Romanticism And Regimentation

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 (KJV)

Anyone who has read any of my “Skeptic’s” columns, especially those published after the last disastrous presidential election, will know that one of my favorite targets is a group I refer to variously as “boutique progressives” or “liberal purists”, the latter term borrowed from Bill Maher, who has the same grievance against progressives. What (Bill and) I mean by that are liberals, left-wingers, progressives who insist that a political candidate, in order to be worthy of our support, absolutely must conform to every principle, every jot and tittle, of progressive ideology, without exception. They must, in other words, be ideologically perfect, i.e., the kind of perfection demanded of Christians by the author of Matthew’s Gospel. The self-appointed Dostoyevskian Grand Inquisitors may be Cornel West or our own home-grown Wes Howard-Brook. But regardless, they all insist on a purity of ideology with a zeal that can only be matched by a zampolit (“political officer”) that the old Soviet Union assigned to every military unit in the Warsaw Pact to ensure soldiers’ political orthodoxy in word and deed. Any deviation from strict progressive orthodoxy – or its Marxist equivalent – could never be forgiven, and resulted in the ostracism of the offender from any political support, the orthodox-progressive equivalent of a stretch in Lefortovo Prison or a firing squad in the USSR.

Hence Cornel West’s distaste for President Obama, who committed the mortal sin of talking to corporate CEOs. Hence Howard-Brooks' consigning of Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama to the outer darkness, the former for the mortal sin of having given a couple speeches to Goldman-Sachs; the latter for declining to reject his (Obama's) former Chicago pastor with sufficient vehemence. Moral vanity apparently never goes out of style among boutique progressives, who have evidently never read Romans 3:23, their Christian pretensions notwithstanding. (Herewith a rule of thumb:  God forgives, progressives do not.) Problem is, such demands for ideological virginity inevitably backfire, in this case by the election of Donald Trump. Nor should this be a surprise, for this is hardly a new phenomenon. On the contrary, history is littered with the remains of boutique progressivism’s victims. We find this surprising only because so many of our colleges and universities no longer require the study of history. Please allow me to compensate slightly …

Boutique progressivism is almost always – I can think of no exceptions – associated with a romantic sensibility that believes in the perfectibility of human beings and that recoils from any suggestion that perhaps, just perhaps, the human condition is at base incorrigibly tragic, incorrigibly fraught with ambiguity. (For the less romantically inclined and less regimented among us, this ambiguity is one of the things that makes the human condition and culture interesting, and enables the existence of, e.g., Dostoyevsky, Sophocles, Ibsen, et al.) In the hubristic pursuit of this vision, boutique progressives inevitably end up facilitating the rise of political, ethical, and social structures that are often less truly progressive than the structures against which boutique progressives previously rebelled. They end up becomimg object lessons in the truth of MacBeth’s speech in Shakespeare’s play:  “I dare do all that may become a man, who dares do more is none,” i.e., try to be more than a human being, and you will inevitably only end up being less. (For footnotes, see Milton’s Lucifer.) English romanticism between the late 18th and early 19th centuries could serve as the paradigmatic example of this tendency.

Name any poet in that tradition -- Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, et al. -- and you will find underneath their undisputed literary talents the unshakable belief that the experience of the Holy was available without suffering -- one wag once defined romanticism as the Resurrection without the Crucifixion -- and was perhaps most readily attainable through art and poetry. In fact, Shelley even wrote a rather long Defence of Poetry arguing for just that position, whereby poets were held to be "the unacknowledged legislators" of the human race, if only the masses would follow the enlightened leadership of the literary and aesthetic elite.  (As I said above, boutique progressivism in any form and during any age is never at a loss for moral vanity.) Blake seriously believed that, through the passionate pursuit of art, that the Kingdom of God could be historically realized and the New Jerusalem established "in England's green and pleasant land". Wordsworth believed that the contemplation of Nature in a state of equanimity could lead one to spiritual enlightenment with no admixture of suffering or repentance. (See his "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" and his great poetic autobiography The Prelude.) As art, this is indisputably beautiful. As politics, however, it is arrant bullshit "of the purest ray serene". Why?

