were free not to go along with those initiatives than ran contrary to their views. However, the “refusenik” is the odd man out in this situation. In a certain way, he’s a marked man. There’s no way of knowing how many doors might have been permanently closed to him at the company, but it’s probably safe to say that a number of doors have been closed. Whatever the HR department might say, the fact of the matter is that the rainbow crowd at the company is celebrated, while the employee opting out is merely tolerated. “Pride” is normal; everything that finds itself in opposition to it is not.

3. The sentence concluding my second observation is no exaggeration. The employee who did not own any garments in the rainbow color assigned to his team was concerned that he would not be able to be the photo, which would in turn single him out as a possible homophobe. In other words, lack of participation – whatever the reason – can now be interpreted as a hostile statement. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is totalitarian thinking. By alluding to the far-right-far-left divide, the HR executive responding to the dissenting employee unwittingly confirmed that the employee was out there on the fringes. It is all good and well for democracy that the company brings together people from the remotest corners of the political spectrum, but there’s something unsettling in the meaning implicit in this declaration. Since when is refusal to take part in the Pride carnival a mark of the far right? (Equally, does this suggest that being gay automatically relegates one to the far left?) This is it, then: the dogmatic intolerance of those who proclaim to be tolerant.

4. The dissenting employee was asked not to do or say anything that would make those participating in the Pride festivities feel uncomfortable. Aside from the superfluous nature of the request (the individual had been a long-term employee at the company and had never made anyone feel uncomfortable), this also raises the question of double standards. If the employee, being a Christian, were to flood the company’s internal communication channels with images or pictures of crosses, as was done by the company’s LGBT-oriented staff (only with rainbows), he’d most likely be asked to cease and desist: it is unlikely that some militant atheist at the company would welcome regular bombardments loaded with religious symbols. To the extent that demonstrations of religious affiliation are unacceptable in a work environment in a secular country such as Canada, such objections would be quite understandable. Yet why does a Christian employee living in a country where Christians are still the most numerous religious group, if only nominally, have to be exposed to symbols that extol the virtues of a lifestyle that goes against his Christian beliefs, and in an aggressive manner at that?

5. The group photo that was eventually taken (actually, it was a veritable photo shoot) is a good exhibit of the “totalitarianism and crowds” theme. The employee worried about being sartorially deficient had received a green light from the HR department to wear clothes that were of a color assigned to a different team. As he gleefully told me later, not entirely kidding, that worked out quite well, since the other color was the one worn by the company’s beaming CEO, who occupied a central place in the photo. As for homosexuals, he thinks “they are okay”. They sure are – and if it gets him closer to the C-suite in corporate group photos, they’re even better. Also in the photo was a young woman I once overheard talking disparagingly about a gay coworker, whom she referred to as a “fag”. Standing in the front row in the photos, she was all smiles. As I looked at the employees trying to construct a human rainbow, it occurred to me that had they been living in the 1930s in Nazi Germany, they would have been smiling just as eagerly as they posed with swastika banners. In the former Soviet Union, they would have marched in a sea of red and wept at the death of Stalin. In China, they would have rallied behind Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Not because they would have been convinced Nazis or communists, but because that is what people do: they try to fit in. They may do so out of a desire to belong, out of fear of not belonging, or perhaps because fitting in pays – the exact reason is not all that important and certainly not at all important in comparison to the triumph of ideology over individuals that the photo only reaffirms.

In the remarkably topical essay “There is Simply Too Much to Think About”, written in the early 1990s, Saul Bellow had this to say about the idéologie du jour:

“Perhaps the personal core, or what we are by nature, is becoming aware that what lies behind this drive to revise us is tyranny, that consciousness raising and sensitivity training are meant to force us to be born again without color, without race, sexually neutered, politically purified and with minds shaped and programmed to reject ‘the bad’ and affirm ‘the good’. Will the real human being become persona non grata? No wonder so many of us are in a blue funk.”

In light of the extraordinary ascent of ultraliberalism today, the message has turned out to be strikingly prescient. Only the funk is no longer all that blue; it’s composed of many colors – the colors of the rainbow. A rainbow funk, if you will. Other than that, Bellow’s message is as valid today as it was when he delivered it.

The closing of the Western mind

By Eugène E.

I found myself lamenting the passing of two literary institutions during the same week in late May. The first was Philip Roth, arguably the last representative of that great cohort of American writers steeped in the European literary tradition and untainted by the culture of political correctness, a man whose literary accomplishments made him an institution all unto himself. The writer was eighty-five.

The other was the closure of Eliot’s Bookshop, one of Toronto’s most iconic and old-fashioned bookstores, complete with dusty shelves, creaking floors, and a smorgasbord of books you would have been hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The bookstore was twenty-two, and its owner had been in business for some forty years. The store had actually closed in December of 2017 but, having been a rather sporadic visitor to that particular bookshop, I did not find that out until a few days after Roth’s passing, when I happened to be in the area and decided to drop by to stock up, only to be greeted by the view in the photo used for this article.

For me, then, the disappearance of Eliot’s Bookshop is closely bound up with the death of Philip Roth. Though these are disparate events, there’s some symbolism here. There’s no doubt that the literary world is in crisis, and that people read a lot less of the kinds of things they ought to be reading in order to be able to ask the right questions and in order to question those opinions that are being imposed on them right, left, and centre.

A few months ago, I had an enriching conversation with an East European writer concerning the general drop in academic standards and the loss of interest in reading as juxtaposed against the rise of ultraliberalism and its incessant propaganda. There was some disagreement about whether this dumbing down is a sinister project carried out by a cabal, or whether, as Tolstoy thought, there are overriding laws at work that govern history and human affairs, and that have remained beyond the realm of human discovery. The question was not settled, but we were at one with each other on the main conclusion: enlightenment is in retreat, and we’re witnessing the closing of the Western mind.

