Monday, August 08, 2011

How the West was Lost.

Whittaker Chambers suffered from Heart disease and this following passage was written whilst in hospital recovering from a heart attack. As a convalescent patient, he used to be regularly visited by a Catholic Monk who was visiting the sick. (Whittaker Chambers was never a Catholic). It also needs to be understood that Chambers though Socialism a "de-fanged" version of Communism. It's a long post but I think it's worth sticking with it.
Something quite different first stirred my interest in Father Alan. He was a Passionist monk. I observed with some curiosity his black habit with its broad leather belt dangling the chain of heavy wooden beads and the Crucifix. I observed, too, the black metal insignia of his order, in the shape of a human heart on which were traced in white a Cross and the letters IHS which Father Alan wore over his own heart.

There was nothing distinctive about Father Alan's conversation either. He, too, was under the rule that nothing must be said that might disturb the patient. So he dung formidably to the weather with only prudent ventures about my fellow inmates-the milder, more hopeful, or more amusing cases; for like me, Father Alan must struggle all his days against his sense of the absurd or comic.

But in any wavering along the margin of life there is a need that amounts to a greed, for truth, since in the flux of existence, the crumbling or melting at the touch of all familiar reality, truth alone is felt to offer one austere, stripped handhold across a chasm. One night I decided to cut through the careful irrelevancies of our talk and try to discover what manner of man this monk might really be. I asked: "Father, what am I to answer those people who keep writing me that I was wrong to write in Witness that I had left the winning side for the losing side? They say that by calling the West the losing side, I have implied that evil can ultimately overcome good."

Father Alan studied his hands, which were lying in his lap. Then he glanced at me directly and asked: "Who says that the West deserves to be saved?"

If, in that softly lighted room, Father Alan had burst a Verey flare, he could scarcely have lit up more effectively the ravaged landscape of that No Man's Land across which the 'West confronts its crisis, supposing that it is only an alien enemy it confronts, not knowing that the enemy it confronts is first of all itself.

For Father Alan's question cut past the tern-is in which men commonly view the crisis of our time. It cut past all ratios of opposed power, past the armaments race and the production race, past the atomic weapons, Bombs and the bombers, the guided missiles and the craftily guided policies, the marshalled divisions and the marshalled statistics. It did not ask: Has the West the physical power to survive? It asked: Is the West justified in surviving? Does that West retain within itself what alone in life and history ever justifies the survival of anything, and which is ultimately a play of creative force whose test and whose mandate is that it impels men to die for it, not because they wish to die, but because they feel its shaping power so completely that they would rather die than live without it? So long as men identify themselves with that force to the point where they will to die for it, it is living and provides that inner certitude, greater and more instant than any idea or reasoning, which holds nations upright as they pick up momentum in the terrifying slopes and turns of history. The moment men in masses begin to question that force, at that moment it has began to die. However long the tremor of its decay may take, time will henceforth be no more than a delay. Every civilization embodies a certain truth to which it gives reality. When that truth, which is, in turn, embodied in a faith held religiously whether or not it is wholly religious-when that faith loses its power to inspire men, its downfall is at hand. When that faith and that truth no longer match and meet the reality of men's daily lives, there sets in a radical readjustment of reality whereby men seek to bring the faith by which they live into conformity with the reality they live in.

Thus every social revolution begins with a spiritual and intellectual revolution. Men revolt first in thought, in order to be free to revolt in act. But revolt does not always imply violence. It may simply take the form of a question. When the gap grows too clear between the faith and forms of a civilization and the realities of daily life, masses of men are paralyzed by the discrepancy so that before the old faith they first grow numb, then apathetic, then questioning if not disdainful. They simply by-pass in one degree or other, what no longer corresponds to their reality. It has lost its power to inspire their lives. This happens even if they continue outwardly to conform to the old ways. This is the real crisis of the West and the point at which, across a No Man's Land of apathy, it confronts itself. Communism is only a secondary manifestation of this crisis, although Communism has reached a strength where it complicates and threatens to solve in its own terms the crisis of the divided West. For Communism is not an Asiatic or Russian growth, as some maintain. In its Soviet form, it has been shaped and colored by Russian peculiarities. But Communism is a way of thought and action, a way of reading history and its forces, which was developed in the culture capitals of the West. The growth of its power is inexplicable except as Communism appeals to the divided mind of the West, making each of its advances exactly along the line of the West's internal division, paralyzing each effort of the West to cope with it by touching some sympathetic nerve. The success of Communism, as I have written elsewhere, is never greater than the failure of all other faiths. Just as the threat of Communism is not the true crisis of the West,  Communism is not the true revolution of our time. Communism is only one form and one sector of that revolution. The revolution of our time embraces the whole West, and, since, for the first time in history, our civilization, due to technology and science, embraces the whole world, the revolution affects the whole world. This revolution operates on many levels. It is a spiritual and intellectual revolution so that Henry Adams, sitting in his Manhattan club, watching the crowds marching up and down Fifth Avenue, had good ground for believing that they were marching chiefly to the end of a world-his world and ours. But the revolution is also a social revolution, a movement of masses of men, for a greater share of the goods which a technological civilization produces in hitherto unheard of abundance-and which is perhaps the sole justification for the existence of that system. Any attempt to see the revolution in either of those terms without seeing it in terms of the other -any attempt to see it only as a spiritual crisis or only as a social crisis-leads to a confusion of reality.