Percy Shelley
William Wordsworth

The short answer is that the English-romantic penchant for flights of value-free emotion and raptures about the attainability of Paradise on earth, and the passion to achieve both under the tutelage of a literary and artistic elite inevitably led to a tendency to hero-worship. In the case of the English romantics, the hero du jour turned out to be Napoleon Bonaparte, who wreaked havoc on Europe from France to the very gates of Moscow, and, but for the intervention of winter, might have achieved what Hitler could not:  the unification of Europe under one empire. Too late it dawned on the Wordsworths, Coleridges, and Shelleys that unexamined passion in the service of political and social change is merely tyranny by another name.

Even as staunch a romantic as Beethoven seems to have realized this when, having once dedicated his great Eroica symphony to Napoleon, he removed the dedication in subsequent editions of the work. (One wonders if Wordsworth's initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution, culminating in the Terror, precipitated the same insight in him. But, as I am fond of saying, that is another rant for another time.) This point was indelibly written in blood at Waterloo during the Battle of the Nations in 1815, commemorated by a great monument just outside the city of Leipzig, Germany, when a coalition of armies, led by the Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon and discredited the political "airy nothings" of the English romantics, the boutique progressives of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the experiment with boutique progressivism of the English romantics left quite a number of bodies unburied on the fields of Russia and Belgium.

Now to ruffle a few more feathers:  the next great romantic experiment in boutique progressivism, one even more sanguinary, was the German experiment with Naziism in the 1930s and 1940s. Very few people would think to use the words "romanticism" and "Naziism" in the same sentence. I do not hesitate to do so, because the hallmarks are there:  uncritical emotion unleashed in the service of an ostensibly salvific cause (in this case, Teutonic jingoism and racial purity) and the instantiation of such in a single man, what I called elsewhere "One Big Guy".  Adolf Hitler is to fascist romantics of the 1940s -- not all of whom were in Germany (think "Oswald Moseley" and King Edward VIII here) -- what Napoleon was to English romantics only a century-plus before. Which would make Gen. Dwight Eisenhowser Adolf Hitler's Duke of Wellington.  Like the English romanticism of the previous century, Naziism was built upon a foundation of pure nostalgia, amplified by a sense of irredentist entitlement engendered by the brutal reprisals written into the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, and completely taken off the leash of rational criticism.  Wordsworth looked back to the lost glories of childhood (The Prelude) and Hitler & Co. yearned to make real the archaic and mythological German past valorized in the music of Richard Wagner, in other words, felonious nostalgia. The latter wanted to, as it were, "Make Germany Great Again". Both English romanticism and Naziism, rebelling against the intrinsic limitations of the human condition, also rebelled against those boundaries, and, in an attempt to actualize their ideals, handed over power to their respective "One Big Guys":  Robespierre and Napoleon, in the case of the English romantics; Hitler in the case of the National Socialists. In both cases, the West spent generations of time cleaning up the bodies.

Same was true of Communism, perhaps the last hurrah of global romanticism. Like English romanticism and National Socialism, Communism, dissatisfied with human limitations, looked to the supposedly scientifically founded dialectic of history, the eventual victory of the proletariat, the withering of the state, and its replacement by the classless society to realize its dream of justice and human equality. Like the previous two romantically founded movements, it handed over power to "One Big Guy":   Lenin, at first; then Stalin; followed by a succession of faceless grey bureaucrats, the poster children of mediocrity, who replaced scientific socialism with scientific slaughter in an effort to enhance human life. The result was a warren of grey apartment blocks, slipshod design of nuclear reactors, famine due to state-planned agriculture orchestrated by Stalin’s minister of agriculture Trofim Lysenko, the Gulag Archipelago, and, in the late 1980s, final  collapse. Once again, the relentless pursuit of perfection resulted in tyranny and suffering under the hegemony of One Big Guy.