It has always been trendy in some circles to glorify the past at the expense of the present. Did our conclusion amount to much the same thing? Were we two revenants stumbling about the shores of modernity, bemoaning a lost paradise that has probably never even existed? Perhaps. But there’s no question that the leitmotif of our times – whether in the domain of politics, culture, fashion, and even our daily habits – is that of vulgar oversimplification. We use language that is crudely simple; we dress according to the mantra “less is more”; we use the latest technology to cater to our most primitive desires. We expect our leaders to be our spitting images; and increasingly, looking at the present crop of those in power, it appears that the stewards of statehood are more than happy to oblige.

How is this happening? And why?

Let’s start with the “how”. Conscious of the risk of engaging in oversimplification in an article that criticizes oversimplification, I’ll say it anyway: technology is the great enabler. It’s amusing to hear otherwise intelligent people contemplate the possible risk of the domination of artificial intelligence, as if prospects of such a domination were just that – prospects. To an extent, it is already happening. As a tool to help us maximize our potential, technology is supposed to work for humanity; instead, humanity appears to be working for technology. Get together with a group of friends for lunch, and it won’t be long before someone, with a well-rehearsed motion, whips out his smartphone to settle a debate, check his e-mail, or text a girlfriend about a get-together later on that night. In fact, one often gets the feeling that modern existence is not so much about experiencing things as it is about anticipating or reporting experiences. The immediacy of life – that cogent sense of the present that gives our existence its texture – is attenuated in favour of its virtuality. We’d rather text back and forth to let others know what a great time we’re having than put the iPhone down and actually enjoy the moment. It is saying something when companies such as Apple roll out tools to help users limit the amount of time they spend with their gadgets in a quest to fight phone addiction – the drug cartels promoting moderate use of narcotics. Good luck with that.

Our lives are being shunted from reality to virtuality, from real life to the virtual one. Twitter epitomizes this shift. In the past, journalists would typically interview eyewitnesses or “people familiar with the matter” when reporting on events. For some time now, they’ve been relying on tweets. The media canvass the Twittersphere in order to echo the vox populi. We’ll have to set aside the question of possible manipulation – suffice it to say, the question is legitimate, given that this sort of tweet harvesting can be quite arbitrary (i.e., how do the people posting news articles choose which tweets they want to cull?). More to the point, an observation can be made that life is now viewed, channeled, and beamed through a place like Twitter. What ought to have been a great platform for updates and announcements has become a measure of our existence, a watermark of modern life.

Following the death of Anthony Bourdain earlier this month, the BBC inserted a number of eulogistic tweets into the article that reported his passing. Among them were deeply lachrymose tweets from, to mention but two, Nigella Lawson and Rose McGowan. Now far be it from me to cast aspersions on anyone’s grief: there’s no darker experience than mourning the loss of a loved one, and this is not something to be trifled with. Mourning, however, is also an intensely personal experience, which makes it less than ideal for social media. When you grieve for someone, you typically don’t talk about it, much less exhibit it for the benefit of the entire planet; the depth of your personal experience is inversely correlated to the effort you make to project it externally.

The doyennes of Twitter have other ideas. Rose McGowan, for instance, sobbed directly into the camera, imploring those who want to commit suicide to seek help. Let’s think this through. She had to turn her camera on, make sure she had everything right, and then upload the recording – all of it through a vale of tears. Was there no more dignified way to send her message across? Did the whole world need to see Rose McGowan’s crocodile tears? Apparently, it did: if the world doesn’t know that you’re grieving, then you’re not really grieving. That is to say, if it’s not virtual, it’s not real. Reality is now contingent on being virtual.

Nigella Lawson’s tweet was less emotionally charged, but she too had a bombastic statement to make: noting that she was heartbroken, Lawson told her followers she was “going off twitter for a while”. Now there is something sensational! In case you’re wondering, “a while” translated into two days. Three days later, Lawson was already posting photos of a culinary delight. Perhaps one ought not to be to harsh. In Twitter terms, three days is an eternity. On social media, the deepest feelings are but fleeting, like the fading contrails left behind by an airplane. That might appeal to some people, and that’s fine. Just don’t expect much in the way of profundity or sincerity; shallowness and inauthenticity are what you get when you choose not life, but only its simulacrum.

Social media is the new battleground – with Twitter as the site of its Austerlitzes and Solferinos, it seems, only on a rather pathetic level. A university in a Canadian province congratulates a centre-right party on winning a provincial election (on Twitter), and there is an uproar (also on Twitter) by dyspeptic ultraliberal militants allergic to anyone or anything an inch to the right of Justin Trudeau. A US television personality engages in “ambien tweeting” (obviously on Twitter), and the pharmaceutical company behind the drug posts a witty riposte (on Twitter as well). The CEO of Twitter itself – the irony of all ironies – has a meal at a fast food chain that has been blacklisted by ultralibs, and there is a backlash – on Twitter, naturally. The modern man takes to Twitter to fight his wars and mete out justice. Social media platforms are becoming the global equivalent of a town square where crowds gather to pillory those who have offended the town folk. While everyone across the political spectrum is making good use of the opportunities provided by online prosecution and shaming, the ultraliberal movement has proved to be especially adept at setting up its inquisition to try those who have run afoul of the ultraliberal dogma.

To be fair, this is certainly an improvement on hurtling grenades at your opponents. But there’s a very real risk that this is leading to gross infantilism and the trivialization of debate. At a time when the world is getting ever more complex, trivialization may not be what’s needed. Trivialization promotes the unimportant and scales down the important. Nothing sticks, nothing holds, nothing lingers. A “tweetnado” rips through and does some virtual damage; then the world swiftly moves on to be awed by the next tweetnado. The landscape of today: tweetsters and tweetnadoes.