I opened recently a Fair Dealing magazine to find a two-page spread of American goods with a caption to the effect that this is our answer to Communism, this is what the free world has to offer the restive regions of mankind. It is well to offer this to whatever man needs it. Tactically, and he who receives knows even better than he who gives the degree to which tactics underlies the benefaction-these goods may forestall or defer a loss to Communism. Moreover, that deferment may be of incalculable importance.

But that will not solve the crisis either of the West or of the world. For the complacency which supposes that a crisis of the depth of ours can be solved by a dole fails to grasp that such a solution has thereby raised the other aspect of the crisis-the spiritual crisis-to the point of desperation. At that point, all stand under the judgment which humankind has always known at the moment when the ineradicable spirit bursts the shell that we try to raise between our lives and our inward knowledge that all life is tragic.

A civilization is justified in seeking to buy survival by sharing its material prosperity with a restive world-like any other form of endangered life trying to save itself. But a civilization which supposes that what it chiefly has to offer mankind is more abundant bread-that civilization is already half-dead. Sooner or later it will know it as it chokes on a satiety of that bread by which alone men cannot live. It will, in all probability, know it long before. For it seems to be a law of life and of history that societies in which the pursuit of abundance and comfort has displaced all other pursuits in importance soon cease to be societies. They become prey. They fall to whatever power can rally the starving spirit of man even though the rallying faith is demonstrably worse than the soft complacency that would suffocate the spirit in abundance. The fall is more certain because a failure of spirit leads invariably by some inward influence to a failure of intelligence.

Throughout the years between my break with Communism and the beginning of the Hiss Case, Father Alan's question had haunted me. It rose in its most terrible form when that case began. It was never absent from a day or night of that experience. Against nothing did I have to struggle so fiercely as against it. And nothing set me so apart from those who bore the burdens of that action in more important ways or sealed me off more completely in a circle of loneliness. For, unlike them, I truly supposed that that action was more than incidental, justified in the name of right and of necessity but powerless to affect the deeper crisis of our time which it subsumed in miniature. I never supposed that by my actions in that case, I could do more than give the children of men an infinitesimally better chance against the forces of dissension and darkness that were setting against them. Therefore, I sought to go a little in advance-to give them that infinitesimally better chance.

Every development of that case confirmed my view, and every development afterward added to it.

That is why, later on, when our nightly conversations had become something to which, it seemed to me, Father Alan looked forward almost as much as I, I spoke to his understanding with a freedom such as I would speak to few men. Thus, one night, when our conversation had reached a certain turn, I said: "Two little imps sit at the foot of my bed, one on each post. They sit with their backs to me. But, now and again, one will turn around and grin and say: 'It was all for nothing?' Then the other turns and grins and asks: 'Why go on?"'

But it was not the absence of an answer to Father Alan's question ("Who says the West is worth saving?") that was most appalling. What appalled was the fact that, in its own mind, the West disdained the question, or, if it deigned to admit it to its consciousness at all, its complacent answer would be: yes. Father Alan's question spoke directly to my condition because it implied what we both knew-that at that point the West stood under the oldest and ultimate judgment, which could be lifted only in terms of more suffering than the mind can bear or measure.

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.*
* Revelations 3:14-17.

[Editor. My highlighting.]

What Chambers is saying here is that West's lack of an ideal, for which it will literally die for, is why it is dying. The materialist vision of man, which by implication seeks to maximise life and hedonistic pleasure, is powerless against ideologies which place a transcendental value above life itself. The reason why there is still fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine is the same reason why the Americans weren't able to conquer the Vietnamese. It's because, in these countries, the combatants prefer to die rather than live like Westerners. Reflecting on the rise of Communism, this exchange between Robert McNamara and Fidel Castro, recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis, is worth recalling.

Robert Mcnamara to Fidel Castro:
"Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there[Ed: On Cuba]? Number two: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?"
Castro's response in light of Chambers;
He said, "Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, 'What would have happened to Cuba?' It would have been totally destroyed." 
Yes, and he went on to say: "Mr. McNamara, if you and President Kennedy had been in a similar situation, that's what you would have done." 
And McNamara's Response?
I said, "Mr. President, I hope to God we would not have done it. Pull the temple down on our heads? My God!"

In a sense, we'd won. We got the missiles out without war. My deputy and I brought the five Chiefs over and we sat down with Kennedy. And he said, "Gentlemen, we won. I don't want you ever to say it, but you know we won, I know we won."

And LeMay said, "Won? Hell, we lost. We should go in and wipe 'em out today."
[Robert McNamara. The Fog of War]

As Juvenal said all those years ago, "For life's sake do not lose your reason to live".