By now, you should be able to write my critique of boutique progressivism as well as I:  it is one more instance of human beings who, ignoring the tragic limitations of the human condition, especially the most tragic principle of all that sometimes the Perfect is the mortal enemy of the Just Good and even of the Just Good Enough, attempt to transcend that condition in order to achieve perfection. I see this tendency in people who wrote in the name of Bernie Sanders instead of voting for Hillary. I see this symptom in people who voted for Stein or Johnson. I see this tendency in people who want to terminate the political careers of people like, e.g., Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, for dallying with blackface almost 40 years ago as a medical student. Repugnant? Yes. Dumb? Yes. Racist? Yes. Criminal? No. Impeachable? Arguably -- but impeachment of a sitting governor is allowed for in the Virginia State constitution, unlike a kangaroo trial in the social media and in the streets. (If Northam were in a jail and if the people busily spittle-spraying against Northam on their keyboards using Twitter and Facebook were instead carrying pitchforks and torches and looking for a short rope and a tall tree to hang it from, we would call the situation what it really is:  an attempted lynching.) But how many readers of this column have lives pristine enough to stand up to the kind of withering critiques leveled at Northam about things done 40 years ago, pristine enough to decline referring the matter to a vote of the people, preferring instead Northam's preemptive resignation? How many of us have not done things 40 years ago we would be ashamed of now? Full disclosure:  40 years ago, I relished the telling of homophobic jokes. Therefore, I suppose now, at age almost-70, I am preemptively disqualified from holding elective office.

One can only be thankful that no boutique progressives were around when Jesus confronted the accusers of the woman taken in adultery:  when Jesus invited her accusers to cast the first stone, they probably would all have eagerly volunteered to do so. Almost certainly would have done so if they had been the ancestors of today's boutique progressives. One more time we see that romantically derived ideologies are, without exception, founded on a degree  of moral arrogance I can only describe as breathtaking. As those calling for Northam's resignation without benefit of a vote, amply demonstrate, boutique progressivism is merely authoritarianism in democracy's clothing. (The same boutique progressives who are calling for Northam's resignation without benefit of plebescite are in many cases the same people who complain about voter suppression! One can only speculate as to how the 47% of black voters who want Northam to remain in office can justify progressives' ignoring of black voters' wishes -- while ostensibly advocating for black people's voting rights. How is it possible to oppose voter suppression while at the same time demanding that Gov. Northam resign, and thereby avoid a vote? Ditto avoiding a vote in the Virginia Assembly on any potential bill of impeachment.) And, as was the case with English romanticism, Naziism, and Communism, the result was the same. English romantics' uncritical enthusiasm gave the world Robespierrs and Napoleon; Naziism, Hitler; and Communism, Lenin and Stalin. (Oh and we should not forget Mao Zedong and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. And the Kim family of North Korea. And, just conceivably, a Republican governor of Virginia.  All courtesy of fanatical political romanticism run rampant in its lust for perfection.) In the American case, the backfire of boutique progressivism gave us Donald Trump, who is the leader of the United States only in the same sense in which Moe is the leader of Larry and Curly. So ... congratulations to boutique progressives:  your intolerance of the incorrigibly tragic nature of the human condition, your hypocritical attempts to suppress the voices of dissident progressives, and your intolerant demand for perfection at any price, has given us yet another ... One Big Guy.

My conclusion:   Yes, I do fear Evil.  But Perfection scares the bloody hell out of me.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Cornel West ... Gage Skidmore ... CC BY-SA 2.0
Bill Maher ... David Shankbone ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
William Wordsworth ... Maragaret Gillies (1803-1887) ... Public domain
Percy Shelley ... University of Toronto ... No known copyright restrictions
Napoleon ... British Gallery of Art (Samuel H. Kress Collection) ... Public domain
Robespierre ... Musee Carnavalet ... Public domain
Adolf Hitler ... German Federal Archives ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany
Josef Stalin ... Self-photograph ... Public domain
Trofim Lysenko ... almost certainly from http://e3.uci.edu/clients/bjbecker/RevoltingIdeas/lecture18.html ... Public domain
Donald Trump ... White House ... Public domain
Milton's Lucifer ... Gustave Dore ... Public domain

Leave a Reply