Naturally, in this kind of environment, it’s all too easy to obfuscate truth and manipulate facts. In the days leading up to the provincial election in the Canadian province of Ontario on June 7th, an article in The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s nationwide newspapers, suggested that Doug Ford, leader of Ontario’s Conservatives and one of the contenders, had vowed to make Ontario great again. Now, in the ultraliberal Canada of today – and given the current temperature – there’s no better way to undercut a politician than to make him look like a budding Donald Trump, so overlaying the image of a Canadian politician with that of Trump is effective character assassination (although, in the event, it did nothing to stymie the landslide victory of Doug Ford). Subsequent fact-checking performed by me, however, failed to reveal any statements made by Ford to that effect. I did find out that some of Ford’s followers had reportedly urged him to adopt the “great again” as a slogan and that a Ford supporter had shown up somewhere wearing a hat something or other with these words; but let’s admit that this still doesn’t come near the allegation that Ford himself had promised to make Ontario great again. Fake news? I wouldn’t want to further undermine the already beleaguered fourth estate, but a journalist writing for The Globe and Mail truly should have known better.

The most disturbing aspect of the proliferation of social media is the impoverishment of language. The use of text messages forces the user to submit to a mode of communication that, by definition, depends on packing as much information as possible into a very small space. It might make communication more efficient, but it also restricts language. Using text messages does not encourage eloquence or loquaciousness. The user is confined to the dictates of his gadget – the tyranny of the screen. For ease of use, the auto editor also suggests words as the user composes a message; the gadget tells the user what it thinks the user’s thinking. The use of language is driven by the gadget and not by the user. The tool dominates the user, and not vice versa.

In the appendix at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes how Big Brother obliterates language in order to maintain its oppression of society. The atrophy of language makes society more pliable: if the word “freedom” does not exist in your vocabulary, you won’t be able to conceive of such a term and, therefore, demand it. We’re going through an impoverishment of language of our own, rendering our communication primitive and subjecting many words to linguistic deflation (repeat the term “democracy” or “fascism” enough times, and they will lose their original meaning so as to eventually become meaningless); and while it may be far from the extremes of Orwell’s Newspeak, the sinister thing is that, as it turns out, we don’t need Big Brother to coerce us into destroying language; we’re more than happy to do the job ourselves by choosing to use technology in a way that dumbs us down, stifles all thought, and, in the case of the West, contributes to what can be called – to steal a good title from the philosopher Allan Bloom and expand on it – the closing of the Western mind.

The big question is whether this dumbing down of society is a function of natural (i.e., non-manmade) evolution, or whether there are puppeteers pulling the strings in the background. I am no enthusiast of conspiracy theories and am chary of looking for éminences grises operating in the shadows. Yet the process of the closing of the Western mind is clearly benefiting someone. Who? The gnomes of Davos, naturally – the people who get together for the annual winter confab in Davos (with the understanding that not everyone who goes to Davos is a gnome of Davos and that many a gnome of Davos need not go to Davos at all – this is more of a symbol than anything else). The gnomes of Davos – those who preach diversity, but in fact aim at uniformity; those who profess to celebrate humanity, but reduce the human being to a mindless consumer; those who promise lifestyle enrichment, but in fact deliver a destructive hedonism. The gnomes of Davos want us to believe that the apogee of the Enlightenment is a group of freaks eager to dangle their private parts in front of spectators and brandish their pathology in full view of the world – that for them is the crowning achievement of freedom and liberty. They might well believe that this really is freedom, or perhaps they know that we’re being conned – it doesn’t really matter. As long as the subjects spend money, nothing else matters. That is the new hegemony – the hegemony of the ultraliberal, the hegemony of the mediocre, the hegemony of the average. The hegemony of the gnomes of Davos.

We’ve now come to the why of it: why is the closing of the Western mind happening? By now the answer should be clear. The latter-day hegemons are not particularly interested in promoting reading as an activity – certainly not reading books. Reading books helps escape all the noise. Reading books insulates us against crowd thinking and propaganda. Reading books encourages us to think. Reading books is conducive to reflection. Reading books hones our ability to ask questions. Reading books is a private activity; the gnomes of Davos want to do away with privacy, unless it’s their privacy. Reading books is not good for hegemonies, since these might be questioned. Reading books broadens language and its boundaries, enhances our potential, and ultimately promotes freedom. It should not astonish us, therefore, that at a time when ultraliberal doctrinaires seek to curtail our freedoms in the name of imposing their own notions of liberty, serious reading is in retreat. Reading might lead us to ask whether there’s more to life than rank consumerism, and whether we shouldn’t allow for the possibility that ultraliberals, with their championing of gay rights, feminism, and multicivilizationalism, might be totally wrong. A closed mind is not very likely to ask these questions, and so a closed mind is preferred to an open one. And is there anything as conducive to the closing of one’s mind as a poor reading diet?

Approaching the spot of the now defunct Eliot’s Bookshop from the south, one can now see dense clusters of newly built high-rise condo towers soaring in the background, gleaming in the summer sun. A result of Toronto’s overheated real estate market – which was cited as one of the reasons for the closure of the bookshop, whose owner was ostensibly unable to keep up with rising property taxes – the new buildings tower over the tumult below like multiple towers of Babel, decoupled from the hubbub of the streets and perhaps from reality as such. Taking stock of the shuttered facade of Eliot’s Bookshop and of the freshly minted high-rises beyond is to gaze at a poignant symbol of what our society has chosen as its guiding values.

The draft – an idea whose time has come (back)?

By Eugène E.

A hard-nosed individualist in my salad days, I was a sworn enemy of conscription as I cruised through that time of my life when conscription is usually relevant. The idea that young men were liable to be called up and separated from their normal lives for the sake of an abstract notion that seemed to have largely outlived its usefulness, irrespective of whether they wanted it or not, seemed to be an affront to my adolescent ideals of liberty and freedom. Fast-forward x number of years, and anyone lucky enough (or not) to run into me will find that, though I am still very much the hard-nosed individualist of yore, my take on the draft has evolved considerably.

There was a time when the draft was a coming-of-age ritual for males. While conscription in some form still exists in a number of European countries, it has been phased out in the major European states (the UK, France, and Germany). Further afield, there is no conscription in Canada, Australia, or the US outside of national crises or emergencies. While a number of reasons are typically put forth to explain the disappearance of conscription, there’s one that rarely gets much coverage: the advance of ultraliberalism.

The ascent of the ultraliberal movement and its domination of the national agenda occurred just as the relevance traditionally imputed to conscription began to melt. The army represents hierarchy, authority, and convention – all those things that ultraliberalism abhors and has tried to dismantle since the 1960s, when the hippie movement and the soixante-huitards took to the streets to tear apart everything that their ancestors had so assiduously built. The army also represents something else: manhood. The army is mostly a male thing. Male things are strongly discouraged by ultraliberals, who believe that anything oriented towards men smacks of patriarchy, misogyny, racism, colonialism, homophobia, and other such things.

Male things also reinforce a binary view of genders – namely, that there are men and women, and that the former differ from the latter. This view does not accord well with the views of ultraliberals, who believe that ideology trumps reality (in other words, that what one believes himself to be takes precedence over what one is). Ultraliberals cannot accept a reality that imposes constraints or limits. Hence the rising popularity of experiments conducted to reengineer gender notions and constructs, and, in the process, human beings themselves. There’s the Canadian couple that decided to bring up a child without any determinable gender. There are the projects in Swedish schools that try to make boys act like girls (by putting them in charge of the play kitchen), girls like boys (by encouraging them to shout “no”), or exit the entire gender-based model in general (by referring to children as “friends” instead of “boys and girls”). And then, to make sure that culture and the media back up and reinforce these adventures in absurdness, there’s the new movie exploring parenting in the age of non-binary children, appropriately directed by an individual said to have been active on the LGBTQ scene.

The purpose of all this is to challenge and master nature, render people oblivious to their own genders, and deemphasize manhood. It can’t be otherwise. It should also be obvious that this sort of ethos is incompatible with any traditional hierarchy. Moreover, the army represents a vertical power structure, while ultraliberals aim for horizontal power structures (though ironically, they have succeeded, wittingly or unwittingly, to create a vertical power structure of a different kind – one built on global capital and the extremes that it engenders). Consequently, the army needs to be rooted out. It has no place in the age of ultraliberalism.

Until recently, ultraliberals were on the right side of history. When the former Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War and ushering in a new age that, for some, signified the “end of history”, it made even less sense to maintain conscription. The West proceeded to skate across the thin ice of the Lake of Complacency.

Now that the age of naivety is over, we might want to revisit this question. Rising Islamism and other geopolitical developments have reminded us that history is alive and well. Ultraliberals have not acknowledged that reality, since it implies that the ultraliberal doctrine has flaws and is therefore in need of adjustments; but those who do not feel compelled to be beholden to the prevailing ideological dogma and who value intellectual honesty might be more receptive to the idea that our ancestors were not as stupid as ultraliberals would have us believe.

A heartbreaking incident took place last month at a Hungarian zoo. A young boy reached through a fence to touch a pregnant meerkat, got bitten by it, and shook the animal so hard he ended up killing it. The director of the zoo then posted a heartfelt message that, aside from lamenting the death of the meerkat, lambasted the lack of respect that he sees displayed by the young people of today.

The zoo director is right, of course. Discipline is one of the most valuable lessons that can be imparted to a youth, and it is one that is no longer inculcated in young people today. In simple terms, discipline is recognition of authority, awareness of constraints, and comprehension of the word “no”. None of this is clear to those who have been steeped in the belief that squashing hierarchies is creative, that the only acceptable religion is one that believes in zero authority, and that all heavenly bodies move only to prop up the brilliant destiny of the up-and-coming generation dazzling our planet. This produces adolescents who believe their parents are their “friends” and behave accordingly; who think nothing of having their feet sprawl over seats on public transit or of swearing at their teachers; and who stick their hands through fences at zoos even when they are explicitly told not to. They have a rather vague notion of their responsibilities, but they are remarkably well versed in all matters concerning their rights. In a word, we end up with ill-bred, narcissistic ogres.

The problem is only exacerbated by the growing attachment of the young to the online world, which comes at the expense of the real world as well as the social awareness and norms that the real world imposes; by the fact that contemporary role models tend to be vapid, vulgar popular culture icons with an online platform and tools to connect directly to their audiences; and by the inability of some of the Western countries, typically those with younger histories, to offer viable identities or solid cultural narratives around which their citizens can rally.

As Ortega y Gasset wrote, for a society to qualify as civilized, its members need to be prepared to submit to a higher authority on a number of questions (e.g., on matters concerning culture). To the extent that its members do not recognize higher authorities or the need to submit to them, that particular society is not civilized. It would be remiss of us not to ask how civilized modern youth happens to be, exactly.

No less urgent is the question of whether today’s youngsters are prepared to defend their values and their land. While some might think it is overly dramatic to claim that there is a risk of civil conflict on European soil, it would be imprudent to make no allowances for such a possibility. If the worst-case scenario is taken, will today’s youngsters be prepared to don a uniform and defend the future of Europe, physically or mentally? Can we count on men who as boys were encouraged to wear dresses in elementary school, as they are today in some schools in Sweden, to rise up to the challenge?

In War and Peace, Tolstoy shows that the strongest army is an army that is made up of soldiers who fight for something that they believe in. Can a young man who was brought up to question his own anatomy seriously believe in anything, let alone fight for it?

People live longer today, and so youths mature intellectually at a more advanced age than previously. Today’s youths are still working towards their high school diplomas at an age when some historical figures were already commanding troops. I am appalled at the academic prowess of those who graduate from high school today (and are accepted by universities!), if prowess is the right word. They also tend to be more aimless than past generations. Society is doing these youngsters a major disservice. Instead of having young men sit in classrooms, why not have them spend the last year of high school serving in the army? They will learn invaluable practical skills, get imbued with a strong spirit of camaraderie, obtain a sense of national belonging and identity, and acquire direction along with a sense of discipline.

This need not be seen as a proposal to (re)introduce conscription immediately and without further ado. But the need for this kind of dialogue is present and becoming more urgent. As with many important issues, it is best to have it when the temperature of the times is reasonable. It would be unfortunate if we were pushed into this dialogue by circumstances. Perhaps now is the time to preempt them.

Reams of Riemen – an ultraliberal’s cri de coeur

By Eugène E.

A Swiss acquaintance of mine once complained to me that he found the Dutch to be, among other things, superficial and haughty. I took the observation no more seriously then than I do today: though very intelligent, the gentleman had a weakness for sweeping generalizations and airtight maxims. Yet reading To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, written by the Dutch intellectual Rob Riemen, I had the mischievous thought that perhaps my Swiss acquaintance only had a certain type of Dutch intellectual in mind. If he in fact did, he couldn’t find a better example to buttress his case than this lightweight pamphlet of a book. Praised by such heavy guns as Amos Oz and Simon Schama on the back of the dust jacket, showered with accolades by reviewers, and invariably presented as “cogent” and “urgent”, this work comes pregnant with ambition. As it is, anyone expecting to soar to intellectual heights will find this intellectual journey quickly brought to a halt – the reader is more likely to run aground in some seriously shallow waters. If this is the best the Dutch intelligentsia can offer at the moment, the Netherlands is in trouble.

To Fight Against This Age contains two essays, one of which has strictly academic pretensions (“The Eternal Return of Fascism”), while the other (“The Return of Europa”), blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, is part allegory and part sermon, with shades of techno-skepticism à la John Gray’s Heresies. It is telling when a work on fascism, especially one that runs to more than 200 pages, fails to explain what, exactly, fascism is. One would assume that any discussion of a political concept would include a definition of the term discussed, if only to gauge the author’s definition against that of the reader’s, but presumably Riemen expects his readers to come to school prepared.

Failing to define fascism does not deter Riemen from using the term liberally to label those politicians whose politics he cannot accept – a most ultraliberal reflex. When you want to defeat a political opponent, there’s nothing like an ad hominem attack to besmirch his reputation. You’re against gay marriage? Well, then you’re a homophobe – and one does not debate things with homophobes. Rather flippantly, Riemen calls Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom, which opposes mass immigration into Holland (especially when it originates in the Islamic world), “prototypes of modern fascism”, which says little about either Wilders or his party, but a fair bit about Riemen’s own bias. Donald Trump would be called the same but, rather curiously, POTUS is not mentioned in the book by name, as if Riemen were afraid of evoking some dark force by dint of writing out the last name of the current US president.

Riemen professes to be sensitive to language and terminology, and accuses modern society of failing to call the reawakening of fascism in the West by its proper name, writing: “One variant of the phenomenon of denial is the idea that changing words will change facts”. Yet his own choice of terminology reveals a starkly cavalier attitude to the meaning of words. To call Wilders a prototype of modern fascism is to show a poor understanding of the concept of fascism. As Finchelstein explains in From Fascism to Populism in History, a far more nuanced study of the topic, fascism is carelessly – and mistakenly – conflated with populism. While populism appeared after World War II as a reformulation of fascism in a world where fascism had been discredited, it evolved and changed, pursuing its own destiny. Fascism is a political ideology that utilizes violence as an end and not as a means; where it succeeds, it obliterates democracy. Populism, on the other hand, does not uphold the primacy of violence and often manifests itself without resorting to it; if it comes to power, it can undermine democratic institutions, but does not destroy them completely. Can populism mutate into fascism? Absolutely. Equally, it might not, and Finchelstein provides multiple examples to back it up.

But Riemen does not appear to be interested in this level of detail. He does not explain what constitutes fascism, be it traditional fascism or its modern variant. A humanist intellectual in the European tradition, as he perceives himself, Riemen is more interested in identifying political enemies than in analyzing what they believe in and why. He belongs to the ultraliberal camp, which subscribes to the kind of ultraliberal openness that endorses mass immigration from other civilizations, irrespective of whether or not such immigration contributes to social cohesion. Wilders does not, and so Wilders is a prototype of modern fascism. It does not occur to Riemen that those who care about their civilizational identity and want to preserve it might be practicing a kind of humanism as well – no, if you do not think that allowing Muslim immigrants to enter a European country en masse is a good idea, you’re a fascist and need to be outed as such. Riemen condemns the spectre of fascism that he sees lurking about, oblivious to the fact that intellectuals of his ilk are partially responsible for its appearance: when they subject political opponents to ostracism, as they have been doing for years, they destroy the middle ground that lies between their views and those of the extremists’, making the land of classical liberals (or reactive liberals, as I prefer to call them) uninhabitable. By maligning those who question ultraliberal tenets, however reasonably, the bien-pensants and ultraliberals push moderate voices out of the arena and leave a vacuum that eventually becomes filled by the dreaded radical right.

The scale of Riemen’s partisanship can be seen in the beliefs he chooses to arrogate to the European humanist properly steeped in Judeo-Christian values. “The follower of one or all of these beliefs,” Riemen writes, “will adhere to the idea of the European spirit and will advance a political unification of Europe”. I suppose that anyone who belongs to European civilization will subscribe to the European spirit, although people seem to have held very different ideas of what this European spirit may be throughout history. But, while I strongly advocate the idea of a European Union (note the indefinite article), it is unclear to me why people who oppose the political integration of European countries should necessarily be barred from Riemen’s ashram of Judeo-Christian humanism. Has the acceptance of diverging political views gone out of fashion in the ultraliberal world?

Riemen’s humanist believes that “our true identity is determined not by nationality, origin, language, belief, income, race, or any way in which people differ from one another, but precisely by what unites us and makes the unity of mankind possible: universal spiritual values that shape human dignity and that every man can adopt”. This is precisely the kind of treacly verbiage deployed by ultraliberals that promises the Western world the best intentions and delivers the worst results: the destruction of a people’s traditions, sense of identity and belonging; the consequent shrinking of its population and reverse colonization by other civilizations; national enfeeblement and rootlessness; terrorist atrocities on a monthly or even weekly basis. It is the kind of message that sounds very good on paper, but leads to horror in real life.

Riemen talks about the necessity of using culture to inoculate society against fascism, but he equates culture with his own ultraliberal doctrine. The kind of universalism that Riemen advances actually dilutes culture. One of the great paradoxes of our society with its embrace of unfettered tolerance of all and everything is that it actually leads to less diversity. In the past, differences were emphasized. This often made the world a cruel place, sometimes abjectly so. It also made it more diverse. Today, when differences between genders and races are denied in the name of an artificial construct authored by political correctness, when biology and anatomy are suppressed in favour of ideology, when “diversity” is nothing but a carnivalesque term that, while claiming to celebrate the multitude of all sorts of different groups, actually subsumes them under a single soulless category known as “the consumer” – in this world where all differences are negated in the name of Riemen’s universalism, diversity is becoming a relic of the past. Ultraliberalism and globalization, after all, live in the same household.

According to Riemen, our identity is not determined by language, or origin, or any such thing. By what, then? What are these “universal spiritual values” that unite a Dutchman like Riemen and a tribesman from Papua New Guinea, since we now know that it’s not language, origin, or nationality? Riemen will be sure to find a universalist commonality, which will be absurd; but the mission of ultraliberalism, as I have repeatedly written, is to convince society that the absurd actually makes perfect sense and should be part of your reality.

Riemen writes: “The essence of Europe is therefore never politics, nor economics, nor technology, no, it’s culture. Nothing else.” That is true, but it’s hard to understand how European culture can be promoted with mass migration from civilizations that culturally have nothing to do with Europe. If Germany is going through a spiritual crisis, is welcoming more than a million migrants from the Middle East really the best way to tackle it? Riemen does not tell us. For him there are no problems with Islam in Europe. He asks: “Within the European Islamic community, is there a serious political movement that attempts to ‘Islamize’ Europe?”. And, sure enough, he has the answer: “No.” Really? Can a man be so oblivious to reality? The reader is made to understand that in Riemen’s Europe, mosques are not becoming more numerous. In Riemen’s Europe, Islamic garbs are not becoming more prominent in the streets of European cities. In Riemen’s Europe, there are no sharia police patrols such as the one that has been seen in Wuppertal. In Riemen’s Europe, national Muslim associations do not ask that unused churches be turned into mosques, as has been done in France. In Riemen’s Europe, there are no banlieues or Molenbeeks. In Riemen’s Europe, terrorist attacks committed by Islamist terrorists have no connection to the religion that seems to inspire them.

Talk about the Ostrich Syndrome.

If the first essay of the book is concerned with diagnostics, the second busies itself with the treatment. It’s the weaker of the two essays in this weakling of a book, which suffers from an overabundance of citations that seem to prop things up wherever Riemen’s own thoughts fail him, and from a profusion of all the right names (Thomas Mann, Kafka, Proust) that attempt to carve out a niche in the pantheon for Riemen’s own contribution to European thought. The solutions that Riemen has in mind are introduced by an ageing Mitteleuropean intellectual who may or may not be a figment of Riemen’s own imagination. He probably is a figment, since Riemen has the Prague native repeat a scene from Kafka’s Trial that Riemen mentions earlier himself, and since it takes a special kind of literary talent to turn a real-life intellectual into a caricature. For example, Riemen endows the man with an old-fashioned accent that is probably supposed to evoke the tapping of an elegant walking stick against the cobblestone streets of old Prague, or something along those lines, and he has him puff away on a cigar between his thoughtful disquisitions (something that rattles Riemen, who mildly castigates the older man). You get the idea.

The solution, according to Riemen’s alter ego and spokesman, is not that complicated. It’s all about cultivating one’s soul, finessing one’s sense of art, culture, and philosophy – well-intentioned ideas that represent a complete lack of understanding when it comes to human nature. The cultivation of one’s soul is rarely a top priority for most people – a fact of life that fascists, whose ghost all such exalted cultivation is supposed to drive away, appreciate much better than Riemen et al. A much more sensible approach to keeping fascism at bay is not to attempt to win the hearts and minds of people – an ultraliberal hobbyhorse – but to avoid creating situations that would be propitious to wide acceptance of fascist ideas. In this respect, ultraliberalism has failed dismally. Riemen’s “solution” reminds me of the poet Joseph Brodsky, who once said something to the effect that if he were president, he’d improve the state of affairs by ordering a nationwide bombardment – only instead of bombs, airplanes (or was it fighter jets?) would cover the benighted populace below with copies of Proust’s works. Yes, that would do it.

It’s not all ultraliberal bunkum. Riemen makes some good points. He is right to point out the main imperfection of the European Union, which in its present state is a socioeconomic juggernaut that has everything except the one thing that will give it the impetus that it needs to thrive – values, a spiritual centre that can exert a centripetal influence on all Europeans (his criticism of the symbolism implicit in the aesthetically ugly buildings housing the EU bureaucracy is poignant).

Riemen is also right to censure society’s fanatical embrace of materialism, which leaves an enormous spiritual and cultural void. What he neglects to add is that materialism is the gift of ultraliberalism, which, by championing radical openness, has succeeded in turning the developed world into a playground for transnational corporations. The satisfaction of one’s desires at the most primitive level as society’s creed is, in fact, a result of democracy. Democracy is the rule of the people, while culture (the kind of culture Riemen has in mind) is the preserve of the few. High culture is the domain of a minority group and, as such, is not particularly compatible with a democratic ethos. On the other hand, consumerism, as something that can appeal to vast swathes of people and transcend differences, thrives well in democratic societies, as we’ve seen. This is an uncomfortable truth that Riemen – and other ultraliberals – prefer not to explore.

It is indeed a paradox that haunts ultraliberal thought. To be sure, Riemen does differentiate between democracy and mass democracy. Yet he fails to explain how and why they differ, if they actually do differ. Riemen blames the return of fascism (or what he deems to be fascism) on mass democracy, omitting the fact that undesirable election results are inevitable in any society that considers the vote of a Nobel laureate (or, fine, of a Riemen) to be equal to the vote of a nineteen-year-old high school graduate who thinks that Americans speak American and confuses Napoleon Bonaparte with Napoleon Dynamite. Now that the spigots of the era of plenty seem to have been turned off, ultraliberals are forced to confront the reality that democracy comes with one not insignificant problem: election results might be at odds with their values, wishes, or plain common sense. Ultraliberals are still smarting from the victory of Trump and the triumph of the Leave camp in the Brexit referendum – two events that are nothing short of apocalyptic for the ultraliberal movement. In true democratic style, they’ve been trying to reverse both outcomes: rumblings concerning a second referendum on Brexit are constantly heard in the UK, while in the US, the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency is questioned on a daily basis (if it’s not the Russian connection, it’s some porn actress) and so ferociously that it’s truly remarkable that Trump still manages to perform his duties. The problem for ultraliberals is that, while they can challenge isolated events, they cannot challenge the entire paradigm, for that would require a major rethink of democracy as a concept – something that, for obvious reasons, would be very difficult for ultraliberals to do without renouncing their entire dogma. Perhaps even impossible.

As so often happens with ultraliberals, Riemen has the right diagnosis, but he is getting his prescriptions all mixed up. If Riemen were to have his way, the destiny of Europe would continue on its current trajectory. There would be more tolerance, more openness, and more universalism such that appeals to a Riemen – more ultraliberalism, in short. This age might be threatened by populism or even fascism, but the march of ultraliberalism in the West has mostly been, with some notable hiccups, thus far inexorable. In view of that, the title of Riemen’s book is something of a misnomer: Riemen is not fighting against this age, but against another age that might be engendered by the excesses of this one. As far as this age is concerned, Riemen should be reasonably content. And, given some of the existential problems that ultraliberalism has generated in modern society, Riemen’s more-of-the-same, politics-as-usual approach (for that is what it comes down to, when all is said and done) is not quite the cure that’s needed at the present time. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen and their parties might not be the solution. Neither is Rob Riemen – and To Fight Against This Age amply demonstrates that.

As for my Swiss acquaintance, I hope he won’t get his hands on a copy of this book. It won’t do the Dutch any good.


Dropping the F-bomb

By Eugène E.

The most surprising thing about the recent Facebook debacle, involving Cambridge Analytica, is that people are genuinely surprised by it. Allegations that Facebook user data may have ended up in the hands of a third party that may have used the data for political purposes have raised the ire of legislators, not to speak of Facebook users, who seem to be appalled by the realization that exhibitionism comes at a price – not unlike a woman who displays herself at an uncurtained window in a state of undress and is then astonished to learn that she’s been seen naked by those in the street.

This kind of user data misuse is unavoidable in a society that seems determined to do away with limits. I have previously written about the parallel growth of the ultraliberal movement and corporatocracy. While one represents sociopolitical interests and the other industry, they have at least one common aim: the destruction of limits. Neither group can accept them; limits are anathema to both bien-pensants and big business alike. For ultraliberals, limits imply curbs on moral laissez-faire, which is highly unattractive for a group that is eager to embrace non-traditional marriage unions, promote nonexistent genders and gender subsets, impose a gender-neutral language, and to otherwise conflate the pathological with the normal by undoing existing moral constraints.

For the transnational corporate world, which wants to turn the planet into one gigantic market, limits typically mean borders, regulations, tariffs, taxes, possible capital controls, etc. – bureaucratic impediments that prevent companies from unlimited profitability and are consequently to be resisted at all costs. What’s more, the conservative burgher is as much an enemy to the ultraliberal movement as he is to World Inc.: fiscally responsible citizens aren’t usually given to licentiousness or hedonism. Big Business doesn’t need prudent savers. Big Business needs, first and foremost, consumers – consumers who can be saddled with debt, preferably starting at a young age, when they’re at their most gullible; consumers who will feel compelled to buy new products, regardless of whether or not these products are needed; consumers who will mow each other down as they storm stores on Black Fridays; consumers who will pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards they should have never been issued. The “shop ’til you drop” mantra, the lack of any purchasing restraint, dovetails wells with ultraliberal hedonism, according to which moral barriers are relics of the past or signs of a repressed inner self, and anything – or just about – goes. In other words, what’s good for ultraliberalism can be equally good for Big Business, and vice versa. When the two take on limits, they are fighting much the same battle.

We live at a time of unprecedented human reengineering. Here, too, we can see signs of the link between ultraliberalism and corporatocracy. Ultraliberals are trying to bring about a world in which the traditional structure as intended by nature (or a higher sentient being, for those who are deistically inclined) is challenged, where such things as gender, sexual orientation, and family are nothing but loose, flexible constructs; the fact that modern ultraliberal society allows individuals to overcome anatomy and opt out of the binary-gender model shows that ultraliberals have succeeded, if only artificially, in creating a new type of human being, however inauthentic such a creation might be.

At the same time, the corporate world, through its aggressive promotion of fusion between man and machine, is also trying to shape man into something else. While Ray Kurzweil’s “human” of the future is still confined to the future, we’re increasingly exposed to a deluge of gadgets that enjoy ever more intimacy with their users – just think of “smart glasses”, which lend those who sport them a decidedly cyborg-like look, or the phone app that allows users to confirm consent before having sexual congress. The sight of a couple glued to their smartphones, instead of to each other, while supposedly enjoying each other’s company, demonstrates the ascendancy of technology over human interaction.

Privacy is at the core of the human experience. It is also a concept that doesn’t sit very well with Big Business, which is rightly suspicious of it. Privacy is the ability of individuals to exercise control over that part of their lives that is supposed to be unmonitored. By definition, then, it is time that is – or should be – off-limits to marketing departments and sales teams. It is harder to study a consumer’s habits and preferences if you don’t know what exactly he’s up to. Privacy is problematic for World Inc. for another reason: it can promote the concept of solitude and, God forbid, reflection, for this is a time when people might be inclined to think. For Big Business, this is highly undesirable: when people think, they neither spend nor consume. One of the major accomplishments of the reigning corporatocracy is to have inculcated in consumers a fear of solitude – a rapidly growing number of people in our society are no longer capable of being alone with their thoughts. They need their gadgets as they need oxygen. This comes at the expense of their privacy.

Equally, it seems, privacy is a problem for ultraliberals: given the chance to think, people might question those values that have been foisted on society by the high priests of ultraliberalism and, as they spread the enlightenment as interpreted by the bien-pensants, are therefore supposed to go unquestioned. Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook (and its soul, one would add if Facebook only had one), knew what he was doing when he questioned the notion of privacy as a social norm. If it were up to Facebook, privacy would be branded abnormal. Facebook’s profit model is based on indulging people’s need to see and to be seen by as many people as possible – the very antithesis of privacy.

Neither does Facebook intend to stop there. To use the dating app Tinder, for example, users need to have a Facebook account. One wonders about the extent of the arrangements made by Facebook and Tinder, and the strength of the walls between the two companies – if there are any. What and how much does Facebook know about the private life and sexual preferences of Tinder users? And where does it all end? Probably nowhere. In an environment that neither places nor recognizes limits, there is no end. The sky is no longer the limit – precisely because there’re no limits; and indeed, at a time when tycoons send privately owned rockets into space, the whole idea of the sky being the limit is rather quaint. As one financier says in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in response to a question about how much money would be enough for him to walk away from it all: “more”. “More” might well sum up the appetite of companies like Facebook. It is no coincidence that Zuckerberg seems to be LGBT- and BLM-friendly — if any political doctrine can seduce a Zuckerberg, it is bound to be ultraliberalism.

In fact, Facebook has been busy developing an entirely new type of product: the consumer. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown (and as many observers have known all along), Facebook users are not just consumers; they’re also products, to be packaged and resold like any other merchandise. In this paradigm, people are not simply offered “stuff”; they are “stuff” themselves, to be offered to other market participants. This consumer-product is the new man representing the brave new age of no limits: a sexless, inchoate creature unencumbered by any kind of identity except the one that determines his “user habits”; a product to be marketed and sold; an entity whose individuality is asserted by his virtual existence.

This new man has been stripped of his privacy: his relationships, friends, tastes, and career history are available for display to all and sundry. Since privacy is inextricably linked to the human experience, its dismantlement constitutes an attack on what it is to be human. One Russian film director said some time ago that the problem with the people designing video games and such is that they’re, for the most part, ignorant when it comes to aesthetics. That is to say, they might be brilliant mathematicians or computer scientists, but they have no foundation in the field of the humanities, which is that branch of human knowledge that deals with all those sticky things known as ethics and morality. Computer science, for all its indispensability, has nothing to say on the subject of what it is to be human, or on the difference between right and wrong. The point here is that the architects of cutting-edge technology may not have a moral compass that will give a moral texture to their inventions. The creators of technology that is supposed to change our world may not know whether these changes will be good or bad; what’s worse, they might not care.

Make of this argument what you will, but the Facebook controversy, along with some other events, lends credence to the director’s argument. Recently, an interview with the founder of Ethernet (incidentally, also a Russian) appeared in the press. Reading this article, it is hard not to feel that, while the very young bitcoin wizard is extremely bright and highly intelligent, something crucial is missing – the sense that there is a belief system in place and, if that’s the case, what that belief system might be. There are some vague intimations of wanting to do what’s good, but that’s neither here nor there – Facebook doubtless also wants to make the world a better place, while Google’s avowed mission to do no evil verges on parody. It is possible that age is a factor, particularly as the journalist who took the interview is also in her mid-twenties; but the thought that it can’t be reduced to that alone is not a comforting one.

There was a time, about which I do not intend to wax nostalgic, when people had photo albums. The sum total of their memories was stored in the safety of their homes, away from prying eyes and lurking voyeurs. While these memories were always at the risk of being destroyed by a fire or some other such calamity, there was one thing that people enjoyed then and that they don’t have today: privacy. Social media have empowered people to share their lives, no matter how vapid, with an unlimited number of people – theoretically, with the entire planet. That is extraordinary empowerment. It is also an extraordinary opportunity for abuse – as much for those users who can now find an audience for all sorts of views, including the most violent ones, as for the social networks themselves, which now have access to vast pools of user data and which know how to keep one step ahead of the regulators. However strong the assurances provided by a social media platform in its terms of service, when you willingly submit your private life to another party, you’re relinquishing some of your rights to privacy – and, consequently, a part of your humanness.

Should Facebook users have known better, or should the regulators have shown more initiative? The question of whether, and to what extent, lawmakers need to protect citizens from their worst instincts is an eternal one. Recent controversies, however, only confirm that, while some companies might be too big to fail, no company is too big to be unregulated. There will be calls for greater regulatory oversight, and it is likely that these calls will be at least somewhat heeded by the authorities. One can’t help but wonder, though, whether it is possible to rein in industry juggernauts the likes of Facebook without renouncing some of the ultraliberal values that have accompanied the rise of the corporatocracy – a scenario that will be completely unacceptable to the torchbearers of ultraliberalism.